The Hardest Part of Hiring the People you Need – The Beginning is the Key to Success

Posted in Articles on January 20th, 2014
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This article is written by Francis Goldwyn, Managing Director, Quorum Associates LLC

A few years ago I was invited to a luncheon where I had the rare honor and pleasure to sit next to Peter Lewis, the founder, Chairman and CEO of Progressive Insurance who passed away in November of 2013. Peter was an engaging individual and while we chatted about various topics. At one point he asked what I did and then posed the following question:

“What is the hardest part of Executive Search?”

Our conversation paused for a moment while I regarded the twinkle in his eye.

“Peter, you may not believe this, but the hardest part of what I do is getting the client to be very clear and very specific about the position they are hiring and why the position is important to their company.”

Peter smiled in agreement and asked:

“The position description, getting that document right is the hardest part, right?”

“Yes Peter” I replied. “Getting that right is probably the hardest part of any assignment, not just for me, but often for clients as well.”

“You know” he said as his tone became more serious, “I learned that lesson early in my career and ever since I always write them myself. Sometimes I think I know what I want and why I am hiring the position, but when I start to write that document I often find that I am really not so sure and it helps me think it through so I get it right.”

As clients, candidates, and just about anyone who asks know, I can get on quite a soap box about this topic. In all the years I have worked with clients, I can attribute the majority of the success for any assignment to the hiring manager being willing to engage with me on the contents of a Position Document and remaining engaged until they are confident the document is correct, clear and reflects the strategic and tactical needs of the business.

So it was with some delight and surprise that I came across an interview by Adam Bryant in his Corner Office column with Penny Pritzker, the United States Secretary of Commerce, in the December 22, 2013 Business Section of the New York Times. It was not a long interview but it was filled with comments that resonated with me. At the bottom of the first column of the layout, Mr. Bryant asked Secretary Pritzker “What were some early leadership lessons?”
The Secretary replied:

“I learned to do a lot more work on the front end about hiring – to force yourself to really understand what you’re looking for and do more research. I’m also a big believer in triangulation. When I’m interviewing someone, I also want the opinion of others – people who share the same values as me but who might look at the situation a little differently.”

My reaction to the interview was sufficiently acute that my dog and the small puppy, who had recently become a member of the household, both moved away from where I was sitting.

While Secretary Pritzker phrased the idea differently, she was echoing the view Peter Lewis expressed at lunch and that I preach to anyone who will listen. Hiring good people is dependent upon being really clear about why you are hiring the position and the value the position brings to your company. Every executive who wrestles with these ideas finds the task difficult. So here are some broad questions to help focus the effort.

Can you describe how the direction of the company is changing and some of the challenges and opportunities those changes will create?

Are the challenges and opportunities strategic (longer term) or tactical (immediate) in nature? If they are both, then what delineates the strategic from the tactical?

How does this position specifically address those challenges and opportunities?

Can you describe this position in a way that would articulate, in some detail, what this position will do over the next two years, why doing those things are important and how well this fit with the answers to the questions above?

Is there any specific experience, skills, knowledge, or ability, that will critical to addressing the challenges and achieving the opportunities?

Can you connect specific experience, skills, knowledge, or ability to specific challenges or opportunities?

Can you provide a list of specific concrete accomplishments that would objectively indicate the challenges are effectively addressed and opportunities are proactively captured?

Thinking about people who have recently joined the company over the last few years, describe those who have been successful and what it is about them that contributes to that success. Describe those who have not been successful and why.

Someone reading this list may mistake the general nature of the questions as inviting general or broad answers. A good check on the answers is to get feedback from some other source. If the answers are well thought out and clear, then the feedback should express a detailed understanding of the position and its contribution to the company.

Time is scarce for any executive. Yes, it talks time to think through a position and be clear and specific about what kind of person you need in that role. But if the position is important to the company and its success, then time spent on clearly and specifically defining the position is the first and most important step in finding the person you need.

Francis Goldwyn
Managing Director
Quorum Associates LLC

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Quorum Associates is a retained international executive search firm based in New York. You can email Francis Goldwyn by clicking here, or contact him by phone in New York at (914) 320-6251.

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