The Executive Search for U.S. President

What if we, collectively, retained an executive search firm to help select the next President of the United States? Might a headhunter do a better job of picking the next U.S. President than “We, the People”? More to the point, if an executive headhunter recruited the best Presidential candidates for the job — based on actual qualifications — would that headhunter deliver the same Presidential contenders? 

We would not.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump would be eliminated for failing to meet minimum qualifications. By comparison, third party candidate and Libertarian Gary Johnson, rarely mentioned in the news, is much more qualified. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton offers the most impressive resume, but lacks an essential leadership skill: inspiring others to follow. Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders has that skill in spades.

Why I Care

As a former award-winning investigative reporter and TV journalist and former member of the 4th Estate, I believe an informed electorate is essential to our Democracy. Yet, collectively, We, the People are acting like idiots for reasons detailed brilliantly by writer Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine’s “Our Democracy has Never Been so Ripe for Tyranny“.

“And so, as I chitchatted over cocktails at a Washington office Christmas party in December, and saw, looming above our heads, the pulsating, angry televised face of Donald Trump on Fox News, I couldn’t help but feel a little nausea permeate my stomach. And as I watched frenzied Trump rallies on C-SPAN in the spring, and saw him lay waste to far more qualified political peers in the debates by simply calling them names, the nausea turned to dread. And when he seemed to condone physical violence as a response to political disagreement, alarm bells started to ring in my head.”

I recruit executives for a living and cannot imagine my Fortune 500 clients ever considering a candidate like Donald Trump for hire. His detached-from-reality assertions and flat-out lies make him wholly unqualified for any leadership role. So what makes him fit to be President of the United States?

Executive search firms focus on recruiting qualified candidates who are top performers. We, the People? Not so much. Our Nation’s position description — the U.S. Constitution — sets the bar incredibly low.

Article II of the U.S. Constitution mandates:


No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

Virtually any adult American with designs on the U.S. Presidency — including a convicted felon —  can run for the highest office in the land.  However, in executive search, that low a standard simply would not do. Executive recruiters would go to work to target only the most qualified candidates for the job.

Executive Search Process


Step 1: Define the Job

The first step in any executive search engagement involves defining the job and writing a position description, in consultation with the client. You must understand the job to find someone capable of doing it. Fortunately, the responsibilities of the President are detailed in Article II, Sections 2 and 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

Step 2: Describe the Ideal Candidate

Next, executive recruiters would draft a specification describing the ideal candidate. While the process of choosing a senior executive never will be scientific — nor should it be — a clear list of must-haves is critical.

Yet aside from the citizenship and age requirements, the U.S. Constitution does not detail the qualifications of a good president. You don’t even need a college degree to run for the highest office in the land. Still, an executive recruiter could easily determine what backgrounds are suitably Presidential: simply examine the prior work experience of U.S. Presidents. Every single President has had a track record of experience in public office or the military.

Public Office Experience

Of our Country’s 44 Presidents:

  • 26 Presidents have been lawyers
  • 22 Presidents had military experience; 9 were Generals in the US Army
  • 18 Presidents previously served as U.S. Representatives
  • 17 Presidents previously served as state Governors
  • 16 Presidents previously served as U.S. Senators
  • 14 Presidents previously served as Vice-President
  • 8 Presidents previously served as Cabinet Secretaries; 6 as Secretary of State
  • 7 Presidents had previous experience in foreign service.

College Educated, Juris Doctor Preferred

While the U.S. Constitution does not require a Presidential candidate to be college-educated, most recruiters would agree a Bachelor’s degree should be a minimum requirement. The critical thinking and analytical abilities cultivated by higher education are essential competencies in our increasingly complex world. Because most of U.S. Presidents have been lawyers, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) is preferred.

Inspirational Leadership

In executive search, we seek inspirational leadership — effective communicators who excite and inspire us to follow them. While charisma helps, we also look for leaders who remain calm, cool, and resilient in the face of conflict. We seek candidates who foster productive relationships with colleagues, partners, and other external stakeholders. Ultimately, we recruit visionary, strategic candidates who imagine a better future and who have the wisdom to get there. We’d expect no less of a Presidential candidate.

Character, Values, and Integrity

In executive search, we seek leaders with exceptional character, values, and integrity. That is why executive recruiters verify credentials, check references, and eliminate any candidate who lies on a resume or is otherwise dishonest.

Of course, Presidential candidates are motivated to tell us what we want to hear, even when that something is not true. In fact, telling us what we want to hear will likely win our support because most of us vote with our hearts and not our heads.

Still, headhunters must choose more wisely: an ideal Presidential candidate must have a track record of being truthful.

Fiscal Competency

Executive search partners develop performance profiles to determine what the executive would need to do to be considered a success. The one issue that concerns Americans the most is the Economy.

Gallop Poll

Gallup polls have found the economy tops our list of worries:

With the presidential election campaign roaring on, the economy remains the single leading issue in Americans’ minds as the biggest problem facing the country. Economic concerns more generally make up about 40% of all “most important problem” mentions.

Our next President would somehow need to fire up economic growth to make the client — We, the People — happy. A presidential candidate must have demonstrated fiscal competency.

Foreign Affairs Expertise Preferred

As Commander-in-Chief and as the externally-facing leader for our Nation to the rest of the world, foreign affairs expertise is preferred.  It is not a must-have qualification because the majority of U.S. Presidents to date have not had foreign service experience.


Step 3: Target Ideal Candidates

Third, an executive search firm conducting a search for our next President would draw up a long list of potential candidates that fit the profile of the ideal candidate. The search firm would contact the candidates to determine who is interested and qualified. In doing so, the firm would discreetly calibrate and pre-reference candidates through back channels to identify the top performers. Ultimately, the search firm would winnow the long list to a short list of viable candidates that is then reduced to a slate of 3-to-5 finalists — the best-of-the-best.

By comparison, have We, the People, selected the best Presidential finalists for the job?

In the eyes of executive recruiters, we have not.

Presidential Contenders

The American people have selected a short list of Presidential candidates: presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump; Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; and Libertarian Gary Johnson, if he gets the nod.

Yet, had a recruiter been in charge of candidate selection, third party candidate Libertarian Gary Johnson would be among the finalists while a leading Presidential contender would never have made the cut: Donald Trump.

Donald Trump: You’re Fired


  • College-educated (Bachelor’s, University of Pennsylvania, Economics)


  • No Public Office Experience
  • Uninspirational Leadership
  • Lack of Character, Values, and Integrity
  • Fiscal Incompetency
  • No Foreign Affairs Expertise

Unlike every other U.S. President in the history of our Great Nation, Mr. Trump has never served in public office. Democratic Candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as well as the likely nominee for the Libertarian Party Gary Johnson have been elected to serve and, therefore, meet our hypothetical minimum requirement to run for President. However, an executive recruiter assessing the presumptive Republican nominee’s life-long lack of interest in civil service would find Donald Trump unqualified for the role of U.S. President.

Donald Trump does have the required college education — a Bachelor’s Degree in economics from the University of  Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, no less. What’s more, Trump’s supporters point to his business expertise as proof he could “help make America great again”. Yet, Trump has driven his business into bankruptcy not once, but four separate times, a fact Trump does not dispute. While filing for bankruptcy is sometimes due to circumstances beyond a company’s control, when you file for bankruptcy four times, it suggests poor fiscal judgment.

Even if Donald Trump had experience that resembles that of prior U.S. Presidents, which he does not; and even if he were a successful businessman who never resorts to bankruptcy, which is also not the case; Donald Trump would never pass the most cursory background check. The statements he’s made in news media interviews and on social media reflect poorly on the content of his character.

The presumptive nominee for the Republican party Donald Trump is politically incorrect. Proudly so. It makes for great television and viral tweets. Yet executive recruiters do not make it a practice to hire people who regularly say offensive, unwise, contradictory things. While he is most certainly charismatic, his incendiary remarks make him an uninspirational leader.

Executive headhunters would find Donald Trump’s character, values, and integrity sorely lacking. In fact, evidence suggests you cannot trust most of what he says. The Tampa Bay Times’, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, found 76% of Donald Trumps’ statements to be more false than true. Trump even posed as his own made-up publicist, John Miller. John Oliver does a brilliant job deconstructing Trump’s lie.


If no employer would ever hire an executive with Trump’s demonstrated propensity to lying, why should We, the American People? From a recruiting perspective, his selection as the presumptive Republican nominee makes absolutely no sense. Executive headhunters would have never let a candidate like Trump get so far. We do not make it a practice to recruit candidates whose behavior poses a significant risk to the well-being of our client. He would have been fired long before the race for President began.


Hillary Clinton: Best Resume

Executive recruiters assessing the resumes of Presidential candidates would select Hillary Clinton as having the most relevant experience.


  • Public Office Experience (U.S. Senate, Secretary of State, White House)
  • College-educated (Bachelor’s, Wellesley College, Political Science; Yale Law School, Juris Doctor )
  • Character, Values, and Integrity
  • Fiscal Competency (Senate Budget Committee)
  • Foreign Affairs Expertise


  • Lack of Character, Values, and Integrity
  • Uninspirational Leadership

The President of the United States has but two responsibilities: to head the executive branch and to serve as Commander-in-Chief. Hillary Clinton’s track record as U.S. Senator from New York and as Secretary of State gives her well-rounded experience shaping national and foreign policy. As FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) to a former POTUS (President of the United States), she even knows her way around the White House.

Based on her resume alone, an executive recruiter would deem Hillary Clinton the most qualified candidate for many of the same reasons detailed in the New York Times endorsement of her candidacy. She even offers fiscal competency from the time she served on the Senate Budget Committee. Hillary Clinton is the most highly educated of the President candidates.  She graduated with honors from Wellesley College with a Bachelor’s in Political Science. She obtained a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School. Because most of our Nation’s Presidents have been lawyers, she also has the most relevant education.

Tampa Bay Times’ found 76% of Hillary Clinton’s statements to be more true than false.  However,  significant questions remain about Hillary Clinton’s Character, Values, and Integrity, moving that part of her assessment into the negative column. A State Department inspector general’s report criticizes Hillary Clinton for her handling of her email while Secretary of State. Rather than use the State Department’s system, she used a personal email server at her home in New York, potentially compromising national security. The revelation of that system has prompted several inquiries. The FBI and the Justice Department probe could theoretically result in Clinton being indicted. Then there are swirling scandals that continue to dog her from Benghazi to Whitewater. (See The Atlantic’s Clinton Scandal Primer). As a result, many of us don’t entirely trust what she says. For a leader, that’s a big problem. Additionally, she’s “light” on another critical leadership requirement: inspirational leadership. When you lead, people must be inspired to follow, which brings us to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.


Bernie Sanders: Most Inspirational


  • Public Office Experience (U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and Mayor of Burlington)
  • College-educated (Bachelor’s Degree, University of Chicago, Political Science)
  • Inspirational Leadership
  • Character, Values, and Integrity
  • Fiscal Competency (Senate Budget Committee)


  • No Foreign Affairs Expertise

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders offers a track record of success in public office. As the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he was re-elected three times. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years. Next, he was elected U.S. Senator. The Democratic candidate is serving his second term in the Senate after winning re-election with 71 percent of the vote. Clearly, Bernie Sanders in a candidate who knows how to make constituents happy.

Bernie Sanders is college-educated. He obtained his Bachelor’s in political science at the University of Chicago.  He has excited voters with vows to reduce income inequality and with promises to make public university tuition free.  He offers serious fiscal competency balancing the budget as Burlington Mayor and through serving on the Senate Budget Committee.

Part of the appeal is that he is authentically himself. The long-time Independent and self-described socialist only recently announced he was a Democrat shortly before running for the Democratic Presidential nomination. In examining his track record, executive recruiters would find that Sanders is a candidate of character, values, and integrity.  Moreover, you can trust what he says. Tampa Bay Times’, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has found 69% of Bernie Sanders’ statements to be more true than false.

Though he lacks the foreign policy experience of Hillary Clinton, his leadership abilities make him a stronger candidate than his Democratic opponent. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders is an inspirational leader a growing number of (non-billionaire) voters want to follow.


Gary Johnson: Qualified Alternative


  • Public Office Experience (New Mexico Governor)
  • College-educated (Bachelor’s, University of New Mexico, Political Science)
  • Character, Values, and Integrity
  • Fiscal Competency


  • Uninspirational Leadership
  • No Foreign Affairs Expertise

Libertarian Gary Johnson will have a spot on the ballot in every state if he secures the Libertarian nomination. That makes him the go-to 3rd party candidate for voters unwilling to cast their ballots for either Donald Trump or the likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

As a Republican, Gary Johnson was twice elected Governor of New Mexico.In the 2012 presidential election, Johnson placed third and garnered more votes than any other Libertarian candidate in history. So far, his leadership has not inspired the masses to follow him. Voters do not yet really know who he is.

Still, as an alternative to Trump, executive recruiters would find Gary Johnson a far better choice than Trump. The Libertarian candidate offers fiscal expertise and a track record of business success without bankruptcy. The Libertarian candidate founded Big J Enterprises, which he grew into a multimillion-dollar construction company with more than 1,000 employees before exiting. No Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He recently resigned from a role as president and CEO of a medical marijuana company to run for President. While it may be controversial to some, he is clearly entrepreneurial.

His track record suggests he is a man of character, values, and integrity. While Tampa Bay Times’ did not do the math, when we tabulated their findings of his statements, 66% of Gary Johnson’s statements are more true than false.

Would Executive Recruiters Choose Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

In the end, executive recruiters present a slate of final candidates for consideration with our recommendations. However, it is always up to the client to decide. Yet, politics aside, if you were to ask an executive recruiter whether we’d recommend Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the answer would be “neither”. In fact, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would not be listed among the finalists. From a leadership perspective, executive search consultant and former President of the Association of Executive Search Consultants says neither candidate would make the short list,

“Politics aside, neither would make the list. We need leadership and inspiration. Leaders inspire people. We need someone who would inspire all parties within our government to do better than they are today.”

With the way things are going, pundits still seem to believe the Presidential election will come down to a choice between Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. But given the leadership issues with the top candidates, I’m not so sure. Voters from all parties and Democratic Superdelegates still have an opportunity to select a Presidential candidate much more qualified for the job.


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