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Four ways to mess up senior hires

If people are the beating heart of our businesses, why don’t we spend more time getting hiring right? Glenn Elliott explores what goes wrong with senior hires and how to avoid his mistakes.

Hire the wrong person, and your business will suffer. Not only because of the time and expense involved in re-recruiting but because the important work you wanted to achieve won’t get done. Every leader knows this, yet I repeatedly see four common mistakes when hiring senior people.

How do I know? Because I’ve made all of these mistakes myself. But I’ve also learned how to put them right. And I’m sharing these insights to help you, your business and the candidates applying to your company.

Problem #1 – Design-by-committee job adverts or job descriptions

Two heads are often better than one. Except when you’re defining what you want from a new hire. Here’s what happens when job descriptions are written by committee:

  • The recruiting manager makes a first stab at capturing what they’re looking for
  • The job description or advert is passed on to the CEO and some of the other Directors to get their input
  • Everyone adds extra bullet points and what they think are useful details
  • The result is a two-page list of requirements that no one can interview against

The problem with this approach is that some of the items on the list will be crucially important. But these golden nuggets will be buried in a mound of trivial requirements like, ‘should be able to write good reports using Excel.’

When you end up with a list of 15 items – two of which are very important – there’s a risk that the unimportant will outweigh the critical. So you could still end up interviewing people who aren’t a good fit for the role. Which is a total waste of your time and theirs.

Solution #1 – Here’s what to do instead

If you’re the hiring manager, ask yourself: “What is really essential in this role?” I find almost all experienced hiring managers can say in two sentences what they are actually looking for. Most often, it bears no relation to the job advert.

I reduce senior job descriptions or adverts down to two items that form the core of the role. For a Sales Director, this could be:

  1. Hit the sales target that’s agreed with the board.
  2. Lead, motivate, coach and develop the team so it becomes a sustainable, long-term entity.

Anything else is either a function of these two points, or it’s not important.

As an ex-CEO, I can tell you now, if you can find the magic person to recruit, lead, motivate and coach your sales team to hit the target, the CEO will put up with someone who can’t produce beautiful reports in Excel.

You will get pushback on this approach, particularly if one of the items you’re looking for is leadership, because people often see this as a ‘soft’ skill. But I don’t think there’s anything soft about it.

If you want someone to learn Excel, you simply send them on a three-day course. Whereas leadership is about personality, humility and experience. And that is much harder and takes far longer to learn. So, don’t be afraid to push back if you’re challenged on this point.

Problem # 2 – Candidates’ previous employers influence your decisions

We’ve all been dazzled by the mention of a major firm on someone’s CV. This isn’t a problem at a dinner party. But when it comes to recruitment, it’s a major distraction. And it can be reductionist too. I’ve often been on interview panels where candidates are described as ‘the Amazon lady’ and ‘the Microsoft lady’.

This moves the focus away from the individual, their skills and attributes and projects your assessment – good or bad – onto their previous employer rather than the person.

This happened to me when I hired someone who had previously worked at Expedia in a Product Manager role. The halo effect of this major company meant I was sure I’d made a great hire. However, it turns out that the Product Manager role at Expedia was completely different to the Product Manager role in my business. Where Expedia had hundreds of people writing papers and slowly making decisions about the development of the existing framework, we were a fast-growing startup which needed someone to build, build, build. Needless to say, the hire didn’t work out.

Solution #2 – Try this

To prevent our unconscious biases from working against us when it comes to aspects like age and race, we remove names and dates of birth from CVs. I believe we should do the same for previous employers to stop us from being blinded by their brilliance during the CV-sifting stage.

At interview, you can’t prevent previous employers from being mentioned. So, you’ll need to discuss the issue with the other panel members. By shining a light on the potential for unconscious bias to creep in, you’ll be able to spot the halo effect that big names can have on your judgment.

Problem #3 – Get the recruitment basics wrong

Everyone says that their business is a people business and that getting the right people in roles is really important. Yet recruitment is often rushed and not enough time is spent really thinking about what we’re looking for and the type of person who would love the job.

This happened to me when I ended up hiring the wrong Head of Recruitment not once but twice. And for the same reason!

Both times I hired great recruiters who were brilliant at their jobs when operating within an existing recruitment framework. But what I actually needed was someone who could set that infrastructure up. Which is a totally different skill set.

It’s amazing how many times companies head off to recruit either without a job description or with one from years ago. This is a recipe for recruiting exactly the same kind of person you had before. Which might not be right for your business now.

Another problem that really infuriates me is when I get all-male or all-female candidate lists because ‘there aren’t any good male HR professionals out there’ or because ‘there aren’t many female Chief Finance Officers’. My response is that I don’t want 1,000 – I only need one.

Solution #3 – here’s the answer

Good recruitment takes time, and it’s time well spent. An investment in your business rather than another job on a long list of tasks.

Think deeply about what you need from your new hire. You’re recruiting someone who can lead their team but also an individual who will be a member of the executive team. Your job description or advert needs to consider this when capturing what the role is about, the gaps the person needs to fill and the attributes that will be key to success.

For your exec team to be effective it needs to include people who think and process the world differently. You’ve got a role to play here by pushing for greater diversity on your interview lists. I ensure this happens by refusing to interview non-diversified candidate lists.

You can expand your horizons by considering who you’ll consider for the role. We know that being BAME can put people on the back foot when it comes to education and their careers. So ask yourself, does someone really need an MBA to carry out the role? Is previous experience of working at that level genuinely needed, or could somebody with the right attitude step up from the level below?

Inviting a wider selection of people to interview doesn’t mean you’ll start hiring on the basis of age, gender, sexual preference, disability or any other characteristic. It just means you’ve got a broader group of people from which to hire the best person for the job.

Problem #4 – Generic job ads don’t secure the right candidates

My last company, Reward Gateway, was looking for a new Chief Finance Officer, and they wanted me to be part of the interview panel. The gap in the team was for someone who had a deep understanding of finance systems, who could bring in tech to automate processes and set up the right structure.

We needed a real systems and process-obsessed CFO, someone who could revolutionise the technology we used in finance, could bring in automation and move us up several leagues in quality and speed of detailed information. Yet the three-page job ad failed to describe any of this, outlining instead a standard CFO role that could have applied to any private equity-owned business.

When I told the four final candidates my view of the real role requirements, three of the people immediately dropped out. The person who stepped forward did so because it played to all their strengths and was a job they knew they’d love. That person is still in the role today.

Solution #4 – a better way

Your time is precious, and so is that of candidates. By making the effort to write a specific job advert or description that’s right for your business and its needs, you’ll help applicants to self-select.

Be ruthlessly honest in the job advert to the point of putting off most candidates. I learned this from Simon Sinek in his “Write the perfect Want Ad” video. It’s one of his least well-known pieces of work but, in my view, one of his best.

This means smaller, but better quality shortlists, which are more likely to make finding the right person for the job a painless experience.


Picture of Glenn Elliott

Glenn Elliott

Glenn is a serial entrepreneur with over 20 years of CEO experience. He sold his last business, Reward Gateway, to PE three times. His skills are in product, engineering, sales and marketing, and his passions are leadership, company culture, employee engagement and social justice. In 2018, he wrote the Amazon HR Bestseller, Build it: A Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement.
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