5 Reasons Why Executive Searches Fail

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With the recent announcement that the unemployment rate has dropped below 5%, the task of finding top executive talent has gotten that much harder.  We’re in the midst of a talent market which means that A-level executives will need a compelling reason to move from their current role to a position with your company.  And yet some companies still seem to get stuck in some common traps when conducting a headhunt.  Here are 5 common examples of why many Executive searches fail.

Unaligned / Conflicting needs

This often happens when there are multiple decision makers in the Executive Search process such as co-founders or a CEO and Board Members.  One party believes that their next C-level executive should have one set of experiences and skills and the other party believes the same talent should have a completely different set of experiences and skills to fill the same role.  Whether conducting an executive search in-house or with an external executive search firm, any search will be doomed to fail if the expectations are that a single talent can solve every pressing need for a company and that one hire will constitute a complete shift towards company success.  With the additional challenge of a talent market/full employment there needs to be a wide-ranging agreement as to what the company needs in their next talent.  Is there an immediate need for revenue generation vs. a long term down-the-road need for an operational / leadership talent?  Figure out which is most important because your CRO (revenue generator) and your COO (operational leader) are going to be two different people.

The “Evolution” – Shifting priorities mid search

This challenge is usually an offshoot of the first challenge described above.  Often a company will begin a search for an executive talent, create a job description, and begin the search only to find that a few weeks and several candidate interviews into the process, they “discover” that there are other aspects of the role / their needs that have not been addressed.  While the market will always have a hand in dictating results, shifting gears mid-way through a search means that the initial objective was not clearly defined.  This is where an outside party might be of benefit, whether an external executive search firm or a board member or even an executive from a friendly/partner company.  The cliché of being unable to see the forest for the trees is a cliché for a reason – because it’s so often true.  Once your team feels it has all the elements of the position finalized, consider running it past an objective 3rd party to get perspective.  An external executive search firm can often help – even if you don’t retain them to conduct the search, many will work on a consultant basis to assist with process and expectations.  And that additional perspective will save both time and money to avoid the “evolution” of a search.

Wish Lists: Where Expectations meet Reality  

Another common pitfall companies fall into when conducting an executive search is to create a long list of acuities and experiences that encompass every immediate and long term need, give it a title and set out to find the “perfect” person for the role.  As the saying goes “Perfect is the enemy of Good” and a wish list is the enemy of a successful executive search.  Whether it’s misunderstanding the talent market (assuming a high level executive will accept a mid-level salary), the nature of the technology experience sought (requiring 10 years of experience in a 5 year old technology), or as cited above expecting a talent to have disparate skills (requiring your SVP Sales to have operational experience), creating a wish list of “wants” and refusing to see reality will result in a long, cumbersome, and ultimately fruitless search.  Better to create a wish list and then eliminate as much of the “nice to haves” and concentrate on the must haves.  Does your SVP really need an MBA or does their Bachelor’s Degree from a strong school and years of relevant experience mitigate that advanced degree?  There is no “perfect” talent who will solve every one of your problems but there are “great” talents out there who can solve the important and most challenging ones.

Delay the search until the last possible moment

Often this happens with external search firms but can also happen with an internal team as well.  Whether it’s the knowledge that a key executive is leaving the team and needs to be replaced or there’s a new product / service launching at a critical point in time that needs a leader, companies can often be their own worst enemy when it comes to proactively seeking a new executive.  They might post a job description on their website or on Linked In expecting that the best talent for the role will simply drop them a line or believe that an employee referral will turn up their dream candidate.  But with full employment both of those scenarios have become extremely unlikely.  And dragging your feet until the last minute will almost always assure that the company’s expectations will not be met.  On average, an executive search lasts from 3-4 months from contract signing to offer acceptance (sometimes longer for C-Level and hard to fill roles).  There’s a tremendous amount of research and communication that has to be conducted to ensure alignment between needs and expectations (as cited above) before a search even begins or it will suffer the inevitable “Evolution” and thereby take even more time.  If you know in May that your CMO is leaving in August, don’t wait until July to begin the search or engage an Executive Search firm.  There simply will not be enough time to find, engage, interview, and onboard a talent in that short of a time frame.

“I don’t know what I’m looking for but I’ll know it when I see it”

This sentence strikes terror into the heart of any executive search professional, whether internal or external.  It more or less encompasses all of the challenges cited previously in this post and ensures months of fruitless searching and frustration for all parties involved from the hiring team to the search firm to the candidates themselves.  Beginning a search under an undefined and undetermined set of criteria is always a recipe for disaster.  The “Calculatus Eliminatus” method might work if you’re a Cat in a Hat searching for your moss-covered three-handled family gredunza, but it’s an extremely inefficient way to search for your next executive team member.  If the CEO or hiring team are wanting to “white space” a particular position, that’s fine.  Engage an Executive Search Consultant to help guide you through the process of determining what your company’s needs are and how to go about solving those needs.  From there, they can help further define the role in question and subsequently begin the hunt for your next key executive.  But with full employment and a market that favors talent, beginning a search without a roadmap will get you lost very quickly.