When we pitch a search to a potential new client, one of the first questions we’re asked is how long we think the process may take. Companies want to know how long it will take their search partner to identify and present a slate of candidates. For the record, on average it takes SSG somewhere between four and six weeks to bring a highly qualified group of executives to any individual engagement. Sometimes, we see either explicit or tacit anxiety from the company regarding the length of time it takes to generate candidates. If I feel this anxiety roiling in the background, I often take out this chart:
These data are drawn from thousands of searches conducted by SSG over the past 19 years. And, I am pretty sure that most other retained executive search firms could pull charts together that look similar – if not identical – to the one above. So, as a hiring manager, human resources or talent acquisition professional, if you are asking your search firm how they can shave a few days off the time it takes to deliver a slate of candidates, you are asking the wrong question. Alternatively, what you should be asking is: “Why does it take us so damn long to hire an executive?”
While there are a thousand little variations, thematically there are only a few large factors that influence the pace of the hiring process:
We really don’t have a hiring process.
This is by far “Hiring Enemy #1”. It is amazing the amount of laissez-faire executive level hiring that goes on in companies of all shapes and sizes. Two-step interview processes turn into three- or four-step interview processes; the hiring manager decides in between step two and step three that they want to add an assessment tool into candidate evaluation; an internal candidate appears somewhere along the line; etc. All of these things happen on a regular basis in executive hiring, and all of them slow things down. More importantly, surprises that delay progress invariably turn off the best candidates your search firm/TA group has surfaced. These candidates have options and will use them if they think you’re not motivated to make a decision.
We say talent is our #1 priority, but we sure don’t act like it.
The most visible example of this is the canceled interview. Your TA professionals jump through a myriad of hoops to get a candidate on your calendar and then, the day before, something comes up and you drop off the itinerary. The message this type of behavior sends is clear and simple. You are telling the candidate that your interview with them is just not that important to you. If it’s the hiring manager who blows off the interview, it’s doubly damaging. First, it sends the message that this hire isn’t a priority; second, it delays the process and, most likely, requires the candidate to come back for another interview.
Unlike many of the challenges currently facing corporate America, this one has a simple fix. First, at the start of a search, all parties should commit to an agreed upon process. A “no surprises” approach significantly increases the likelihood that you will land your number one candidate. Part of this agreed upon process should be that once interviews are on your calendar, they are inviolate, especially for the hiring manager. If you can commit to these two simple goals, you will see a significant decrease in the length of an executive search. So, if it’s so simple, then why don’t companies do it on a more consistent basis?
My opinion is that a large number of companies are just bad at hiring senior executives. What’s worse is they know it (either consciously or unconsciously), but don’t know what to do about it. This is why you see new rounds of interviews or assessments unexpectedly introduced into the process. An executive wants cover for a hiring decision, particularly a senior level hiring decision, and including additional interviewers or getting a pretty report from an assessment firm gives them that cover. The problems, however, often outweigh the benefits. The candidate gets turned off by how slow things are going, additional interviewers don’t have the context or the interest required to provide good feedback, assessment tools are used in a vacuum and can do more damage than good in the process, and the list goes on.
Now, I am all for getting candidates in front of multiple interviewers and using assessments as part of the hiring process. But, these components have to be part of a process that is agreed to at the start of the search and not thrown in ad hoc. Candidates are usually fine with whatever pace is outlined to them (although they obviously prefer faster). If expectations are set and held to, there are usually no problems. However, if you are constantly revising the process as you go, a smart candidate is going to assume that the way you handle the hiring process is emblematic of how you as a company make all of your business decisions, and that is a problem. You can easily eliminate this assumption if you hold steady to a well-executed and planned search process.
Very insightful article, John — thank you. It is very similar to my industry’s version of an executive hire: a new website. No matter how how you slice it, a good website requires 3 – 4 months to develop. That timeline can frustrate clients, who then compound it by missing deadlines and adding new requirements.
Your post is a great reminder that a company’s actions must match their declarations.