(This is an entry I originally contributed to our company's site, where the target audience is different from this community.)
It’s common today for senior leadership at companies to dispatch junior team members to interview candidates who, if they successfully make it through the process, would become that interviewer’s boss. Among recruiters, I probably represent the voice of dissent. I’m a fan of it, like I’m a fan of Social Media. It’s entertaining, it’s useful, it’s an effective way to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the space you’re not able to occupy. But if I become the guy tagging pictures of my half eaten bean burrito #foodporn, punch me in the face.
I’m referring to a practice by small to mid-sized companies in growth mode, either newly made public or VC backed, often led by a relatively small senior executive team assembled by hand by co-founders—startup companies that have successfully navigated early stage development. I’m not talking about more established, vastly layered, and intricately-structured companies. Also, since the function of my company’s role in the executive search process overlaps (and in some cases, supersedes) the function of a client company’s HR staff, I’m excluding routine screenings by internal recruiters and HR personnel altogether.
Logistically, there are too many good applicants, not enough hours in the day for C’s to visit with each candidate early on in the process. Your junior leadership is integral to the business. They’re highly competent and their familiarity with the day to day is unmatched. Also, many of the necessary personality intangibles that a résumé can’t adequately portray—ease of communication, likeability, “cultural” fit—can be assessed just as well (if not better) by junior leadership. After all, if a potential CTO can’t get along with a Director of Product Management on a one hour phone call, how can they be expected to work together effectively on a daily basis?
Most importantly, start-up companies require a certain lack of stratification to survive and conquer. In an organization that depends on weighty contributions from interns and chiefs alike, egos don’t exactly jive. Mark Gaydos, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Silicon Valley PaaS leader, Engine Yard, has seen the benefits from both sides of the transaction—as a candidate and a high-level hiring executive. “The flatter you want your organization to behave, the more people you want involved in the hiring process,” Mr. Gaydos says. “I think getting buy-in from people subordinate can be very useful and can also give an executive invaluable insight into the type of company they might be joining. It’s a win/win.”
There are potential pitfalls, I think. Recruiters almost universally loathe handing off a star candidate to someone not empowered to make a hire. And it really gets the hackles up on many top candidates. Other candidates acquiesce and accept it as the price of doing business. Others embrace it as a chance to earn an internal ally, a privileged look behind the curtain, a view from the trenches. Too many crappy clichés in that last sentence. I’d better get to the point:
Despite the many benefits, I think the following points are worth considering when entering talks with high level executives. At some point, your dream candidate is going to walk through the door and you may not be there to shake her hand.
Be careful not to make the process too cumbersome, as you may be required to act more swiftly than your competition. If you have a shot at recruiting top senior talent, the chances are good that so do your competitors. Chances are also good that offers from those competitors are imminent, if not already in hand. In most cases recruiters can buy you valuable time. But it’s a good idea to empower your early interviewers with the ability to accelerate the process when competition and fit collide.
Superstars have egos, egos that might be hurt by the fact that you won’t meet them at the front door. Look, I’m not saying that you’ve got to pick up well-pedigreed candidates from the airport in a Bugatti, provide them a helicopter trip to the Andes or a bubble bath with Kate Moss. As Mark Gaydos says, “if a high-level exec doesn’t want to talk to people at a lower level, perhaps that’s a good indication that they are meant for a more structured and layered organization.” All I’m saying is that it can become a mitigating factor later in the process. If the candidate, under otherwise equally appealing conditions, had to decide between a company who’s CEO met them at the door and one who’s didn’t, there’s a chance you’ll lose.
Personal biases and/or career ambitions can interfere with sound judgment. You are, to some extent, asking your junior leadership to make a judgment call on something that will directly or indirectly affect their career trajectories. I’ve seen personal biases reflected in skewed debriefings, which are not only counterproductive, they’re unfair. In other cases, lower level execs have carried resentment into the meeting over what they perceive as a passed-up promotion. Either way, personal biases can win out over the necessary performance related metrics.
It’s hard to get a complete candidate profile from someone with a specialized or limited function. There are so many factors ultimately determining who you’ll hire. The ideal candidate will own an impressive history driving success in each of the areas critical to your company’s success. Is SEO/SEM more important to your marketing organization than Affiliates? To some extent, your Sr. Manager of SEO/SEM thinks so. Your Director of Affiliate Marketing might disagree. In an interview, both members of your team bring slightly different agendas, which could ultimately lead to an incomplete report of a candidate’s strengths.
Ultimately, it’s our job to present candidates who can kick ass in your organization. I think we’re very good at our job. It’s your job to determine what it will take to kick ass in your organization. Obviously, you’re very good at your job. Your organization has idiosyncrasies that will in many ways dictate who is a qualified ass-kicker. Your junior leadership might offer you the best opportunity of sniffing out the right person. Just be careful not to create a process that leaves you vulnerable to a good old-fashioned ass-kicking from your competitors.
I'd love to hear the RBC's feedback on the topic. If you feel like contributing to the topic, do so here. I may ask to borrow your insight for the original.