Hiring Greatness

How should you hire an executive? And how can an Executive Search Professional help you?


  • Hiring a new leader is a huge decision. It can make or break your company.
  • Preparation is critical in the search for executive talent.
  • To identify who you need to hire, develop a value grid. Identify what your company needs in a candidate, where you’ll find people with those qualities, and how to draw them to you.
  • An executive search is a full-time job. You need a committee made up of objective, qualified professionals who can dedicate themselves to the search.
  • Defining what you are looking for is essential for a successful search.
  • Give candidates a position profile to pique their interest.
  • To find good candidates, you need focused and multi-faceted research.
  • Plan a five stage interview process. At least two search committee members should be involved at each stage. Take notes as you interview, and debrief afterwards.
  • If a candidate makes it through the interview process, do your due diligence: contact their references and former coworkers to confirm their work history and character.
  • Your job offer should take industry norms into account, but also align with what you pay existing personnel and your candidate’s specific needs.

What You Will Learn

In this summary, you will learn: 1) What is involved in an executive search, 2) How to find and evaluate great candidates, and 3) What an executive search professional can do for you.

What’s Surprising About Hiring Greatness?

There’s a lot of work involved in hiring the best people. It’s exhausting even to read about it! Fortunately, Hiring Greatness makes the process clear and accessible. You might not want to make the 51 different calls author David Perry to establish contact with one candidate he wanted to land, but that number shows how much commitment you need. Humility and realism also play surprisingly large roles in Hiring Greatness. If you’re like most people, you think you’re a good judge of character, and think you know how to judge talent. Perry and co-author Mark J. Haluska repeatedly show how often people are wrong about things like this. Fortunately, they also explain how to change your research processes so you find what and who you need to, and how to adapt your interview process to eliminate bias and poor judgment. The result is a book that’s highly useful for anyone looking to hire an executive (and useful for anyone interested in HR, business, leadership, or critical thinking).


You Need to Hire Great People

Most decisions a business makes are small. A single sale, choice, or interaction doesn’t add that much value to a company, or damage it much if it goes wrong. Hiring an “executive leader” is different. (xxi) Marissa Meyer increased “market value” at Yahoo! by $17 billion in just six months. (xxi) Hire the wrong CEO and it will cost you. When JCPenny made Ron Johnson CEO, sales dropped by “$4.3 billion”! (xxi) A lot rides on who leads your company, and the risks are higher now than ever. A global economy applies pressure and creates volatility. Shareholders demand faster results than they used to. You need to hire a great candidate who fits your company. But how? An entire industry has arisen to help. “Professional executive recruiters” specialize in finding executive talent. Matching talent with organizational need is as subtle and complicated as “arranging a marriage.” (6)


Start your search process by developing a “value grid.” (9)  This matrix measures three axes of value: “height of value,” “sight of value,” and “flight of value.” (9) Height of value measures what your company needs from the leader. How will he or she add value? You need a leader with skills, industry knowledge, and a vision that aligns with yours. Sight of value means knowing where to find people with those qualities. These candidates won’t be on job boards. They already have great jobs with other companies. So how do you find them? Research. Flight of value means knowing to attract those candidates. It won’t be enough to pay these candidates well. They are already well-paid. If you get drawn into a bidding war, the companies with the deepest pockets will win. You will need is to find something extra to draw them. Companies like Tesla or Google want to change the world. Can you offer your candidate a challenge this engaging? The best candidates want to shape their own paths. They want to be part of a genuine team of smart, dedicated, lively people and work in a supportive environment. To draw these people, you have to connect with them both logically and emotionally. A superior Executive Search Professional (ESP) can help you find the right candidate.


Preparing To Hire Greatness

Hiring greatness takes a lot of preparation. Start by understanding some core facts about executive searches. An executive search is “a full-time job.” (31) Most boards of directors lack the knowledge, experience, and time needed. Therefore, your board has to appoint a search committee. The committee should include successful CEOs, people who have conducted similar searches successfully, and “peer level executives.” (31) Committee members must have time to devote to the search. This committee should define what you need in a candidate, articulate those needs in a highly specific job description, establish a search timeline, develop a strategy for the search, determine what the search will cost, make sure “due diligence” is met, run the search and selection process, and, of course, hire “the best candidate.” (32) The committee’s first task is choosing a committee chair. This chair will work with the ESP, guide the search, speak for the committee, and form an emotional connection with the candidate. This personal connection is the chair’s most important task.


For your search to succeed, you have to be clear what the position entails. Find someone objective to guide your definition process. Identify what your candidate must do, what skills are needed, how performance will be measured, and, most importantly, what sort of person would fit at your company.  This definition should take your company’s history into account, match present needs, and align with your plans for the future. It should address industry-specific challenges while identifying what sort of candidate fits with your team’s skills. What sort of leader and leadership style do you need? How will you reward your chosen candidate? Address this final question by looking at industry norms, how you reward existing personnel, and any special requirements (like relocation).


At the end of this defining process you’ll have a “position profile “(PP). (47) You’ll use this 5-7 page document to focus your search and begin your recruitment process.  Start the PP with an attractive cover page, then describe your company and its position in its industry. Follow this with the position description you spent so much energy crafting. Make sure it indicates what skills the position requires, what deliverables you’ll expect from the candidate, and what your ideal candidate would be like. The PP closes with a statement of what interested candidates should do next, and, if you like, an FAQ.


Your PP is part of the next thing to create: the “confidential candidate brief” or “CCB.” (58) Rather than pressuring candidates, as most recruiters do, just make contact and give them the CCB. The CCB lets candidates avoid writing a resume. Instead, the CCB asks candidates to answer a limited number of questions about themselves—it should take them no more than half an hour— while educating them on the position. Candidates can answer these questions at their leisure. When they do, they shift their position in the search. Now they take an active role in pursuing the position—and in determining if they are right for the position. After the CCB, design an “interview guide.” (62) This guide will include all questions you must ask at each stage of the search process.


Many executive searches fail because the searchers didn’t do enough research. Too often, ESPs cut corners. They mistake a Google search and a scan of LinkedIn for research. Real research starts with a much broader perspective. Your ESP should analyze your industry, identify who is winning, and find out who is driving their success. What companies are the most likely places to find the talent you’re looking for? Which industries? Can you look to your competitors? Your vendors? Your customers? Who has already shown they can do this job? What job titles or positions are most likely to house people with the qualifications you want? What factors might push candidates away from your industry and/or company? How can you overcome them? What will draw them to you?


Once you compile a real list of candidates, it is time to start the next round of research and analysis: how should you contact and attract these stellar performers? Start with the facts: what has worked in the past, either to draw them to their current positions or to draw the rest of your team to you? Figure out how you can reach these people, and what your first message to them should be. Many databases exist to help you in your search, but ZoomInfo is likely to be the most helpful. ZoomInfo’s database contains profiles on “138 million” professionals, and profiles on “8.5 million” companies. (52) Once you’ve planned your search, sift through ZoomInfo for information on people in the target region and industries most likely to provide good people. You might also post a job listing on ExecuNet. While networking sites like LinkedIn are each a wide audience, ExecuNet is a private service open only to experienced professionals. This will give you focused responses, rather than burying you in applications.


Benchmarking your search is crucial. Benchmark your search materials against an executive you’re familiar with who you think fits the job. This person might actually end up in your search, but that’s not your goal. The purpose of benchmarking is to calibrate your questions, materials, and search process. Each of these steps early in the process adds work, but adding work at this stage eliminates more work and wasted effort further down the line. Most executive searches fail. The new hires leave quickly, sometimes after a lot of flailing around. Then you have to start your search over from a weakened position. Executive searches fail because companies don’t prepare for them. You don’t want that. You want to succeed through preparation, and benchmarking is crucial.


The Approach and First Meeting

Just as you planned your search, you should research and plan your first meeting with your candidates. Remember, you’re trying to attract superior candidates who already have rewarding positions they’re happy with. That means you must strike the right note from the first meeting on. Research each candidate, reviewing both past experience and current context. If someone just spent 14 hours on a plane and changed time zones, demonstrate sensitivity to his or her exhausting situation. If you’re looking to fill a position supervising one country, you need to know how that country relates to others historically and politically, so you aren’t setting up qualified candidates to fail. You want to make a good impression on all candidates, including those who you choose not to hire. Given their qualifications, you’ll likely be dealing with them in some fashion in the future.


Send an itinerary to each candidate. Send this to their homes, to keep your courtship of them private. Brief candidates on what to expect: who will meet them, what the interview format is, and how long it will be. Brief your committee on each candidate, and coach them on how to best represent your company. Good candidates will research your company, so the committee should be prepared to discuss the company’s most recent public documents and any recent news. The committee should plan for all likely contingencies in the process. They should agree on a time frame and what it is realistic to accomplish in this stage. Provide material for candidates to take with them, so they can continue to learn about your company (and sell themselves).


What your company needs will be specific to your industry, your culture, and your needs. However, there are all leaders ideally share certain characteristics. Contemporary leaders should be inspirational. They should help everyone in your company believe in themselves more fully, raising them to a higher level of performance. They should support a culture of caring. When people care about one another, relationships are stronger and there is more trust. This feeds into the organization sharing a “common cause.” (114) At successful companies, people share an understanding of your company’s vision for the future. These factors help people engage with their work and one another more fully.


Beyond these general categories, there are 5 “pillars of success” to look for. (115) The first pillar is character, a blend of ethics, resilience, persistence, judgement, experience, and curiosity. Second, look for intellect. Your ideal expert will be able to think strategically and creatively, solving problems and analyzing things from multiple (and original) perspectives. “Business intelligence” is the third pillar. (118) Do your candidates know business in general and your industry in particular? Are they “cash conscious”? (118) Does their risk tolerance match your needs? The fourth, does your candidate have the passion, “people skills,” entrepreneurial mindset and focus on results you need in a leader? The fifth and final pillar is “emotional intelligence.” (119) You’re looking for candidates with empathy, compassion, and a strong enough concept of their selves to help create the culture you want.


The Interview Process

Plan a “progressive five-stage interview process.” (121) At each stage, give interviewers any information gathered on candidates up to that point, such as the CCB. Have at least two people at every interview, to guard against bias. This lets you have one interviewer ask most of the questions while the other observes and takes notes. The note taker keeps interviews on track, and asks follow up questions. Your first interview should evaluate communication skills, “leadership style,” “executive presence,” and fit. (129) The most difficult quality to judge is how well candidates will inspire people with a shared vision.


Start this first interview by inviting candidates to ask questions. From there, segue to discussing their career. As they describe their career paths, ask questions. You want to confirm the information they provided and get a sense of their character and qualities. Return to the questions asked in the CCB: what the candidates’ biggest accomplishments are, and what they’d change about their current company. Ask about their experience at their current position, from how they learned about the job and moving on to why they wanted it, what they learned, what did they accomplish, and they left or are leaving. Listen for patterns that signal problems, such as blaming others. As they review their work history, you’re essentially fact checking their CCB and LinkedIn profile. You want consistency, but you should expect minor inconsistencies a lot of the time, and larger ones as much as 20% of the time. Follow up on those: look for problems and issues.
After each interview, interviewers should share their impressions. If you agree the candidate is desirable, recommend him or her for the second interview, this one with the search chair and an ESP. In this second interview you’re again evaluating communication skills, adaptability, and leadership. In addition, you’re now assessing the candidate’s level of interest and suitability, and looking for outside factors that might shape your decision. Explore interpersonal skills and how well candidates can produce the results. Ask candidates to discuss situations where they succeeded, and when things didn’t go as planned. Have candidates define success, and explain their own success, both in general and in meeting specific performance goals. To address interpersonal skills, ask how they serve as change agents, how they dealt with restructuring or staff reductions, and how they create trust in their organization. Close by asking about their personal goals.
Assuming this interview goes well, schedule an interview with the “ultimate hiring authority.” (139) The purpose of the third interview is to confirm the evaluations of the chair and ESP, let the person making the decisions appraise the candidate’s leadership him or herself, and ask a personal question: Can I work with this candidate? Interviewers should focus on “systems thinking” and “creative thinking.” (141) Assuming the hiring authority’s instincts say this is a good choice, schedule an interview with the candidate’s peers on the search committee. This is the final time of judgment, when you decide on candidates or send them home. This fourth interview should look for anything that has been missed and build a connection with the candidate. If this goes well, the fifth stage of the process is a presentation by the candidate that allows them to demonstrate their skills and thought process.


After the Interview: Due Diligence and Closing the Deal  

Even if all this goes well, and everyone agrees this is who you should hire, it isn’t quite time to make an offer yet. Before you make an offer, you need to do your due diligence. Some references will tell you the bare minimum, but others will go into more detail. In addition to the references candidates give you, talk to people who worked with your candidates. Start with the names the candidates mentioned when reviewing their job histories and recent achievements. Contact supervisors, peers, subordinates, and clients. You’re trying to confirm the factual claims candidates made, and to get a sense you can of strengths, weaknesses, and character. All references checks should be done with the specific position in mind. Look at why the person left prior positions, and be attentive to warning signs.


Assuming your candidate checks out, it is time to make an offer. To make a successful offer you need to know what motivates your candidate. Pitch your offer to that motivation. Make sure the “performance metrics” for the job are clear and align with the job description. (184) Explain your benefits package fully. Your offer should be competitive with the outside market and fair for peers in the company. “Be creative” if you have to. You can make a deal more attractive by adding stock options or a bonus, and through adding perks specific to the candidate. Does she have a following spouse you need to find a job for? Does he have a child active in a particular sport you could place in a competitive program? These personal details can often clinch a deal.



“Successful recruiting starts with thorough understanding of the goals, strengths, and needs of the organization.” (xvii)


There are very few opportunities for a company to improve organizational performance and culture by taking one single, solitary action.” (xxii)


“Because every executive search project is very much like arranging a marriage—an economic marriage.” (6)


Instead of resources or land, “capital” today means human capital. (7)


“The person we want to speak to wants to be the best, be perceived as the best and wants to change the world.” (17)


“Every company that promotes itself effectively must make both a logical and emotional connection with the consumer.” (18)


“Personal note: Every executive hire should be judged on its return on investment—ROI is not just for capital expenditures.” (20)


“It’s impossible to understand an organization’s culture from a job description, and trial and error recruiting takes too much time. Your ESP can only gauge a candidate’s fit if they’ve invested

time with several members of your organization and performed a benchmarking interview.” (25)


“After a combined forty-five years of recruiting we can guarantee one thing: On the client side, managing an executive search project is a fulltime job.” (31)


“Vital to the success of every executive hire is a crystal-clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the job, as well as the physical work environment in which the job will be fulfilled.” (39)


“A successful executive search begins with a thorough and formal definition of roles, responsibilities, and competencies.” (42)


“Your job description is a foundational document. Everything else in the search will spring from it.” (43)


“Creating a candidate profile helps define a full, accurate picture of the ideal candidate.” (56)


“Let me explain: hiring greatness is all about adequate planning.” (69)


“Poor or nonexistent research is responsible for most failed executive search projects.” (71)


“If, after a few weeks on your project, your ESP brings you a list with the names and titles of your competitors’ top people—fire them!” (73)


“Better questions bring better insight.” (82)


“Every time you do a search, you need to benchmark.” (84)


“Contrary to popular belief, leaders aren’t born. They develop over time and perfect their skills, slowly becoming expert through experience.” (115)


“Bottom line: interviews are artificial situations, at best.” (123)


When interviewing executive candidates you should do so in pairs. The risk of rejecting the correct person because of a personal bias is high.” (128)


“References are the key to guaranteeing quality hiring—but only if done correctly.” (156)