Hiring executives: Why your candidate shortlist isn’t working out

Hiring executives: Why your candidate shortlist isn’t working out

Not seeing the right candidates on your shortlist of executive candidates? Don’t be too fast to place all the blame on a competitive job market or even the low unemployment rate. Your shortlist can also suffer for the following reasons:

Problem 1: Non-experts are compiling your candidate shortlist.

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are a lifesaver for most companies, but they only go so far, and that’s when a recruiter steps in. But if the recruiter isn’t sufficiently experienced in the industry and executive placement, your shortlist is almost guaranteed to suffer.

For example, if your ATS is set to find candidates with 15 years’ of solid-dose drug manufacturing experience in big pharma and 5+ years managing a team, it could screen out the candidate with 10 years of manufacturing experience at a competing small-cap firm, who spent the last four years building an award-winning system from the ground up while also managing a team with almost zero turnover.

An experienced recruiter, on the other hand, will be manually searching through their own list of contacts and using other means to find the candidates who don’t, for whatever reason, make it to the ATS’s list of top contenders. Consider this a more accountable search strategy.

“It’s something that isn’t discussed much, but there are instances in executive search when the applicant tracking system overlooks the right candidate,” says Robert Hennessy, executive search consultant and owner of The Hennessy Group, a boutique life sciences executive search firm. “If your recruiter’s top tool is the ATS, you’re going to come up short.”

Hennessy explains that knowing the industry gives the experienced recruiter insight into the type of skills that are earned elsewhere in the industry, even in roles that aren’t directly related to the one the company is trying to fill. “How a candidate’s expertise is earned can vary widely at the top levels of a company, but you can’t program your ATS to pick up on these nuances and still be effective. Hiring at this level almost always requires hand-culling the list,” says Hennessy.

With a hand-selected list, the recruiter may also need to work harder to motivate executive candidates. “Frequently, your top talent isn’t looking to change roles and won’t want to talk to a recruiter. It’s another bonus for the well-connected industry search consultant. They have the means to get people to listen,” Hennessy says.

Will you get a custom list from an executive search firm?
Not all executive search firms shortlist job candidates by hand. A 2014 study indicates that more than 93% of large search firms consider applicant tracking technology to be a key ingredient in recruiting success. “Bigger firms are highly dependent upon an ATS to keep their profit margins high. They’re attempting to fill so many roles for companies, there’s no other way they could survive,” says Hennessy.

While smaller search firms may also use ATS technology, they’re not under the same profit-driven pressure. “Boutique firms, like ours, rely on word-of-mouth and reputation,” says Hennessy. “That means our shortlists have to be incredible. We may start with an ATS, but we have to ensure we’re not overlooking anyone. It’s the recruiters responsibility to turn over every rock. Repeat business is our lifeblood so we develop accountable research and sourcing strategies, and we can’t afford to rely solely on algorithms.”

Problem 2: The pre-screen interview is merely a recap of the resume.

Pre-screening calls are typically used to gauge candidate interest and go deeper into the resume and experience, but most take 15-30 minutes or less, even with executive-level candidates. Says Michigan-based executive recruiter Amy Blumke, that’s where problems arise.

“When you get the candidate to take your call … that’s when the hard work really starts,” Blumke indicates. “Not only am I now selling the role and the company, but I’m also digging further to learn if this candidate is going to be a good cultural fit.”

Blumke takes time to develop the relationship so she can develop the candidate’s personal profile, too. “You have to see the candidate as more than a worker, find out what inspires them, how they solve problems and interact with people, what’s going on in their lives, why they might say ‘no.’ Yes, I want to understand more about the candidate’s experience, and not just what roles they held. It’s more about how they earned that experience, what they learned, what they’re bringing with them,” says Blumke.

Blumke indicates that the process can’t be done through a single short interview. “You may need multiple meetings to motivate a candidate and to really get to know them. With our search process, it’s common to spend hours talking with each candidate before you determine if they should advance — a lot of candidates never make it past this phase. But it’s something your recruiter has to do, even if you’re looking at a 90-day placement. Our clients expect a shortlist of incredible options, not a long list of candidates who won’t pan out” she says. “Otherwise, we’re wasting everyone’s time.”

Problem #3. Your candidate care is lacking.

Two factors can make or break even the best recruiter’s efforts today:

  • Market conditions mean candidates are frequently fielding multiple great offers.
  • Socially connected industries, where a single candidate’s poor experience with an organization has the potential to be heard by thousands of people quickly — and turn prospective candidates away before they’ve ever been shortlisted.

How do companies address these? Through “candidate care” — the process, respect and attitude a company takes when interacting with all candidates, on any level.

“Candidate care starts the moment your recruiter decides to talk to a prospective candidate, before the first call is made,” says Hennessy. “If your recruiter doesn’t ensure the candidate’s time is respected, that they’re kept up to date on the role, that they know where to get answers to their questions, that those answers come quickly and the entire process seems seamless, it’s going to impact future searches, guaranteed.”

Hennessy’s team and clients are schooled early about how to treat candidates properly. “You don’t keep candidates waiting. You answer questions quickly, ensure their first impression of your company, which comes from the recruiter who contacts them, reflects your core values. You take every opportunity to show the candidate how much you respect them, even if you choose not to hire them. It will make a difference in the long run,” he says.

According to Hennessy, his decision to focus on candidate care was a natural reaction to what he experienced early in his career with a large, global, retained executive search powerhouse. “I saw a lot of great candidates get turned off the by process. Interviewing is a stressful time for a candidate. You want them to feel respected every step of the way. I didn’t see that happening,” he says.

Once he branched out on his own, Hennessy developed guidelines that companies could use to ensure candidate care was front and center. Clients saw the result, even in a market where the competition for top candidates wasn’t as fierce as it is today. One former client, then-president of Novo Nordisk (U.S.), William S. Poole, equated candidate care to the challenge sales teams have: “All it takes is one unhappy customer to undo the good of having 100 happy customers,” said Poole. A single poor candidate experience has the power to turn the next 100 great candidates away, too.

A 2017 article on Inc. referenced a survey from Glassdoor where 95% of candidates stated they would choose not to apply for an open position because of an employer’s reputation. “This should be a wake-up call for employers. The best talent doesn’t waste their time…,” wrote the author.

Hennessy agrees. “Poor candidate care will be reflected on the quality of your shortlist. Great candidates have plenty of other opportunities to pursue,” he says. And what about improving online reviews of the hiring company? Says Hennessy, those won’t go far with executive candidates. “Stressing candidate care does much more for your hiring efforts than any strategy to improve an online rating will. Executive candidates connect with other executives, not job boards,” he says.

Is your external recruiter practicing candidate care? Ask the right questions.
Looking for an indicator of the candidate care provided by your executive search firm? Ask about former job candidates who became clients. “When a candidate becomes a client, it’s a testament to the search firm’s procedures,” says Hennessy. “If a CEO or CHRO received excellent treatment as a candidate, you better believe they’re going to want the same experience for everyone who eventually reports to them, too.”