Hiring a c-level executive

Let's talk about recruiting c-level executives: CEO, CTO, COO, CFO, CMO, CPO and the like: Head of Marketing, Director of OPS, VP of Product. How to find a qualified expert?

At first thought, it seems that it is much easier to search for an IT executive than a Senior-developer. There are fewer managers than programmers, and there are even fewer C-level vacancies. So, such candidates are less nervous when they see the words "vacancy" and "recruiter." However, the devil is in the detail. 

There are four main objectives for successful recruiting a C-level executive:

  • find out why the position is open
  • decide who is responsible for candidate evaluation and how they do it
  • understand how to replace an executive.
  • build up a trust-based "customer-consultant-candidate" relationship

Why is the position open

A search for an executive is a critical period for the company, and it shows a significant internal change.

The best variant is if such changes happened due to development. Ideally, if it is a geographical expansion: the well-working function gets implemented on the new territory. There is someone to give the tasks to the executive and evaluate how professional is the candidate during the selection process.

A search like this is, usually, the least problematic. The tasks are well-defined, there is someone to conduct an interview and do the onboarding, there is enough time to start the work at the new place. The only bottleneck is the mentality, labor market, and business culture specifics. For instance, in cases when a client comes from a country where there are fewer vacancies than candidates, starts recruiting in the country where they have 3 jobs per a specialist, hey should reconcile with the working conditions and the salaries dictated by the market. Fortunately, foreign clients are ready for the local market to differ from the one they are used to and listen to local recruiters.

The second case is when the rapid growth within the country leads to new executive vacancies. When a head can't cope with such a number of tasks and a company needs new leaders for marketing, finance, operations, R&D departments. It is a challenge both for recruiters and for responsible for the final hiring decision. Choosing a c-level executive, you need to have an idea about the tasks they are going to face in each role in a 6-months and year period. However, it is often tricky or next to impossible (especially if it is a startup) to predict the tasks they are going to face. In this case, the assessment of candidates and search for a replacement or partial replacement of the owner/CEO is especially severe.

The third and most challenging case  — replacement. Such cases are particularly hard for the founders and CEOs because a leave of the top executive is not just one problem; it is fraught with difficulties:

•     internal problems ("executive has resigned, so our company's affairs are not that smooth," "they got fired" - they messed up somehow");

•    reputation risks in case of the data leakage before a public announcement

•    financial loss in case of the data leakage (direct financial loss if it's a public company).

In the replacement cases, the recruiters' confidentiality is of utter importance.

Quite often, opinions on the reasons for hiring and problems in the company differ sharply. The recruitment of a new person can't always solve a system problem in the company.

For instance, one of the candidates told how he was the fifth (!) Sales Director in the last 3 years, and the company has a one-year sale cycle. The owner tried to improve a situation with the low sales not by a price change, or investments in marketing, but by simply dismissing those responsible for the low sales and replacing them with the new. Over and over.

In all of the mentioned cases, the most important thing is to talk to the people who make the final hiring judgment (preferably with all of them at the same time ). This way, you can get honest answers to problematic questions and come to a collective decision. Record this decision in writing and receive their confirmation to make sure that all members understand a situation.

Candidate evaluation: who and how

The vast majority of C-level managers know how to present themselves. Thus it is a challenging task to estimate their real level of professionalism, especially if there is no one to do the job.

This is often true about the startups and the young companies at a stage of rapid growth when all administrative tasks get out of hand. The candidate can sell just well himself, but it does not mean that he will qualitatively do work.

On the one hand, you can't give a test assignment to such candidates. On the other hand, except management skills, they also need in-depth knowledge. Whether they have it or not is going to influence their own development as well as the direction in which they are going to lead the whole company.

 Don't demand them to be proficient in every task of their department. We often observe how the best candidates get rejected because of insufficient knowledge of the basic duties. Yes, such applicants should understand how it works, but they cannot know it better than people who carry out these tasks daily. Besides, specifics and tools change very quickly nowadays.

The right to interview and give a final hiring decision about the candidate for an executive position is often given to the potential subordinates, and their decision may be quite subjective. Though we would recommend to let a team get acquainted with the manager before the final decision, however, you should not allow the subordinates to influence the decision on hiring. They might be great employees, but they don't see the whole picture and can't be responsible for C-level employment.

Test assignments are also not the best option. If a task is too simple, it won't do you any good and can scare away the well-qualified candidates. If it is difficult, it requires too much time (and extra payment).

Unemployed C-level candidates are an extremely exceptional case, so you do not ask them for additional 10-20 working hours. Note also that the tasks like "create a marketing strategy for a product X introduction to the market Y" is a consulting and takes several months, and its cost is around tens of thousands of dollars.

We would recommend involving unbiased experts in the assessment interviews. Let's emphasize that it should be more than one person. Do not put the future of your business in the hands of one person. Even the best experts are human, and any person can make a mistake, get emotional, and choose subjectively.

Involving such experts is not easy and quite costly. However, the price of the mistake is much higher.

How to find a replacement for the owner

Without a doubt, the most demanding search is when the recruiter needs to find a replacement for the owner.

There are 2 cases:

  • full replacement ("I am tired, I resign")
  • partial replacement (when the owner remains a CEO but delegates a part of the authorities to the employed managers)

No matter what is the case, it is crucial to discuss the delegation of powers with the owner draw the lines in their future responsibilities.

The new executive might be perfect, but they definitely will not be able:

•    know the fundamentals of the company and love the company as deep as the owner;

•    to react and work the same as the owner;

•    be the owner :)

Regardless, in search of the candidate, you will be balancing between "they have to be better than me!" and "they know nothing about my company!". The recruiter should act as a mediator.

Such a search will be successful only if the owner is willing, mature, and exhausted (experience shows that it is often the main factor), and the recruiter is qualified and prepared. The key feature is their mutual trust.

The search for your own replacement is more emotional than rational. That's why the owner will take skills and experience into account but will select by trusting their gut. The recruiter needs to be their friend, the one they can rely on.

"Customer-Consultant-Candidate" trust

Qualified recruiting (to any vacancy) begins with a dozen of questions about everything the candidate should face in their daily work. For ordinary jobs +$500 to the salary or -30 min on their way time can sometimes be a valid reason to agree to the offer. C-level candidates rarely ask about additional benefits.

They are more driven by the prospects of the company, changes that are expected from them, and the main goal of the project.

They ask questions about positioning, strategy, long-term and short-term plans, challenges, and inexplicit problems. It is crucial to have answers to all these questions at your very first meeting. It is the only way you can keep the great experts that are in high-demand. 

The answers to such questions may be classified as confidential or sensitive information. Therefore it is especially important that the client could trust the recruiter/consultant to:

•    keep the data safe from the competitors;

•    have enough knowledge and experience to understand the critical points of a vacancy;

•    be diplomatic enough to spark a candidate's interest and show the prospects, without revealing any trade secrets.

Specify with the client what information can be disclosed and at what stage. It is better to state it in the appropriate document (NDA agreement) or e-mails. Make sure you understand each other correctly.

If you need a C-level executive, you have to obtain maximum information so that they have an honest review of the company, vacancy, and its responsibilities.

Trust is also essential for a recruiter - candidate relationship. Candidates of such a level rarely check out other opportunities. Usually, they are the ones that recruits are looking for. A well-trained C-level recruiter should not only make them interested in the first initiated contact but also let them know that they can guarantee that their conversation is confidential. As we have mentioned above, there are risks for the company when such professional is leaving. So if this information gets public even before the candidate decided to go, the situation is catastrophic.

Therefore, an open and honest relationship is the key. Even if the C-level candidate does not match this company, you will stay in good relations, and save the image of the company. It is imperative and helpful in the long run.

We hope that we delved a little deeper into the struggles a recruiter may face recruiting a C-level executive and showed how you could resolve some of the issues. Good luck with your recruitment processes!

VP Team