Involve Your CEO in Selling Top Candidates

Mar 21, 2011

Consider this scenario: you’re trying to recruit a star in your industry, but you’re having difficulty because they are treated extremely well at their current firm. You try everything in your recruiting toolkit, but the target still won’t budge. Because this is an exceptional individual that is slotted for a key position, you decide to use the “CEO option” that works every time.

You tell recruit that the CEO is personally aware of their work and would really like a one-on-one meeting to discuss them joining the team. Sound outrageous? It might be if your recruiting leaders have failed to make the business case to your CEO on the value of recruiting top candidates, but not if your function truly delivers strategic recruiting.

The CEO option is an approach that has been used by many famous companies to land highly in-demand, non-executive talent for years. Some might recall the story of cell phones distributed by Microsoft to top students with Bill Gates’ personal extension stored in memory. Other CEOs who have accepted the challenge of chief recruiter include Jack Welch (ex-GE) and Jim Donald (Starbucks). The approach is currently proving wildly successful for Zynga, the gaming company undergoing phenomenal growth. Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, recently donned the hat to recruit away a key leader from

Why a CEO’s Involvement Works

If you’ve ever eaten at a high-end restaurant you know that it isn’t uncommon for the executive chef to visit the tables of VIP customers in hopes that he can influence them to refer their friends and return. Using the CEO in recruiting efforts is very similar. The act has been encouraged for years, but doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should. Some of the reasons why this approach is so powerful include:

  • CEOs are great salespeople (usually) — it’s hard to ascend to the role of CEO without being able to sell a vision and market your organization’s ability to attain that vision. When effectively briefed about a candidate’s “job acceptance criteria” and “deal breaking” factors, most CEOs can close the deal. In the rare cases where the candidate doesn’t accept, they often come back month later.
  • The feeling of a partnership and an impact — when I advise firms on this practice, I recommend that the CEO use a phrase similar to “I need your help. I know that with you and I working closely together, we can build an exciting future for this company.” The goal is to build the feeling of a partnership and a close working relationship that will directly impact the future of the company for many years.
  • Straight from the horse’s mouth — talking directly to the CEO means that the candidate will receive direct unfiltered messages. That alone can be reassuring when they might not trust the word of a recruiter oblivious to the inside story.
  • High probability of execution — the candidate knows that any promises that are made have a high probability of coming true because they are backed by the power, resources, and integrity of the CEO.
  • Future access — the fact that the CEO will meet with a candidate now should leave the impression that they will have continuous access as an employee.
  • Power by association — because everyone at the firm knows that the candidate met with the CEO, they’re likely at least initially to listen to them.
  • Bragging rights — talking directly to the CEO is something notable that the candidate can tell their friends, even if they never accept a job. It’s an honor merely to be invited.
  • Consorting with the enemy — once a candidate has met with your CEO they may be viewed as “damaged goods” or as a traitor by their current firm. Not wanting to face potential criticism as a result is another reason that the candidate might accept the new job.

What the CEO Can Do to Help

Once a CEO or senior executive agrees to help in a recruiting effort, there are a variety of roles and approaches that they can take. In addition to the initial one-on-one meeting other options include:

  • Pre-recruiting calls — a call to the candidate commenting on their work or congratulating them for an accomplishment can set the stage for future recruiting.
  • Meet me at a conference — a request to meet informally but discreetly at a conference they are both attending is a good way to start a relationship.
  • I am flying in to meet you — telling a candidate that the CEO is willing to fly into their city and make a special trip to meet them is extremely powerful. An alternative approach is stating that the CEO will already be in the city on business, so maybe they could find time to meet.
  • CEO invitation call — having the CEO call and invite them to the one-on-one meeting is even more powerful.
  • Informal coffee — as an alternative to the formal interview in the CEO’s office, consider an informal talk over coffee.
  • A handwritten note — sometimes a personal note in the CEO’s handwriting can make the difference. In some cases, a note to the spouse or partner can also be powerful.
  • Drop in on the interview — something that takes less time but can impact the closing of a deal is for the CEO to stop by and merely introduce themselves during a standard on-site interview.
  • Close the deal CEO call — after the offer has been made, having a CEO call in order to encourage them to say yes can be very powerful and hard to turn down.
  • Come to my office on the first day — a final approach for “enforcing the deal” is to request that the new hire come by for a follow-up visit on their first day at work.
  • Retention calls/visits — the same logic that works for recruiting also works on current employees who are at risk of leaving.

How to Convince Your CEO to Play a Role

Some CEOs are smart and automatically assume the role as “the chief recruiter” for the firm. In other cases it takes some convincing and building the business case. Some approaches to consider include:

  • Others do it — demonstrate to her/him what other CEOs who they admire are successfully using this tool.
  • Consider a pilot — offer to run a small-scale pilot program for a month in order to judge the results and the ROI.
  • Show the impact on recruiting — show them the percentage increase in the number of difficult candidates who 1) accepted an interview and 2) accept the job as a result of the CEO being involved. Also, during onboarding, ask new hires with CEO involvement to rank the factors that influenced their decision to say yes. Report the importance of their involvement back to the CEO.
  • Show the impact on performance — periodically report the superior business results, bonus percentage, and innovations produced by individuals who were recruited using this approach.
  • Place limits — show them that you respect their time by setting a limit on the number they are requested to do each month. Also limit it to high-impact jobs and hard-to-recruit candidates for those jobs.

Final Thoughts

Most recruiting leaders have little or no contact with the CEO, so their initial reaction to such a program is often that it’s not realistic. However, in my experience the most resistance comes from within HR. CEOs are routinely called upon to influence key customers, key vendors and strategic partners, so it’s only logical that they play a role in recruiting too. While time management is a major concern, most CEOs actually enjoy and learn from the process of meeting with top professionals. A side benefit, they may learn that not everyone is dying to work at their firm and that the role of the recruiter is both challenging and important.