Leadership recruitment needs to be a detailed process that ensures you find, assess, verify, and hire the best possible candidate. That’s because leaders serve as role models, and people who push the company forward both strategically and from a people management perspective.
Others look up to them and follow their lead so you need to find the leadership candidates that will meet the expectations and needs of your company's highest performers. Strong leadership is by no means a guarantee.
Getting it right is of the utmost importance when hiring new leaders. But how do you tell if a candidate is the type of leader that your team needs? And, more importantly, how can you ensure that you don’t pass on a great leader in favor of someone who may only have strong potential on paper? This article will cover best practices for the leadership hiring process to help you accomplish both of these goals.
The leadership recruitment process
Hiring strong leaders usually consists of seven key steps, undertaken by either an executive search firm or a hiring team assembled to find the best leadership candidate for an opening position.
The leadership hiring process usually includes:
- Opening a role. Your HR team analyzes the needs of your organization and compares that with your current talent pool. If there’s a divergence of talent compared to the tasks you need to accomplish, then HR needs to hire people to fill that gap. The first step in this process is to write a job description for the open role and make sure that the requirements match the skills you need in a candidate for them to successfully do their job.
- Finding and attracting the candidates. Once you have the job description written, it’s time to find a candidate who has those skills you’re looking for and attract them to fill out the application. Once you receive enough applications, you can start the screening process.
- Active outreach. An executive search firm won’t rely only on “active candidates” (those who are available and already applying for jobs). They will proactively recruitment passive candidates (those who are currently not searching for a new opportunity) and discuss with them the opportunity at hand. Some of the best candidates an organization can acquire are passive ones.
- Screening and interviewing the candidates. When you have a list of qualified candidates, now you need to assess their skills and verify their claims from the CVs and resumes. Screening candidates usually involves behavioral and personal assessments, as well as interviews with the candidates.
- Selecting the best candidates. Once the screening process is done and you have the necessary data to make an informed decision, you will pick out the best candidate from the process and make them an employment offer.
- Making an offer and negotiating terms. This part of the process is about coming to terms with the chosen candidate and making sure that the negotiation is a win-win process for both sides.
- Onboarding the candidates. The last step in the process is the onboarding phase. This phase is all about integrating the candidate into the company from three different angles: working perspective (getting them acquainted with the work they’ll be doing), social perspective (making sure that they’re socially integrated into the new working environment), and community perspective (most Americans move for their jobs and making sure that they integrate with their new community is a sign of a well-done onboarding stage).
Let’s see how we can use this process to help us hire the best leaders from our candidate pool.
Leadership hiring techniques
Finding and hiring strong leaders requires a different set of sourcing and screening techniques than you’d use for individual contributors or more junior employees. The following are some of the most effective leadership hiring techniques that an executive search firm would use to find top-tier leaders.
1. Proactive recruitment
The best candidates aren’t found on job boards; you need proactive outreach to find them, form a relationship with them, and present them with the open opportunity. That’s why a good executive recruitment firm won’t rely only on active candidates, but they will actively outreach the passive candidates to see if they’re the right person for the open role. Finding strong leadership candidates isn’t easy and having them move to another company is even more difficult.
That’s why you should partner with a good executive search firm; they are well experienced in acquiring the best possible leadership talent in the marketplace.
2. Use employee referrals
If you’re a big company or an enterprise, there’s a good chance that you already hired a lot of employees from referrals made by your current employees. According to the SHRM benchmark survey, 96% of companies that have more than 10,000 employees and 80% of companies that have under 100 employees say that referrals are their number 1 source of new hires.
Even though you have executive recruiters that are sourcing candidates for the open roles in your organization, that doesn’t prevent the employees from helping out in the process by sharing the role with their peers, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who they think would be great for the role. For the employees to do so, they would need to enjoy working at your company and then share the role with the person who they think is the right candidate.
On top of this, you can also incentivize referrals by offering bonuses to your employees if they provide you with the right candidate. A “thank you” works wonders, but a “thank you” + a bonus works even better.
3. Be transparent with your processes
According to Linkedin, 75% of candidates who are intending to apply for your open role will first research the company online. With that in mind, the more (relevant) information you can provide to the candidate, the better it will be. They want to see how your company does on a daily basis, what the employees do, what the culture entails, where they will be working, and so on.
If you can provide all of this information to your leadership candidate beforehand, they will be encouraged to apply for the open role in your company. The candidates want to immediately know what you’re offering and see if that’s matching their expectations from the role.
4. Build talent networks
The executive recruitment process doesn’t start when you open up a role in your company; it’s a perpetual process that’s never-ending. You’re always building talent networks and developing relationships with A-level talent in the marketplace because you never know when you might need to fill the positions with those people.
When it comes to creating and building a talent network, you should have an omnichannel approach, ensuring that you connect with the best talent across different social media networks, public events, conferences, and summits.
A great example would be sharing thought leadership insights and articles on relevant media such as Linkedin. This is a good way to create engagement with people who are on the top of their game in a specific field such as private equity, investment banking, or technology. What’s more beneficial than the engagement on the posts are the relationships that you’re creating with A-list talent by doing so.
Another example is to create a powerful email newsletter with weekly or monthly insights. It doesn’t need to have a lot of subscribers, but you need to have the right subscribers—your target audience (the A-list candidates).
5. Do things that don’t scale
There’s a lot of emphasis on technology and doing things that scale. Yes, that will increase productivity and it will improve the effectiveness of the activities the employees do. But when it comes to hiring leaders, you should also do things that don’t scale.
Technology enables efficiency, but you still need to have the personal touch that would make the candidate want to work with you and in your company. Sending personalized messages and making sure that the feedback the candidate receives is directly tailored to them isn’t a scalable solution, but it will provide a massive return on investment. The candidate will notice the effort that went into those messages and they will respond accordingly, and even share their (positive) experience with peers and colleagues.
Use technology, but don’t forget to do (human) things that don’t scale.
6. Write simple job applications
The A-list candidate who opens up a job application and sees that they can’t integrate their resume via LinkedIn or upload them as a document won’t stick around to fill in the details— they simply don’t have the time for that.
So when you’re creating the job applications, make sure that they are as simple as possible. Most talent already has their CVs done so don’t make them write out the details again—have an upload (and link) function wherever you can. The current market is the candidate’s market and a company that has an overly complicated job application process will miss out on the best talent in the market.
On top of simplicity, make sure that your job applications are mobile-first. The candidate should easily be able to apply for the job via their mobile devices.
7. Have simple job descriptions
This is one of the first steps in the hiring process and this is also where a lot of companies make the most mistakes.
You should be crystal clear on why you’re hiring the person and what you’re hiring the person for. That means that you should know their responsibilities and what the day-to-day operations should look like. This eliminates unnecessary requirements from the job description and only leaves what’s essential
8. Use an executive search company
Hiring leaders for your company isn’t an easy task—they will be the role models in your company and employees will look up to them to see how they should behave in the workplace.
That’s why companies hire executive search firms to help them find the best possible talent. With a retained search company, you will get the following benefits:
- A proactive recruitment process. What this means is that the retained search company won’t rely on active candidates only, but they will reach out to the passive candidates. There’s a massive pool of leadership talent hiding in passive candidates and a good retained search firm will draw it out.
- Exclusive and personalized relationship. Partnering with a retained search company means signing an exclusive contract with the firm where they will be the ones that will find the A-list talent you need. With this kind of relationship, you’ll get a personalized approach and relationship from the retained search company. That means they will update you once per week (screening meetings) on their progress, they will screen and verify candidates, they will help you set up interviews, and they will mediate the negotiation process, ensuring that both the candidate and the client end up in a win-win situation.
So when hiring leaders for your organization, you should aim to hire the best possible and if your HR team doesn’t have the capacity or skills to do so, you should partner with an executive search company to do so.
However, if you decide to go through the hiring process only using internal sources, you’ll need to evaluate the candidates properly. And the best way to do so is to prepare leadership interview questions.
Leadership interview questions
To thoroughly assess leadership behavior in a candidate, you should approach the situation from three different perspectives. The best possible leaders will be competent (hard and soft skills), they will behave with integrity (leading by example), and they will lead the company and its people to achieving their objectives and fulfilling the company’s vision (strategic approach and big picture).
Leadership behavioral questions
Leaders should behave as leaders. To determine whether or not they’re up to the task, you should ask your candidates leadership behavioral questions such as:
- How did you solve a conflict between your two team members?
- Elaborate on a situation where a mistake happened on the job and you took initiative to solve it.
- Tell me about a time when you coached or mentored a fellow employee or intern: How did you guide them?
With the first question, you’re looking for answers that will give you an insight into how that candidate deals with conflict. Do they know how to communicate the problem in an objective and bias-free way? Do they pick sides in the conflict or do they hear every side out? How do they come up with a solution to the problem? You’re looking for a candidate who is fair and objective, but doesn’t stray from a “difficult” solution in the conflict.
With the second question, you’re looking for answers that will show you that the candidate takes responsibility, initiative, and accountability toward the company’s goals. You want a candidate who won’t wait for someone to tell them what needs to be done, but will be proactive and seek tasks that will help elevate the team and the entire organization.
With the third question, you’re looking at their leadership and managerial potential. How good of a role model are they to their team members and how can they transfer knowledge, skills, and attitude to the next generation of employees in your company?
Leadership competency questions
These competencies are about discerning the managerial and leadership competencies of a candidate, and include questions like:
- Describe a situation where you would give feedback to your candidate
- How would your team members describe your leadership style?
- How do you make sure that timelines and goals are being met by the team?
The first question is about their feedback giving and feedback receiving skills. You’re looking for a candidate that’s comfortable giving and receiving constructive feedback, both positive and negative.
The second question is to figure out their leadership style and compare it to your organization’s value set. This will help you determine if their style fits with your company’s way of doing things. You’re looking at how they would manage their team and the most noticeable and noteworthy traits of their leadership style.
The third question is about their managerial abilities—how well do they track and motivate their team members and how good are they when it comes to time management?
Together, these questions will give you a good handle on how competent the potential leader is, and how that jives with your organizational requirements.
Strategic leadership interview questions
The leader needs to also look at the bigger picture and work to achieve the company’s strategic objectives. The questions you can ask to assess the candidate’s strategic leadership skills are the following:
- Lead me through a process where you had to set long-term objectives for your team/company.
- How do you communicate long-term plans and focuses to your team members?
- How do you measure the effectiveness of your long-term strategy?
The first question will help you assess if the candidate knows how to create long-term goals and objectives and if they have experience with it. The more detailed and structured the response, the more experience the candidate has with setting long-term goals.
The second question is about communicating those goals with their subordinates. How does the leader set up an effective communication channel, how often do they communicate the message to their team members, what channels are they using, and how are they structuring their message? You’re looking for candidates that have an omnichannel approach, that communicate the message often, and have two-way open communication with their team members to clarify any misunderstandings.
The third question will help you see if the candidates know how to ground their strategy into something achievable and measurable— it’s easy to set a strategy, but it’s hard to measure if it succeeded or failed. You’re looking for candidates who can separate long-term objectives (qualitative) with key performance indicators (quantitative).
How to objectively score leadership candidates
Assessing leadership competencies in a candidate can be quite subjective, making hiring decisions susceptible to personal bias. To avoid – or at least reduce – the risk of personal bias, we recommend using three screening techniques to objectively assess the leadership potential of your candidates.
- Structured interviews. Having a structured interview means that you need to select the questions you will ask all the candidates before the interviews. You need to ask all of your candidates the same set of questions in the same order and determine what the desired outcomes are for those questions. This way, you can limit bias in the hiring process, and compare candidates to one another more fairly.
- Candidate scorecards. When you have created a structured interview, you should also have candidate scorecards that will help you objectively grade your candidate’s answers. You can use a simple 1-5 scale where 1 would stand for “poor” and 5 would stand for “excellent” and have your interviewers fill out the cards after each conversation with the candidates. At the end of the interview, the interviewers can compare the scorecards to see if there’s a misalignment in their score and if there is, to inspect the reasons for that. The results from these scorecards can then be used to inform decision-making about which candidate is objectively the best person for the leadership position.
- Pre-employment tests. When hiring candidates, you should give them a pre-employment test that’s connected to leadership skills and behavior. This way, you can get an initial assessment of their leadership skills and the best thing about a pre-employment test is that it’s bias-free. On top of that, you receive numerical results from the test so you can compare candidates objectively.
When hiring leaders for your organization, you need to make sure that you hire the right people. And if your hiring team doesn’t have the capacity to find, attract, screen, interview, and hire the right candidate, you should partner up with an executive search company.