Executive Candidate Warning Signs

Recruiting top C-level senior executive talent takes time — often more than a CEO would like. In fact, for companies that really believe employees are their most valuable asset, the Founder and Chairman of Kevin Ryan has a “simple test” to make sure they walk the walk.  In an article he wrote for Harvard Business Review, Mr. Ryan advises, “Ask the CEO if he or she spends more time on recruiting and managing people than on any other activity. For me, the answer has always been yes.”
In executive search, it is important to manage time effectively by quickly eliminating executive candidates that are not viable.  Culling your long list of candidates down to a curated short list of contenders optimizes executive recruiting and talent acquisition as it speeds time-to-hire.

A Greater New York City Area retained executive search firm, The Good Search recruits top executive candidates for executive recruiting clients in media and technology. Over the years in our work as executive search consultants, we’ve learned to recognize the signs an executive candidate is not a contender. Listed below is our list of the top 6 reasons not to hire an executive candidate.

6 Reasons Not to Hire an Executive Candidate

1. Money Fixation

As a retained search firm, we regularly negotiate annual compensation packages in excess of a million dollars with an opportunity for significant wealth creation. However, we grow concerned whenever a candidate fixates on  money to the exclusion of more intrinsic motivations such as the pursuit of excellence, leadership, and creating real value. When a candidate cuts to the money early on in conversations and keeps returning to the topic — when they appear to be motivated by money alone — their values are flawed. Money-obsessed executives have trouble leading and inspiring teams to new heights. They become as fungible as money itself.

2. Dropped Balls

Executive recruiters often request that candidates forward a resume before a scheduled call. In addition to needing the information, executive headhunters use the resume as a litmus test to determine how serious a candidate is about exploratory discussions. Whenever candidates promise resumes that they then fail to provide, it is a warning sign. The executives may lack the executive ability to keep their word. They may also lack the necessary motivation to make a move to a new company.  Another warning sign is when candidates repeatedly cancel appointments with little apology or reason. Their behavior is showing us who they really are and what to expect from them as a potential hire. For that reason, getting stood up by a candidate is reason enough to disconnect.

3. Dodgy Answers

Clearly, candidates are motivated to present themselves in the best possible light.  However, the moment a candidate’s answers are intentionally evasive or misleading, they have crossed the line. Candidates that do not give a straight answer may lack the ability — to quote Oprah — to “stand in their own truth.”  In a recent Harvard Business Review Blog Network article, the CEO of Banyan Family Business Advisors Rob Lachenauer reveals how impressed he was by a candidate who volunteered that she had a mental illness during her job interview.  She explained that she had been on medications for a decade and had not had any episodes during that period of time. At the time, the CEO didn’t know what to say, but thanked her for her integrity. Ultimately, Mr. Lachenauer hired the candidate because she was qualified and because she had the courage and strength to reveal her vulnerability.

4. Radio Silence

Another warning sign is when candidates suddenly fall silent in their communications. An abrupt failure to respond to calls or emails is often an indicator that the executive may be engaged in discussions with another employer, or may have had second thoughts about the opportunity.  I know of one candidate who actually accepted a formal job offer, then it was as if the executive fell off the face of the earth. She just stopped communicating, leaving the prospective employer first worried, then annoyed, and ultimately scratching their heads in disbelief. A week or two later, the candidate surface at another company, completely burning bridges with the company she had treated so disrespectfully.  Some candidates fear openly admitting they are being pursued by another employer.  However, being in demand is not a problem: being opaque about it is.  Top performing executives are clear as to their intentions, and keep all interested parties informed as to their process. 

5. Crippled Communications

Candidates whose answers lack organization or who fail to get to the point after so much blah-blah-blah most likely have problems leading.  Most top performing executives have an exceptional command of the English language: they use it to their advantage to persuade and evangelize. While some typographical errors are inevitable in the thumb-typing, auto-correcting age in which we live. great leaders set themselves apart by in their communications. Whether they’re speaking off-the-cuff, in an email, text or tweet, their intelligence always comes through. In fact, as our collective attention span shrinks, as our emails are reduced to the size of tweets, top executives also display a mastery of the new haiku. Increasingly, great leaders must also be capable of distilling a message down it its shortest, purest form.  Senior executives who lack a command of the written and spoken word are missing a critical skill set: walk on by.

6. Arrogance

Asking a candidate to give an example where they failed or “hit the wall” is often seen as a trick question. In fact, asking any candidate to share anything negative about themselves is seen as a kind of test for which there really is no right answer.  However, there are wrong answers. Anytime a candidate asserts he or she has never failed is a red flag. It suggests either that the candidate is arrogant or is unable to lead an examined life. When asked about their greatest weakness, whenever a candidate serves up the cliche answer “I work too hard”, I groan silently on the inside. The answer conveys a smug self-reverence at having turned an imaginary negative into a positive, as if it deserves an immediate high-five.  In a piece he wrote for the Harvard Business Review blog networkDavid Reese, the head of people and culture at Medallia, shares insight on why it is better to give a real answer: you don’t want to leave them wondering who you really are. At The Good Search, we concur. The employers we serve want to hire smart, capable, and forthright leaders who can speak the truth, not spin it.

What other warning signs would you add to the list?

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