Anyone who has ever hired or conducted a search knows that the most challenging part is dealing with people—a variable and unpredictable product. How do you gauge a candidate’s interest? How do you attract a passive executive? One staffing executive recently commented, “No matter how certain we are that a candidate will do x, y, or z, based on reasons a, b, and c, we know that there is always the chance that that person will do d, or even, heaven forbid, q.“
One of the most disappointing events of any hiring process or search, and it has happened to all of us, is when a star candidate decides to withdraw from consideration. Fortunately, it rarely happens; our collective decades (and decades) of experience as search consultants translates into an ability to read the tea leaves on any reluctance well before our clients get down the aisle with a top candidate. That said, no matter how well prepared and vigilant a search firm or hiring executive is, at some point, it will happen.
Read on for the top early warning signs, so you can spot issues on your next search, and a bit of advice on how to recover successfully.
1. The slow ghost:
It’s true in dating, and it’s true in hiring. When your calls don’t get picked up like they used to, or when the lag time between when you left the voicemail or sent the email/text and when you get a response gets longer and longer, you’re in trouble. Of course, life gets in the way, and often times there is legitimate reason unrelated to their interest level for the lag. We once had the favored CFO candidate for a publicly traded energy company client suddenly stop responding to numerous phone calls and emails, just as an offer was about to made. Days later, hope was restored: we received a call from the candidate who was in the hospital and was one of thirty people injured when a United plane ran off a snowy runway in Denver. We had seen the incident in the national news, but had no idea he was involved or that the airline had seized his luggage and phone as he recovered in the hospital.
Building a relationship early on in the process with leading candidates is invaluable in establishing trust, transparency and open lines of communication; it will open the door for the candidate to express concerns that can be addressed openly and worked through, runway mishaps notwithstanding.
2. Opinions at home:
While it’s always much easier to recruit a candidate who already lives in the area, many searches are national or even global in scope. When we identify a strong candidate who will need to move to take a top spot, we encourage them to have a discussion at home with their spouse or partner to make sure everyone is on board with the idea. And then have the conversation again. And again.
While everyone handles their home lives differently, the one thing that is generally true is this: If the spouse (or even the children) isn’t on board with a relocation, it’s not going to work. When I get the sense that a spouse is starting to get cold feet on moving cross country, or a candidate starts asking about options to telecommute when our client really wants someone based at headquarters, I am on high alert that we may have potential problems. And if they have a high schooler still at home? It’s going to be an uphill battle, no matter how perfect the fit or how much the candidate wants that position.
Our advice is to get honest with a top candidate earlier rather than later about the realities of relocation, including the good, bad and ugly, and make sure that the discussion is being had at home.
3. The self sabotage:
As someone stares down the barrel of a major life change, intense reactions can bubble up to the surface—often fear. And in response to that fear, we’ve seen seasoned business people at the top of their game and the peak of their careers start asking for things from our client as a condition of their employment that had never been brought up before. Examples include unrealistic employment contracts, asking to be made whole on massive amounts of unvested equity, or requiring unlimited PTO (vacation days) when that is not the culture of the client company.
In our experience, the most effective approach in this situation is a good old heart-to-heart with the candidate to get to the bottom of their motives. Most times, we are able to coach candidates away from these demands and get to the root of their concern, which is often fear of the unknown.
4. The long road:
An excellent search process takes time; this we know. Rushing the process—not giving everyone enough time to assess options and fit, and get buy-in from the team—is generally not advised. Typically, our clients and candidates are far flung throughout the country (or world) with packed calendars, making the interview scheduling process a heroic and time-consuming feat in and of itself. That said, there is a natural pace, momentum and cadence to a search process, and if too much time passes between meetings and the final decisions, companies can be at risk of losing top candidates as they get invested in new opportunities, projects or promotions within their current organizations.
Our best advice here is to be thoughtful about the pace of the process; communication is key. Once, we had a Managing Partner with a global professional services firm need to press pause on a Chief Marketing Officer search process while they sorted out a potential merger opportunity. It was a confidential situation, so while we couldn’t share that information with our star candidate, we were able to keep that individual invested in the process through frequent check-ins, touchpoints and updates. Once the merger possibility had passed, we were able to quickly move the process forward again and pick back up with our star.
The star candidates will—always—align
Until the end of time, people will do unexpected things. Wouldn’t life be boring without that? That said, we like a little boring in our search process, especially when it comes to seeing a star candidate through to the finish line. Avoiding surprises takes strong relationship building, communication, transparency and trust with both client and candidate, and a healthy dose of issue-spotting. Even when you do everything right, things happen due to circumstances beyond your control. What then?
It is important to have a backup plan in the form of strong alternate candidates and a commitment to recruiting and selecting the ideal executive for our clients. In the few times an executive has withdrawn his or her interest for the position, we find that an even better candidate is identified. If we had a dime for every hiring manager who commented that a candidate who withdrew opened the door for an even better candidate, we would be rich. And that is the honest-to-goodness truth.