Hiring Lessons from an Executive Recruiter

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As Bridgepoint’s Executive Recruiting Manager, I partner with many organizations, large and small, public and private, throughout many different industries, to assist them in locating and securing the top talent in the marketplace.  If you are reading this article, chances are you’ve been involved with hiring more than a handful of financial professionals throughout your career.  Most likely, you’ve hired some great employees, but perhaps there have been a few in which you’ve had “buyer’s remorse”. Depending on the size and structure of your company, there may be a distinct hiring process, or in other cases, you may have the flexibility to push your own buttons and mold your own process.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen all kinds of corporate hiring approaches—many simple and straightforward—others strategic and methodical. Panel interviews. Formal presentations by candidates to management teams.  Even three hour tests that many an MBA can’t pass.

The following is a compilation of some key reminders, insights and lessons learned to help ensure a successful, pain-free hiring experience.

Planning the Hire

A hiring process that is well scoped and organized on the front end can pay huge dividends in the long run.  Many times employers underestimate the impact of planning, organization, internal communication, and setting a realistic timeline for the interview process.  It’s critical that the department has all their “ducks in a row” before starting the process, or it could result in wasted time, effort, and resources with an uncertain end result.

Ready or not? If a company is not ready to hire full-time or commit to the position, I often recommend considering an interim consultant for the role. This can remedy short-term needs while also giving the organization time to fully vet the scope of the position. As we see in many cases, the consultant may become so ingrained within the organization that they are asked to join on a full-time basis.  Additionally, an experienced consultant may even provide valuable insight about the job in which the
decision makers weren’t previously aware.

Newly-created positions. If the position is a new one, make sure that all decision-makers agree on how the position will fit within the company’s priorities. Focus in on the job description and analyze how each credential, skill or personal quality fits into your company’s operating structure. If the stakeholders are in agreement and there is an accurate perception of what is needed for the job, a company is more likely to identify professionals who fit the bill. If you are still working out the job description, budgeting for the position, organizational structure, or other politics, you are better off waiting to start the hiring process until that is complete.

Existing positions. If the opening is for an existing position that has proven to be essential over time, the hiring process can go relatively smoothly. The budget is set. The job description is in place. And the office and computer are ready to go. There may still be a few “bugs” in the system though, that should be overcome before posting the job or calling the recruiter. For instance, if the previous person in the role was terminated, had performance issues, or expressed frustration prior to leaving the company, management should take a long look at the challenges the position faces on a day-to-day basis to ensure that expectations for the position are realistic and that the support structure is adequate. A recent example I encountered was a client that had three different Senior Accountants leave the same position within a two-year period.  In that case, I recommended the hiring manager take a step back and re-evaluate the internal and external challenges for the position.  While this set the search timeline back about a month, my client was able to address some major challenges with the position and actually modified the job description and requirements.

Two Critical Virtues:  Patience and Timing

In my experience as a Finance/Accounting Executive Recruiter in the Austin metroplex, I’ve seen that companies are all across the board when it comes to the timeline for filling a position. A candidate might be hired on the spot, or it could take six months to fill a position. Most companies aim to fill an advertised position within 30 to 90 days of a job’s posting.  Generally, a Staff/Senior level position should be filled (offer accepted by candidate) between two to five weeks of the search officially beginning.  Mid-level roles (Finance Manager, Assistant Controller, etc.) on average take four to eight weeks to close. Corporate Controller, Director, and VP positions take the longest, for good reason, and
this lag is created not only by the challenge of identifying the right person to hire, but also a more thorough interview process.

Can time be the enemy? The number one frustration I hear expressed from both candidates and clients is that it’s taking too long to pull the trigger.  No matter what level of position, it’s in the candidate’s and company’s best interest to make sure they are, in fact, hiring the right person for the job. You don’t want rush to hire someone and have them wash out in six months, which I have seen happen on occasion when a company fails to take the proper measures. On the flip side, when does process and due diligence overkill kick in and time become the enemy in a search?

Small company situations. Overall, small businesses are generally lighter on their feet when it comes to hiring, even with the challenges imposed by limited HR & Internal Recruiting resources.  At Bridgepoint, many of our clients are indeed in the start-up or small company demographic.  The value we are able to bring to these types of companies extends far past simply locating the person for the job.  In many cases, we are truly able to create and manage the hiring process, and this provides the opportunity for us to instill and train best practices within the client organization.

Large company challenges. While large companies might be able to afford tools that make their talent identification process easier – such as specialized recruiting software or advanced resume databases, a full-scale HR team or external recruiting fees built into the budget – they often have a lot more red tape to cut through before they can formally make a job offer.  This might include strict rules regarding internal advertising for the position, more defined salary ranges, or a complicated bureaucracy that needs to sign off on the final candidate. They’re also more apt to conduct personality and skills assessments, extensive background checks, and drug tests, which may add a week or two to the process.

How long is too long? In my experience, when a search goes over 90 days, it’s generally a sourcing issue.  I see this scenario when the position is very specific and technical in nature, or when a company is out to find a “rock star”, the best of the best in the market, so to speak.  I think it’s admirable for an organization to set it’s standards high; however, when doing so, it should also recognize that an enhanced talent identification approach will be required.  Some of the searches Bridgepoint Recruiting has engaged in during the last year or so have been openings that the client company had been trying to fill for 3-4 months before turning it over to us.  The sourcing challenge the company faced was due to the fact that the top potential candidates for the job were not actively looking, applying for jobs, or currently networking.  The top candidates were busy working at their current jobs, and had to be proactively vetted by a recruiter who knew where they were “hiding”.

Managing the patience of candidates. While not always the case, in general, companies don’t do a good job of clueing candidates into how long they plan on taking with their search, and also about their status in the process.  Advice I give to companies doing the slow hiring: Professionals understand challenges; they may not understand procrastination or avoidance.  Try to keep the communication as direct and upfront as possible, without giving away all of the cards you need to hold tight in any hiring process.

Candidate advice.  Here is the advice I give to candidates involved in a lengthy interview process with a company hesitating to move forward:  Make the assumption that they are not sold on you. That doesn’t mean they won’t eventually come around, but you need to go out of your way to show them that you are the top candidate, rather than playing the wait-and-see game.  Assume that there is one person at the company who wants to keep looking, probably someone in the hierarchy above the hiring manager. So go to the hiring manager and ask what you need to do to win over the indecisive executive. It may include proactively writing a plan for transitioning into the job, or asking an influential professional reference to contact the executive.  In cases where indecisiveness is creating the time lag, I try to encourage both the hiring managers and the candidates to meet again, even for 30 minutes over coffee.

Wrapping It Up—Time to Hire

Here are a few pointers that will position your company “a step above the rest” by promoting an efficient offer process, communication with top candidates, and on-boarding the chosen candidate once an offer is accepted.

  1. A critical principle of hiring is to keep the time between the final interview and offer short. Keep the momentum going.  History has shown time-and-again that if you extend an offer to the chosen candidate in a timely manner, you are likely to get a positive response. If the lapse between interview and offer is too long, candidates will develop anxiety and puzzling interpretations of the process.  Put your organization at the head of the pack by making your process efficient. Reap the rewards of careful planning, which will give you every advantage in the offer-and-acceptance process. A hiring manager should iron out the details of the upcoming offer’s salary range, bonus target, benefits, etc. prior to conducting interviews. This way, you can minimize delays due to organizational bureacracy that typically affect the production of an offer letter.
  2. Stay in touch with runner-up candidates that you identify as competent, who also possess the “soft skills” to fit your company culture. Send them brief updates from time-to-time (networking for the purpose of networking never hurts, and can pay off for you personally in the future, too). Notify them of significant company successes.  Keep the channels of communication open and their interest in company alive.  You never know when you may need to contact them again–for referrals or to gauge their interest in a new opportunity. Good relationships mean good business.
  3. Once a candidate accepts an offer, as a hiring manager, you should make it a point to create a direct line of communication.  Be open to questions, and try to explain any internal politics before they arrive.  Inform the team of the hire.  Prep their staff, direct reports and supervisors so that the team will receive them openly and with positive expectations. Be upfront about your expectations and the candidate’s readiness to deliver measurable results.  Also, do not forget the little details.  Make sure that all office equipment and furnishings are in good working order.  Complete as much paperwork as possible before the new hire comes on board.  Introduce him or her to the team via email or in-person by organizing a lunch — before the start date, if possible.

Communication: The Secret Weapon

If I had to pick one word to summarize the most important component of the hiring process, it would be communication. Communication with key stakeholders to create the best job description. Communication with department employees so they feel like they are part of the process. Communication across company channels to identify obstacles. Communication with candidates throughout the hiring process. Excelling in the communication aspect in all stages of the hiring process will give your company a competitive advantage when seeking out the top talent in the marketplace.

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