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Navigating a Successful Executive Search
Navigating a Successful Executive Search

Not very long ago, companies were lamenting the availability of qualified candidates; but the winds of fortune have turned south. It has become a "hirer's market," if you will. Does this make the executive search process an easier course to plot and maintain? Will an organization be successful in finding the right person for the right job in a timely manner simply because the waters are teeming with possibilities? Probably not.

At the very least, an abundance of applicants can actually serve to bog down the process by increasing the volume of information required to properly identify the right choice, (i.e. more hay, still just one needle). For this reason, it is necessary for organizations to begin the executive search process with a plan; and the time to start developing this plan is well before the position must be filled.

Especially as it relates to executive positions––development directors and ED's, for example––the temptation to "get someone in there" will be a strong current pulling against the more important goal of "finding the right fit." Who knows when economic tides will turn again? An organization does not want to be in the position of rehiring due to sloppy discovery. In business, turn over is a tyrant. But finding the right person for the job in the first place is a veritable sea of tranquility.

So how can an organization ensure (or at least better the odds) of identifying and retaining the right executive for the job? The first step is to use what Web Masters call "collaborative filtering." Every time someone logs on to a site––google, yahoo,, for example––the activity generated by searches and purchases creates a virtual DNA. Using this string of information, Amazon extrapolates and makes suggestions about what books a customer will fancy or what music he or she might enjoy. Collaborative filtering not only helps the company choose preferences, but more importantly it helps exclude the myriad of choices that would not "fit" the profile (i.e. less hay).

The way this correlates to the executive search process is in the collaborative filter of a team perspective. Rather than one or two persons performing a search-and-suggest, it is possible––even preferable––to involve a committee (a bane of the 70s, now back in vogue in a win-win culture) to collaborate on the decision.

Less Hay. More "Hey, welcome aboard!"

For a start, the chairman of the board has the task of naming a committee chair for the selection team. This is also the time to determine the size and composition of the team––which will vary from organization to organization. What should not vary is the selection of a human resources manager to serve as the Affirmative Action Advocate. Once gathered, the committee should:


• Identify tasks to be completed by the committee chair.

• Identify tasks to be completed by the Affirmative Action Advocate.

• Identify the media contact for all press releases and official statements.

• Plan a search committee meeting schedule.

• Review expectations regarding confidentiality and attendance at committee meetings.

• Identify a member of the committee to be responsible for correspondence, travel arrangements and itineraries for candidates who travel to conduct interviews.

• Develop a budget, including travel expenses for committee and candidates.

• Consider the use of a search firm, if necessary.


Organizing the Search

 Now the team is ready to begin the search process. Here are the essential not-to-be-skipped-no-matter-how-tempting steps involved:

• Develop a timeline for the search, including application deadline, target dates for reviewing applicants and making recommendations, and interview schedule.

• Determine materials to be submitted by applicants including cover letter expressing interest and describing qualifications, resume, letters of recommendation and list of references (and how many required of each), and statement of philosophy and goals.

• Determine where candidate records will be stored and maintained.

• Determine if a search firm will be retained and identify criteria for selecting a firm.

• If a search firm is retained, determine the scope of work and compensation (flat rate versus a percentage of the salary).

In the Affirmative

Address current Affirmative Action requirements at the beginning of the process. Cover all the bases:


• Review the current Affirmative Action Plan and hiring goals.

• Identify strategies to ensure the widest possible pool of applicants.

• Discuss potential biases and ways to ensure their elimination from the search process.

• Have the Affirmative Action advocate (human resources manager) maintain an applicant flow report to review the composition of the candidate pool.

• Make sure all advertisements and announcements for positions are in compliance with the Affirmative Action plan as well as with state and federal regulations.

• Include the following tag in all advertisements and announcements:

"Z-Company is an Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action Employer." 


DNA: Describe Nominee Attributes

The best method for filtering out candidates prior to the interview process is to conceive and document any indispensable criteria. To do this, first:


• Review and update the position description.

• Identify the essential and marginal functions of the position.

• Identify required and desired qualifications (education level, experience) corresponding with essential job functions.

• Ensure position description shows no bias (race, color, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, sex, age, disability, or veteran status).

• Consider the position description as a tool that can assist in selecting the candidate pool.

• Determine the appropriate compensation or salary range, including bonus structure.

• Prioritize criteria based on the essential duties identified in the position description.

• Make the criteria as objective as possible and consistent with the position description.

• Create a checklist to use when evaluating resumes and applications.

Making the Pitch Public

Now it is time to advertise the position. Make sure the same deliberation and do-diligence that has gone into the process thus far, continues throughout the search. To make a public pitch for candidates, first:


• Identify the committee person to whom applications will be submitted.

• Determine the market for the position and develop advertising (including the Affirmative Action statement).

• Identify appropriate national and local publications and advertisement forums.

• Identify individuals, associations and agencies to receive the position announcement.

• Submit the announcement to publications and other advertising sources.

 Yes. No. Maybe So.

 Before it comes down to a three-pile process, it is important to ensure that any "yes, no or maybe so" is determined thoughtfully and not by arbitrary winds of consideration. To make sure this is the case, take the time to:

• Select a method for screening applications. This may include initial phone screenings and/or informational interviews. The human resource manager will assist with record keeping, maintaining a written explanation why an applicant was screened out.

• Review materials submitted by applicants. Identify those who do not meet the minimum qualifications.

• Evaluate candidates’ education and experience in relation to the requirements of the job.

• Rate materials for each applicant based on the selection criteria already established.

• Determine persons to be interviewed.

• Critically review the selected group to ensure a diverse pool of interviewees.

To Get the Right Answers, You've Gotta Ask the Right Questions

Now things start to get exciting. Chances are there is also a mounting pressure to make a decision. This is not the time to slide through the next steps necessary to meet the ultimate goal––which is not hiring someone to fill the position, but retaining the right person for the job. Stay the course. The interview process should flow as follows:

• Identify all persons to be involved in the interview process.

• Review the interview process with all interviewers including a position description with essential functions, a responsibility to emphasize the positive aspects of the company, an interview format, schedule and time frames to ensure a consistency in between candidate interviews, confidentiality expectations, rating sheets and a timeline.

• Develop an interview schedule.

• Develop an interview format to include the "welcome," questions to be asked of the candidate, time for questions from the candidate to the committee, discussion of the current status of the search process, and a closing.

• Develop questions that relate to the position based on the position description.

• Develop an interview rating sheet and distribute to all interviewers.

• Schedule and reserve appropriate meeting spaces for all interviews.

• Confirm interview with letters, including an information packet and a roster of the interviewing committee.

• Collect and analyze rating sheets for each candidate from all interviewers.

• Determine if there will be a round of second interviews for top candidates with senior professional staff or other volunteer board members.

• Conduct the interviews.

Communication, Verification, Evaluation

Consistency is a key word in the interview and evaluation process. Make sure that candidates are given the same parameters so that the final choice does not become an apples-to-oranges comparison.  Other things to keep in mind:


• Make sure all candidates are informed about the progress of the search in a timely and courteous manner.

• Notify candidates before conducting any reference checks.

• Send information about the locale (city/state features of interest) to all candidates selected for an interview.

• Determine at what stage of the search process references will be checked.

• Confirm with candidates that references will be checked.

• Determine if the organization will conduct criminal and financial background investigation.

• Develop questions to be asked of references.

• Identify the search committee member who will conduct the reference checks.

• Collect and review all documentation from interviews, reference checks, and other written materials.

• Evaluate the rating sheets.

• Rank candidates and recommend a finalist to the board and other appropriate representatives.

Making the Offer

Once a candidate is chosen from among the interviewees, it is time to make an offer. Here are the necessary steps in this last piece of the process.

• Make a verbal offer of employment to the selected candidate.

• Follow-up any verbal offer with an official offer letter.

• Determine if the selected candidate has accepted the position.

• Determine the procedure should the selected candidate decline the offer.

• Begin the search again, if necessary.

• Make an offer to a second candidate until the selection process is complete.

Navigating a Successful Search

A well-conceived and thoroughly implemented executive search will increase the likelihood that the candidate chosen is the best choice for achieving both short- and long-term goals (filling the position and retaining the fill). Navigating the process is more tedious when the pool of applicants is numerous, but it can still be done in a timely manner.

It will take a methodical approach as well as the normal instincts that make a selection successful. (How will this person fit into the company culture? Does she really have the goods or just a great resume? Is he looking for a place to roll up his sleeves or just a place to step up the ladder? Is this the right person for this particular job?)

Knowing what is entailed in a successful executive search will also help answer the question "Do we need to pull in a professional search firm?" Whether the organization chooses to go in-house or opts to enlist outside counsel, just be sure to map things out well before launching into the process and then…stay the course to completion.

Gary M. Bernstein is currently a Lecturer at Old Dominion University. Prior to his relocation to the Hampton Roads area, Mr. Bernstein has worked as a successful CEO and consultant in the non-profit sector across the nation for more than two decades. Reach Mr. Bernstein at

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