Confessions of an Executive Recruiter: Why Process Matters

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Dec 15, 2022

I have been an executive recruiter for about 15 years now, most of that time for an executive search firm that worked exclusively with not-for-profits, with a large chunk of the business coming from higher education. 

I worked for two years at another search firm that recruited CIO’s and other technology leaders for mainly retail, manufacturing, and other for-profit industries. And now I recruit executives for a mid-sized health system in Northern New England. 

I am inside the house now, and from inside the house the view looks different. 

On the inside you are more concerned with process and a little less so with scouring the earth for the best candidates. This is not to say that as a consultant you are not concerned with process, or that I currently do not put effort into finding candidates. Just that I am more hyper-aware of internal dynamics of a search process now in a way one could never be as a hired hand. 

I have been thinking a lot about process lately and how it connects to an organization’s goals and values, and it is clear there are things that the for-profit world can learn from the nonprofit world, and vice versa. For now I will focus on the former.

When I recruited leaders for nonprofits and academia, I would grow frustrated with “process,” seeing it as the opposite of, or at least an impediment to, “results.”  For example, I recall when eight semi-finalists were flown to an undisclosed location to meet in person with a full search committee that had been painstakingly put together to maximize representation and level-headed decision-making. Finalist candidates were required to clear their schedules for two days. It all felt so onerous.

Later, when I began recruiting for private industries, I was shocked that a hire could be made after only a few meetings. High-level hires, too. That bloated process that had always been a bother was gone in favor of firm and timely executive decision-making. This seemed like a breath of fresh air at the time. 

But then I noticed something disturbing: The candidates I interviewed for corporate tech leadership roles had much shorter tenures in their jobs than I was used to seeing. I have never been the type of recruiter who immediately discounts those with short tenures; after all, things happen. So this didn’t make me suspicious of the candidates. It made me sad for them.

I heard story after story of professionals who picked up their lives and committed to an organization only to do the same two years later. Layoffs, acquisitions, change of strategy, poor cultural fit — whatever the reason, people did not stay as long in these roles as they did in the nonprofit world. 

This is not just an academic difference between two categories of labor. These were children moving schools, families unable to form and strengthen communities, friendships cut short, and marriages put under strain. Even if nobody has to relocate, the rupture to a life is real. While every exit may have had sound reasons, taken as a whole they make our society less rooted and less resilient, not to mention the well-documented effects of high turnover on an organization. 

I say this not because businesses have an obligation to keep people on after it becomes clear it will not work. They don’t. But they do have an obligation on the front end to make well-planned hiring decisions. These are lives, after all, and corporate responsibility begins at home. Companies should make the investment in the additional conversations with the team, the in-person meetings, making sure everyone, or at least most everyone, is on board so that nobody is brought into an untenable situation. In other words, yes, hiring in the nonprofit sector might be longer and more involved — but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Especially when the opposite risks creating a revolving door for leadership roles.

Ultimately, bringing more, rather than fewer, people into the executive hiring process has the double benefit of proving you care about inclusivity — while hopefully ensuring that your hires are a better match for your organization.

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