To hire the best put your consultants in the hot seat

By Adam Bernstein, Monday 22 July 2019

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With competition in print acute never has recruiting the right leaders been so important. Long gone are the days when firms could take the ‘warm body’ approach to hiring staff.

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Selection is now an art and an expensive one at that, especially as the impact of a poor hire on the board will be much greater than that for the shop floor.

Setting a high bar

Empirically, it appears that recruitment consultancies are now a key part of the head-hunting process. But since a consultancy will effectively be taking a leading role in the employment of the next corporate leader, so clients need to find a consultant that operates in a manner that aligns with their thinking.

Dani Novick, managing director of Mercury Search & Selection, a print and packaging recruitment consultancy, believes that “recruiting at a senior level, particularly board level, is significantly different to general recruitment.” She notes that at the lower end of the hierarchy, “a candidate’s skills and aptitudes will dominate the decision making – does this person have the technical skills, knowledge or perhaps contacts to fulfil the role?”

However, as roles become more senior, those skills and aptitudes become just a barrier to entry so that, as Novick explains, “it becomes very much the personal traits, such as drive, resilience, integrity, the vision of where and how the business should progress and, importantly, the ability to capture hearts and minds and lead a person, which differentiates senior candidates.”

In contrast, Matthew Hanley, senior consultant at print and packaging recruiter Taylor Higson, thinks that there is no difference to the effort or process required to find someone at any level. He does add a caveat – that “the level of conversation, enticement and understanding has to be more in depth or flexed a little more, but as a process, it doesn’t change.”

But ultimately, as Claire McCartney, diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, a professional body for those in HR, views it, “organisations are likely to put more resource into the recruitment process for senior hires as they are likely to play an important part in the organisation’s decision-making and strategic direction.” Overall, she thinks the selection process is “likely to be more challenging” as organisations will be looking to test the candidate across a number of different areas includes decision-making, ethics and governance, ability to work under pressure, ability to manage people, as well as any specific technical skills and capabilities needed to do the role.

George Thompson, joint managing director of Harrison Scott Associates, a recruitment consultant that also serves the print and packaging sector, says that when choosing a consultancy to help with a senior hire, it’s important to find one that uses experienced recruiters. Leading by example, he says “only managing consultants and directors within our company handle executive searches. We set the bar high, requiring a minimum of 10 years’ experience at top management level.” His reasoning is that clients who appoint his firm are top level CEOs and chairmen/women “who not only have a high expectation which is reflected in paying a five-figure sum fee, they also expect to deal with a consultant who has the knowledge and experience to execute the search to an exceptionally high standard.”

But just as clients have high expectations, so Thompson says that candidates too have high expectations of a consultant’s grasp of facts and figures: “There is no doubt that the top executive candidates will always be in high demand therefore dialogue with them has to be on a highly professional basis. One needs to know the client proposition inside out and must carry out thorough research to ensure that the target candidate is indeed a good match for the role.” He adds that credibility is a key factor in gaining the trust of a target.

One problem for those recruiting – and the client – is that individuals with the requisite combinations of skills and traits become increasingly rarer the more senior the role. Further, and this should be obvious, not all good people are good for a given role, which shrinks the potential talent pool more. On top of this Novick remarks that “the necessary traits are not the type of things which show up readily on a CV.” But the problem runs deeper: finding someone with the right skills for a top job is one thing, but will they fit in culturally, can they deal with prevailing market conditions, and do they see the corporate goal?

Where to look?

With her professional hat on, McCartney suggests that organisations should look to recruit from the widest possible pool to ensure they have access to a diverse group of candidates with the right skills for their roles. “They may use several different channels to help them do this,” she says, “but if they choose to work with recruitment consultants, it’s important to ensure they are fully briefed on the organisation’s values and commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

It’s often been said that it’s easier to poach a candidate from a rival than find a candidate through traditional means. However, Novick says this approach “should also be treated carefully... it can work, but it shouldn’t be considered the automatic or easy option as there are so many variables in structure, personnel, culture and dynamics that there is rarely a true like for like.” In her opinion, firms “should not be looking to replicate their rivals but take a step ahead of them; someone who is going to implement the same things again is not the right way to go.”

Novick reckons that the starting point for any role should be the requirement, not the person: “Start with a proper specification; what functional skills are required, what specialist knowledge is required, what are the key issues facing the business, where do we want to go and what do we need in order to get there, how will we bring our people with us?” She says that from a solid fact-based specification it’s then possible to look for the right person.

Naturally employers could utilise their own networks, but a reputable specialist recruiter can access a wider and deeper network. Further, reckons Novick, a good recruiter will have the objectivity to think beyond the client’s business and sector to focus on people with the right attributes. “Sometimes,” she says, “this may mean them presenting a candidate who initially seems a bit left field but actually can add more value than the more obvious options.”

Hanley too is aware that firms can self-hire, but he says “they choose not to as they don’t have the network, time or resource available to conduct the search to the depths that we cover. 8 – 10 weeks out of a CEO’s diary is substantial... not even taking into account the time it would need to reply to every applicant personally.”

Thompson, understandably, also takes the line that consultants can add significant value, primarily because of who they know. “At Harrison Scott we have spent 30 years building an extensive database in print, packaging and paper, we know thousands of candidates. LinkedIn is the best business ‘social media’ platform however as useful as it is, we rarely find someone on LinkedIn who is not already known to us.” This said, he sees LinkedIn serving the purpose of finding out where a potential target is currently employed and what their career path has been in the last few years. The other key point to remember should be quite obvious – that not everyone is on LinkedIn. This is why his recruiters “conduct extensive networking the old-fashioned way, by picking up the phone”.

Find your target

As to whom to target, Hanley’s experience is that clients have an idea of what and who they don’t want. It’s his view that working on a retained basis – which may not suit all firms – “sends a message to potential candidates that the client takes candidate attraction seriously.” 

Other challenges to meet when assessing a candidate’s suitability includes understanding the motivation for the candidate wanting a new role. Here Thompson says that “it’s important to apply knowledge and expertise to understand detailed financial reports to assess whether or not a candidate is considering leaving a great success story to which they have contributed to or are abandoning a sinking ship.” 

But just as a candidate has to sell themselves to a recruiter and the client, the converse is also true says Hanley; if the opportunity and potential employer aren’t of a high enough calibre, they may not attract the individuals needed – because “the role just wasn’t strong enough”. To minimise time wasting he advocates straight talking; he says he always highlights “the good, the bad, and the ugly. This way, candidates can rule it [the job] in or out fairly quickly”. The rationale is that senior professionals are often invested in business beyond the package and position – they want to know who they are moving to. Interestingly, straight talking, even if the client is in trouble, could sell a role – a poor performing business, that needs improvement, could attract the right candidate.

It does appear then, that a specialised print recruiter can trump the generalist head-hunter precisely because they live and breathe print.

A rewarding process

As to how long the recruitment process will take, Novick reckons that filling a role via a specialist recruiter (identifying, targeting and shortlisting) should take no more than four weeks. That seems quick compared to when Thompson first started in recruitment when a typical search would take four to eight weeks. But speed is of the essence now: “everything is expected to be achieved almost instantaneously”. It’s for this reason that Harrison Scott implemented a seven-day week (with a rota for weekends) six years ago. As clients tell him, “the sooner the person is on board, the sooner they can start contributing to the success of the business.”

Taylor Higson, according to Hanley, takes a contrary view. He sees the process as being longer and is most certainly dependent on the candidate’s situation. For him, from brief to offer the recruitment process can take up to 10 weeks. 

And client-led demand is supplemented by pressure from candidates believes Novick; she advises clients to conduct first and second interviews and, if necessary, schedule psychometrics, within a four-week period. The problem for Novick is that just as the modern world has diminished our patience, “once candidates are head-hunted they lose interest and even may feel slighted if things don’t progress at a reasonable pace”. She adds that it makes sense to ensure that holidays such as summer or Christmas don’t disrupt the process. 

Assuming a candidate is found, the offer and terms come next. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that top performers command a premium. But interestingly, Novick says these things are never one sided, nor should they be. “In truth, the better the package, the more pressure there is on an individual to deliver fast. It is best to seek a balance between what is good for the individual and what is good for the business and between short-term and long-term rewards.” Rewards are all about encouraging behaviour – if they’re too short-term they can encourage the wrong behaviour leading to the gaming of the system. On the other hand, having only long-term goals can fail to excite new staff. 

It’s Novick’s suggestion that “candidates should be able to get some quick wins under their belt and then move on through staged rewards.” And as priorities change over time during a career so a flexible approach to packages and benefits will help secure and retain key individuals.

Thompson’s take on remuneration differs slightly. While remuneration can encourage certain behaviours, he advises clients to not lose sight of market conditions and “to be as flexible as possible with regard to what potential candidates are currently being paid and how one would structure a deal to attract the right person”. Although the print industry does not enjoy the same level of profits it once did, it remains, says Thompson, “a sector with virtually full employment and is certainly still the case where the demand is greater than supply for top talent, particularly for sales directors; market forces means the package offered to the successor will normally be higher than that of the incumbent”.

Think long-term

While one part of the employment equation is a hiring, employers should also give thought to when candidates leave. Logically, companies must seek to protect intellectual property and proprietary technologies but for Novick, the reality is that it is better to focus on retention and then a decent notice period. From her perspective, “long-term incentives, alongside a positive work culture and real interest and opportunity, are by far the best method of retention. We know of several examples of individuals at a senior level with substantial incentive plans based on rolling 18-month periods.” 

An alternative for Thompson is the restrictive covenant. “These,” he says, “are very commonplace and we’ll often advise clients on the construction and wording of these.” As he cautions, “the more reasonable the time period and the more specific the restrictions, the better chance an employer will have of enforcing it”.

But if the individual is determined to leave, the notice period will become more important. Firms with market sensitive information or needing to mitigate the departure of a key individual might want an extended notice period. This will mean a cost versus loss calculation.

Novick makes a key point: “Just as an employer would not want to be left in the lurch if an employee wants to leave, so the firm recruiting shouldn’t expect someone to drop their previous employer without notice, steal proprietary information, or behave illegally or immorally. Any short-term gain will be outweighed by having in someone who could do exactly the same to their new employer.”

And regarding notice periods, Novick advises new employers to keep in touch with the candidate – “to make sure the candidate doesn’t have a wobble and accept an offer from their previous employer or indeed someone else”.

Succession plans make sense

If one thing doesn’t surprise Thompson, it’s the lack of foresight of some clients. He gives a classic example of how not to handle a search: “A client phoned one of our consultants looking for a replacement for their operations director who was retiring. The call took place late Friday in the last week before the Christmas break. After our consultant took detailed notes, he asked the million-dollar question ‘so, when does your operations director retire?’. The client replied ‘cars are coming to collect me and my colleagues in about one hour. It’s his leaving night tonight, we are going to combine it with the management Christmas night out’”.

While that is one extreme, Hanley has seen the other where “many senior professionals already know what their exit plan looks like. It is then vital to go to the market to identify the best talent... not just available talent but in the whole of the market.”

To carry on business with minimal disruption, Thompson suggests that “it is best to implement some sort of succession planning to allow for a transition period whereby the new candidate can shadow their predecessor and be introduced to procedures and clients.”

Novick takes a similar tack. She thinks “a proper succession plan can be used to mitigate a good deal of the hassle of senior level recruitment. On a simplistic level, succession planning can mean having someone ready to step up into the leadership role, ideally within someone below that’s ready to step up.”

However, in reality, SME’s often don’t have the scale (or ability to carry cost) to have spare leaders in their ranks. Worse still, having an heir apparent with no chance of the throne can be demotivating. As a result, Novick suggests that firms would be better off building resilience into the business by having the skills and competence spread across a number of people – “these people can then be candidates to step up or can as a team ‘hold the fort’ giving time to find an external candidate.”

Not unexpectedly, McCartney encourages the internal route as “it can help improve retention and support succession planning”.

To summarise

The mechanics of recruiting for any position within a firm are for it to decide, albeit with the benefit of advice. Nevertheless, it does appear that recruitment consultants, particularly for senior positions, can save firms much needed time as they find candidates that might otherwise be out of reach. 

However, just as choosing the right candidate will directly impact corporate success, so does choosing the right consultancy. 

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