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by Mike Whitney and Jim Gerardot
There is a science and an art to most endeavors, and executive search is no different. When it comes to finding the ideal candidate for a leadership position, the science of search says to aim “inside the bullseye” within the usual boundaries of background, role, and sector. The art of search requires knowing how to define the bullseye — and when to set recruiting crosshairs on unconventional targets.
How can we recognize when an outside-the-bullseye approach might produce the best candidate?
1) When skill set is more important than sector knowledge.
Often, executive search criteria include sector experience, but one can be quite agnostic about industry background when hiring for a functional position, such as a CFO, where proficiency and experience are more urgent than industry knowledge that can be learned over time. Also, sourcing a functional role from outside the traditional sector bullseye offers the added benefits of fresh, creative ideas as well as giving access to top talent in other sectors. For example, GE is renowned for developing world-class CFO talent.
Functional positions that lend themselves to crossing over into different arenas include finance, operations, science and technology, quality and safety, human resources, and sometimes marketing roles. Customer-facing roles and those that lead business, sales, product marketing, and technical strategies and tactics demand deeper industry perspective and expertise.
2) When technology and innovation are important to the business strategy.
Companies may produce vastly different products but rely on similar technology to go to market. For example, a snack food company produces very different products than a paint company, but the materials science and coating technology they employ in the process might be similar. Food safety expertise can bridge to companion animal nutrition to cross-pollinate quality assurance practices between human and animal food production. It makes sense to search for the strongest related technology background, regardless of industry.
3) When the life cycle of the organization requires it.
When an organization is in trouble, a can-do leader with a history of turnaround success and a strong bent for change management is likely to be more effective than one whose experience has focused more on steady growth at well-established organizations with more stable routines and cultures.
Similarly, when an emerging tech company is laying the groundwork for an acquisition or initial public offering (IPO), it may need to rely less on technology- and science-immersed entrepreneurs and more on highly operational, financially disciplined leaders with experience in private-to-public transitions.
4) When it makes sense to round out management expertise.
A strong, diverse management team is the backbone of any successful company. It makes sense to evaluate a team to ensure it is well-balanced. Being well-balanced applies to more than just having team members play complementary roles, such as an externally, strategy-focused CEO and an internally, tactics-focused COO. It also applies to the expertise, background knowledge, and perspective that an individual brings to the management team. Diversity of thought, mind, and experience pays dividends in the decision-making process.
5) When a trusted advisor recommends it.
An effective search partner will recognize when, constructively, to challenge underlying assumptions about the ideal profile for a position. For example, imagine a situation where a non-profit board prefers a leader with significant non-profit experience. For a non-profit organization, the question is not simply, “Does this person have non-profit experience?” but rather, “Does this person have the mindset of a socially conscious leader? Has he or she served on non-profit boards? Is his or her personal life philanthropically driven?” If the answer to these types of questions is yes, then this person may be a valuable candidate, ready and eager to make a difference and add new perspective and energy to the non-profit sector.
The Art of Defining the Bullseye
At Kincannon & Reed, we work hard to identify the appropriate bullseye for a search. Although often true that a conventional, sector-focused bullseye results in the successful candidate, there are times we recommend a different target. Depending on your need, your best candidate may come from outside the usual circles of sector or geography or even role. Getting the art of search right requires a unique focus and level of business expertise to define the bullseye.
Surprising and Special Placements
Aiming outside the traditional industry-focused bullseye can result in surprising placements. Here are just a few examples:
- In one case, the board of a catalog and internet niche marketing seed company needed a new CEO. Recognizing that the company had enough seed expertise, it considered outside the bullseye of sector for candidates who were all-around business people and knew how to work with entrepreneurial founders and their boards. The top candidate had experience driving profitable growth in wholesale printing and food service companies that serve small businesses.
- Similarly, the ideal COO candidate for a global nutrition company turned out to be a candidate from a coffee company, with an early career history at a company known for bleach and cleaning products. The board sought a consummate supply chain leader, with a passion for identifying and developing future leaders and managers. The top candidate had global supply chain leadership experience with two best-in-class companies, and aligned well with the board’s criteria.
- Finally, who would guess that the ideal food technology expert for a major food and beverage firm would come from a paint company? Yet, it turned out that the candidate, coming from way outside the industry bullseye, was an accomplished research and development leader, and possessed the strong process development, process optimization, and product development acumen our client sought.
Each of these unconventional candidates has proved to be a strong and highly relevant fit for the organization.
Be Willing to Consider Out-of-the-Bullseye Candidates
If the cultural fit is there, and the candidate tics all the other boxes besides sector experience, you could find yourself with a really special placement.