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Room at the Top? Recruiting Senior People

In recent weeks the news has been full of the problems faced by Tesco. Once (and for a very long time) the leader of the retail pack, the new chief executive disclosed in September that first-half profits were overstated by around £250m, and four senior executives were suspended. Their problems are far from over and the story will no doubt rumble on for some time to come.

The quality and efficacy of a company comes from the top. Just as there are many poor quality managers and workers, boardrooms have many poor quality executives. Recruitment company HireRight recently published research claiming that 45% of HR Directors admit they know companies that vet potential CEOs with fewer recruitment checks than they apply to graduate candidates.

As a recruitment company they have a vested interest, but the research is believable. There is the obvious fact that there are far more graduates applying for entry-level roles than people applying for a senior executive role. You have to be able to filter out the unsuitable graduates until you get an ideal pool. For CEOs the pool is usually somewhat smaller.

But senior team hold the most important positions in the company. They have input on the strategy and then have to ensure their teams can and do put it into effective operation. We know from the likes of Paul Flowers at the Co-op and Philip Clarke at Tesco that the wrong choices are often made at the top and this will negatively affect performance throughout the whole organisation over time.

CVs are the accepted starting point, but they often don’t tell us much, particularly if they come from a recruitment agency that has re-written the CV in its own format. We have seen so many CVs recently which simply list jobs. There really isn’t a clue there as to the level of competence. Since I have had to sack a fair few executives for incompetence and whose CV would look almost identical to those I receive. Since no one has time hanging heavy on their hands, we need to be sure that the people we spend second and third stage screening time with are really good. We have started including pre-interview screening at the CV stage to try and determine whether the candidate is worth seeing. Simply asking for a cover letter covering several specified points can be helpful and is remarkably revealing. Another option is to ask candidates to do a remote test. For example, we have recently asked some prospective sales directors to study a particular project and write a short report answering a few questions and making some recommendations. Exercises of this type help to filter out the weak candidates without wasting too much of your or their time.

Although we have three stage of screening we get through it very quickly – within a week usually once the initial data has been submitted, so our good quality candidates aren’t so likely to be snaffled by someone else.

Interestingly, some executives say they haven’t got time to write the letter/ carry out the testing but have the time to attend an interview (which may well take more time). We feel if they’re not prepared to demonstrate that they have some of the necessary skills at the earliest stage there’s little point in progressing their application. One chap actually wrote me a very snotty letter saying his CV and covering letter (not actually written for the job he’d applied for) were perfectly adequate. What a charmer (and a fool) ….. since influencing and persuading were high on the list of key skills, his application was not progressed further.

Once you’ve distilled the best two or three candidates, spend some time with them in you work environment. It may be just an interview, it may be additional testing, or it may be a day in the office working with a director so he/she can observe the candidate in a normal environment.

And as a final point, if you use them, select your agencies carefully. Some of them will throw any CV at you to make a sale and do nothing to assess candidates beforehand. I have experience of them bullying anxious recruiting managers into seeing people who are really quite unsuitable. It’s a huge waste of your time and quite unfair to the candidate. Such agencies have more in common with second hand salesmen than professional partners. Make sure you identify and work with the people who carefully consider your needs and match their candidates to those needs.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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