Confidentially Replacing an Executive: The 5 Step Plan


I got a call from a life sciences firm a few years ago. They had a brilliant Controller, but the cultural fit was all wrong and it was affecting everyone around her. Problems were quickly escalating between her and the CEO. She had to go.

The problem was that the Controller hadn’t been with the company for very long, and finding what the company thought was the right person during the last search had been a bear. They weren’t looking forward to starting over again so soon and dealing with the disruption of having an essential role vacant in their company. Plus, this time, they wanted to keep the search confidential.

My firm was happy to step in.

Why a retained search firm is the best solution for confidential executive searches

If you’re used to conducting searches in house or with a contingent recruiter, you already know the drill: the whole team is briefed on the role and its requirements, and the recruiter(s) goes to work. Your LinkedIn Recruiter license does double time finding prospective candidates who meet specific characteristics. Calls are made, interest is gauged, and you and your team meet with the recruiter for updates on a regular basis.

Confidential searches, however, are a little different, particularly when they’re replacing a role that was recently filled. Here’s what needs to happen instead:

  • Step 1: Find out why the previous search ended with the wrong person in the role. Was the comp wrong? Did you forego cultural fit for a narrow set of “experience” requirements? Were there candidates you would have loved to talk to but who weren’t interested in hearing more? Was there some aspect of the role that was essential to the position’s success that never made it into the role requirements? Or did you “take the candidate’s word for it” when they said they had the skill sets, only to be proven wrong a few months later? Make note of everything -- you’ll refer back to this list to ensure this new search ends in success.
  • Step 2: Ensure you and your recruiter knows why the search must remain confidential. Whether it’s because of a dismissal or resignation, because you need a leader to drive a new initiative that your company has not yet announced, or something else, both you and your recruiter need to understand why the search must remain confidential, and what that will mean to the search, internal candidates and external candidates, too. A search to replace an impending departure will proceed much differently from a search to fill a new role.
  • Step 3: Work with your recruiter to draft a new list of requirements. Start over with an all new list of requirements based on the essentials for the role plus what you learned in step 1. BTW, an external recruiter will bring fresh eyes without bias formed from internal discussions about the person who didn’t succeed in the role and may be able to make recommendations for other criteria, too. A good external search consultant will look at the role through the lens of what needs to be done and what fits in the company in order to be highly, not marginally, successful. Remember, you’re looking for a new person -- the right person -- not just a new version of the previous one.
  • Step 4: Get an objective, big-picture view of your company. A mismatch of job and candidate can be a sign of unmet expectations. It may also be the reason why the “perfect person” wasn’t interested in learning more about the role during the previous search. Fix this by setting your recruiter loose to learn about the company and how an outsider would view it. Ensure they also know the work styles and wishes of the person/people that this role reports to. Be careful not to lean too heavily on the in-house team here; while your internal recruiters may know the people and the culture already, they may no longer be able to view the workplace like candidates will.
  • Step 5: Let your recruiter work uninterrupted and distraction-free. Your recruiter needs to have the time and space to be creative in their approach so they’re finding the best candidates, not just the easy ones. In my firm, my recruiters use the same tools yours do initially, but they also find candidates based on their own industry connections, recommendations from other leaders, by connecting with leaders in other target companies, and by motivating top passive candidates, too. Then they continue the process with a series of in-depth screening interviews. Top candidates may have spoken to our recruiter multiple times and for hours before our client is handed a candidate’s name for review. We take full advantage of being offsite and unaffiliated with the hiring organization and its reflected in our success rate.

It’s natural that confidential searches would have the best chance of remaining confidential when the lead recruiter is not affiliated with the hiring company. But before you decide who that recruiter is, consider why the search should remain confidential. To be successful, your recruiter will need to be able to see the company and the role the same way your candidates will (my own firm has a strict “no sugar-coating” policy). External search consultants, who can speak from the same 360-degree perspective as a candidate, can be invaluable in conveying the outsider’s view to executives who will work with the vacant role, too, which is essential to the new candidate’s success.

One more note: not all recruiters, whether internal or external, can provide a level of service that ensures you’re finding the right leader for an essential role. Time simply doesn’t allow it. My advice: look specifically for an experienced industry specialists. Those individuals are often capable of exceeding what an internal team can do in terms of time and reach, and their ROI is high because of the quality of candidates you receive (if an experienced retained search consultant isn’t consistently producing candidates who are stronger than those an internal or a contingent recruiter presents, that retained search consultant would have been forced out of business by now). If the search consultant you're considering doesn't have long-term, industry experience, you may end up paying for a list that you could have built yourself.

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