Hiring A CEO: How Does It Work?

Hiring a CEO is a big task. Finding the perfect candidate to lead a business takes a lot of work and requires a thorough and robust recruitment process in order to get it right. Whilst many organisations work with recruitment agencies to help find candidates, a more prudent approach to ensure the best possible candidates are found is to engage with a headhunter.

Standard recruiters gather ad response and search for actively looking candidates, whereas headhunters conduct a much more detailed research process and proactively search for the best performing CEOs who might not necessarily be actively looking for a new role.

To hire the best candidate, it’s important to understand the key stages of the hiring process and how this may differ from the typical recruitment process for less senior roles.


The 6 Key Stages of Hiring the Best CEO

1. Identifying the Need

The process of hiring a CEO starts with identifying the need. It’s important to understand exactly what the business needs from their CEO. This includes skills, experience, job history, connections, personality, and a range of other factors. Starting the recruitment process without taking the time to fully identify the needs of the organisation can result in the wrong person being hired.

As part of this, it’s also vital to identify the key stakeholders within the organisation who will play an important role in the recruitment process. Which stakeholders will be involved at which stage? Which ones will be undertaking the interviewing and crucially, which one(s) will make the ultimate decision on who to appoint? This will help any external headhunter ensure they keep the relevant people informed along the way as well as booking out time in the relevant people’s diaries for interviews.


2. Conducting Research

Once the need has been established, the next step is determining where to search. This involves a detailed research process whereby the headhunter pinpoints which sectors to target, identifies specific target businesses, and decides how the search is going to be conducted. Without a solid research phase, the search process will be unfocused, could end up taking a lot longer than expected and is unlikely to identify all of the suitable candidates.


3. Approaching Candidates

After deciding who to target, the candidates need to be approached. Having the correct approach is absolutely vital in getting candidates’ attention and should consist of key questions and criteria, as well as the main selling points of the opportunity.

This latter point is often underestimated, and it must be remembered that recruiting for any role is a two-way process. The candidate must be right for the organisation, but the organisation must also be right for the candidate. As a result, understanding the appeal of the organisation and the opportunity at hand is key to capturing the attention of the best candidates. The top-performing CEOs will receive offers on a regular basis, so organisations need to stand out and offer an exciting opportunity that no other business can.

This can be a lengthy and time-consuming process at a senior level involving multiple calls and meetings to get the best candidates on the hook, but this is where the expertise of headhunters is vital.


4. Screening Candidates and Establishing a Shortlist

After candidates have been approached, it’s important to conduct a screening process in order to confirm and ensure that they’re the right quality and have all the right skills. This will help narrow down a lengthy list of candidates to a shortlist of the strongest prospects by identifying which ones have the right experience and are likely to fit with the culture of the organisation.

The CEO screening process will vary depending on the recruiting organisation, but due to the importance of a CEO position, there is an in-depth due diligence exercise undertaken at both this stage and once the preferred candidate has been chosen.

Detailed press and social media searches are performed to ensure they have not had any negative coverage and they have no history which might bring the recruiting organisation into disrepute. In addition, where possible and subject to confidentiality, references are acquired on a 360 basis – so the candidate’s boss, subordinates and any non-executive directors they may have worked with.

There will also be an initial screening interview undertaken face-to-face by the headhunter to get a better impression of the candidate and compile the strongest possible shortlist.

In addition, a detailed psychometric and personality profile will be undertaken at this stage. These assessments play a significant role in ensuring the candidate will have the right cultural fit and leadership qualities for the organisation. All top headhunting firms will include full psychometric profiling as a standard part of their process.


5. Conducting Final Interviews

Once candidates are shortlisted, the final stage interview will take place. Due to the business-critical nature of the CEO role, it’s vital to have a stringent set of competency-based questions that will enable a candidate to provide clear examples of their skill set. This will also allow the hiring organisation to easily compare and score candidates.

Once a preferred candidate has been identified, further due diligence is undertaken. With the candidate’s consent, a full identity check and director search is performed which will include checking for any form of criminal record, as well as past and present directorships to ascertain any disqualifications. A detailed credit check to ensure they don’t have any bankruptcies or financial issues is completed in addition to confirming they have achieved any relevant qualifications.


6. Making the Decision

When the final interview stage is completed, it’s time to decide who the best candidate is and make an appropriate offer. It’s crucial to ensure all the relevant people are involved and providing as much input as possible to ensure the right person is hired. All stakeholders must be confident in the candidate’s suitability for the CEO role. Final references will also be taken once the candidate has accepted the offer.


How different is recruiting a CEO compared to recruiting for less senior roles?

One of the major differences in recruiting for a CEO is the number and type of people involved in the interview process. Given the importance of the role, the whole board of an organisation may be part of the final interview and potentially even significant shareholders.

For CEOs, transferable skills and business acumen are often more important features of quality candidates than other specific skills. For example, strong leadership skills and strategic thinking are likely to be more valuable qualities than specific industry knowledge.

Organisations should also expect to spend more time on the CEO recruitment process, as the business-critical nature of the CEO role means it’s much more important to get the right person than rush the process.

A further way the recruitment process may differ for a CEO compared to less senior positions is the extensive due diligence that is undertaken to ensure they are a fit and proper person to undertake the role. In addition, the use of psychometric assessments help provide a more detailed profile of a candidate and how their personality matches the business culture and senior staff dynamic. Cultural fit plays a major part in successful senior level appointments and can often be overlooked as part of the recruitment process.

Finally, the major difference in hiring a CEO compared to less senior roles is what type of recruiter to engage with. For such a crucial role as CEO, the hiring process should be proactive and thorough which means engaging a headhunter is the most appropriate choice rather than a standard recruitment agency.

Headhunters proactively target top-level candidates including those who aren’t actively looking for roles. This is critical, as often the very best CEO candidates are happy in their current position and their existing employers remunerate them well in order to retain them.

Executive Headhunters EMA Partners UK are experts at cross-sector headhunting, sourcing top talent from any industry time and time again.

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