Is it possible to be too diverse when hiring executive candidates?


You want diversity in your boardroom and on your executive team, but what happens when you’re looking at a short-list of executive candidates who are so diverse that you can’t effectively compare them?

That’s a problem.

I’m not talking about diversity in terms of gender, race, age, ethnicity or other factors here -- we can all agree that diverse executive teams have proven value in the workplace (this article in the Wall Street Journal provides more information). What I’m talking about are diverse backgrounds and career paths -- what your short-list of candidates did to get to the top.

For example, three CEO candidates for a small-cap pharmaceutical company may look like this:

  • Candidate A: 10 years as SVP of operations in big pharma + MBA
  • Candidate B: 8 years leading the team of a small-cap pharma competitor + MD
  • Candidate C: 15 years of experience leading life-sciences product teams + successful IPO + BA

What do you see? Experience that’s all over the map. Degrees that don’t align. And even the types of organizations they worked for aren’t the same. Developing a matrix for comparing each apple to each orange isn’t going to help, and you can’t just write off their experience as “equal” because it isn’t equal -- it’s different.

The right way to evaluate candidates for executive jobs

So what do you do when your list of great candidates is too diverse to make any sense of? Try any (or all) of the following:

Talk more.

This is always at the top of the my list of advice for culling a short-list of candidates: get to know the people you’re considering. Not just their resumes and background, you have to get to know the real people. What are they like? Will they fit into your corporate culture? How would they interact with your existing team, board members and the public? You can ask these questions directly of the candidate, but you’ll get better insight if you have a long discussion (or a few long discussions) and let the information come out naturally. My team’s approach is to get to know each candidate well enough that they open up to us. We have to do this because we can’t comfortably send a candidate on to our clients for consideration if we don’t truly know the person.

Ignore other candidates.

You’re not looking for the best of the group -- if you are, then you have the wrong person or team finding candidates for you. You’re looking for the right person for the role. In other words, stop making comparisons and start considering each person on your short list individually as the leader who they are and can become. Create a list of scenarios that the executive might face. How will your candidates approach, respond or react to each? Quash the urge to assess who will address a situation best instead. This is one of the reasons we go beyond a job description and kick-off meeting and develop a list of five key selection factors for each search we conduct, which helps us create an audit trail for competitive assessment and ensure we’re matching the each candidate’s individual skills and experiences with the open role.

Know the expected paths.

The sample backgrounds I listed above show that there are a number of ways a candidate can get to the top. It’s your job or your recruiter’s job to know how each path can alter the lessons learned by a candidate. This is where it helps to really know your industry or to be working with an executive search firm that does. There’s no playbook or cheatsheet that tells you how a person climbs the ranks to become head of R&D at a pharmaceutical company, for example. You learn this by being in the business.

Ask around.

Yes, you can check a candidate’s references, but I prefer asking my own connections about their experience with a candidate. That way I’m getting candid responses, which are frequently game changers. A humble job candidate may not be giving you the full story of his or her success, or may not realize how much their input affected the team and company around them. Someone who was witness to the whole thing will.

Determine the top goals for the role.

Maybe this leader will be asked to take the company public, lead a new research strategy or do something else entirely. When you’re looking at list of very diverse leadership candidates, think about the primary impact you want this person to have on the organization. Then determine which of these candidates will have the greatest potential for success in terms of that goal.

Reconsider your search strategy.

There’s really nothing wrong with a list of very diverse, viable candidates. But if the list you’re looking at seems impossible to weed through, it says more about the list itself and the criteria used for selecting candidates. When my own firm approaches a project, we never look to get the MOST candidates onto a list, we look to get the FEWEST candidates -- only the ones who can truly and effectively excel at the goals for the role. Because of this, we look for reasons to weed people out early in the process. Adopting this type of search strategy means you’re spending more time in the initial stages of the search to develop a highly refined short-list, but it also allows you (or, in our case, our life sciences clients) more time with the candidates who have the strongest potential to give you what you’re really looking for.

Category: Life Sciences

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