Every TA Leader’s Most Dreaded Req 

As a talent acquisition leader, you’re a problem-solver. When you’re tasked with tracking down a rainbow unicorn pegasus candidate, you somehow discover a way to find the unfindable. But there’s one seemingly straightforward req that will inevitably come your way that is loaded with hidden complexities. 

What’s the dreaded req? Hiring your own boss. At some point in your career, a frugal or cash-strapped employer won’t want to pay a search firm, and you’ll be asked to hire your own boss. (Org charts will vary, but let’s say it’s the VP of People for our purposes here.)

At the outset, being entrusted with hiring one’s own boss can be seen as a flattering vote of confidence, but don’t let your guard down. There are a host of potential conflicts of interest with this search. 

Your core group of stakeholders for this most senior position are unlikely to align spontaneously on what “good” looks like for the role. That means there’s some real risk as you try to cater to disparate expectations. 

How might this play out in real life?

  • One stakeholder might think you’re moving too many candidates forward because you don’t really know, or care, what the company needs from the critical role. 
  • Another might think you’re moving too few candidates forward because you don’t want a new boss pushing you to work harder. 
  • If you put forward candidates who are strong in TA, some might perceive you as not caring enough about the business’s needs in other HR sub-disciplines.
  • If you put forward candidates who are weak in TA, others may perceive you as not wanting a boss who’d push you to raise your game.

As you can see, it’s a minefield of perceived conflicts of interest. After building up a bank of trust by hiring for all the other departments and roles for years, trying to hire your own boss can blow it all up. Kind of unfair, right? After all, the director of engineering isn’t tasked with hiring their boss. The VP of accounting isn’t asked to find the CFO. Yet you’re the exception. 

What Can You Do?

There’s a reason why members of the Justice Department must recuse themselves from an investigation in which they may be personally involved. Or why the American Medical Association recommends that doctors don’t treat their own family members. Likewise, it’s worth it for you to point out that this is a situation where you may be unable to be as objective as you’d like. 

That doesn’t mean you must recuse yourself entirely. You can still consult on the process, but you’ll need to put some protective scaffolding in place:

Facilitate alignment of stakeholders using objective data. One way you can add value to the process is by identifying which skills are most important for the role. For instance, you might provide a template of job requirements from a neutral source like SHRM. You can then encourage the interview panel (excluding you) to customize that template based on your company’s unique needs. 

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Interviewers can then rank the elements to align on a skill-prioritized profile based on what matters most. (All of the ranking and edits should be done in open shared documents. Sunlight is the best disinfectant!)

Establish an internal client with enough bandwidth to act as gatekeeper. You don’t want to be the one saying which candidates should be rejected, no matter how unqualified they might seem. Still, the CEO may be too busy to look at all applications. So work with the CEO to identify an appropriate gatekeeper who’s very committed to a great hire in this role. It might be the chief of Staff, COO, president, or other C-suite executive who’s extremely culture-focused. That exec can now be your day-to-day client.

Be ultra transparent throughout the process. Ensure that you track all activity in your ATS and that you brief all stakeholders regularly on the status. You should underscore that although you’re on the sidelines in terms of opining on candidates, you’re committed to running an efficient process.

When you’re asked for input, restate the caveats. Inevitably, though, as you’re a trusted partner in seeking great talent, you’ll be asked for your take at some point. As the stakeholders hopefully care enough about the chemistry you’ll have with your new boss, they’ll want to have you meet finalists. Take the meeting, but be careful with how you report feedback. Use very objective criteria to describe the interview(s), and focus on the most important success criteria for the business as outlined at the beginning of the process. Go with facts, not feelings. And humbly suggest that your feedback ought to be discounted a little as you’re not in a position to be fully objective.

With the right guardrails in place, you’ve got this. You’ll handle this tricky situation with great grace, which will remind the stakeholders of the hallmarks of a true trusted advisor. Consequently, they will be more likely to hire someone that’s equally as team-oriented and trustworthy.

Peter Phelan, a chief people officer turned culture doctor making virtual house calls in Manhattan's Silicon Alley and beyond, is founder and CEO of ValuesCulture. ValuesCulture helps growing organizations build sustainable competitive advantage by leveraging data to define and develop strong, truth-based organizational cultures. It also helps clients with strategies to get their due credit for their exceptional cultures, and many have gone on to appear on multiple "best places to work" lists, including Glassdoor's. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

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