To Hire the Best Leaders, Raise the Bar

by | Executive Search

Your standards are not high enough.


That may sound harsh, but if you are a CEO growing or building your leadership team, your standards cannot be too high.

Building or growing a leadership team is something nearly every CEO or company founder will face. It can be an exciting endeavor, a step forward that reflects the evolution or growth of a startup company.

But too often, it is fraught with politics and the desire to create or fill a position quickly rather than a commitment to hiring a leader who is a perfect fit for your company.

An article inThe Economic Times, penned by Debabrat Mishra, highlighted seven ways startup founders can become effective leaders. Naturally, the first item on his list addressed the need for good people:

Go all out to build a team which is greater than the sum of the individuals on the team. Think Avengers or X-Men. Spot those special powers in each member and then build a well-oiled team which can win the start-up war for you.”


The Avengers: Each has a special power.

People with special powers are special precisely because they possess a mix of hard skills (which allow them to execute) and soft skills that help them lead others by encouraging them to think, act or behave in a certain way (emotional intelligence).

But the biggest challenge of creating an “Avengers” type leadership team is one that is rarely discussed or even acknowledged: Candidates who are a  perfect fit for your company are those whose professional and personal goals, as well as their personal values and life situation, align with the opportunity and your company’s business objectives.


If you are a #CEO trying to grow or build your leadership team, your standards cannot be too high.

The Right Leader is A Perfect Fit


It’s tempting to believe that a perfect fit consists of a candidate who is a known quantity in your network, has every qualification mentioned in a job description along with industry knowledge, reasonable compensation expectations, a degree from a prestigious university and, oh yes, availability.

But, attracting “A Players” is bigger than that. In “Who: The A-Method for Hiring” authors Geoff Smart and Randy Street describe an A-Player this way:

“For one thing, he or she is not just a superstar. Think of an A-Player as the right superstar, a talented person who can do the job you need done, while fitting in with the culture of your company. We define an A-Player this way: a candidate who has at least a 90 percent chance of achieving a set of outcomes that only the top 10 percent of possible candidates could achieve.”

Let that last sentence sink in for a minute. It’s a tall order, and one that requires you to be absolutely clear about what you expect your new hire to accomplish. But why would you settle for less? If you insist on filling your leadership team with A-Players only, that team will propel the company forward.

An A-Player is a leader who gets it; someone who has been looking for an opportunity like yours (even if he isn’t actually “looking” right now); someone who truly is motivated to accomplish your company’s business objectives and will stick around as long as it takes to see them through; someone you can trust completely because you know your values are aligned.


Identifying the Intangibles


These are intangibles that you (and most CEOs) hope to find; yet you probably don’t have a systematic, predictable approach for discovering this kind of information about candidates. Even if you turn to your own trusted network and interview people with whom you worked in previous situations, how do you know that their personal and professional goals are the same now as they were several years ago? How do you know what really motivates them, excites them, moves them?

The truth is, you don’t know. And you won’t know after one or two interviews because you and the candidate are putting your best feet forward, afraid to ask and answer the kinds of questions that might seem too intimate or may result in disappointment. You are, in fact, relying on imperfect or incomplete information about candidates who are “looking,” instead of insisting upon identifying A Players who may be employed elsewhere.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work and a lot of time … well, it is. But think of this: the long-term effects of a failed hire in an emerging or growth-stage company can be devastating. Every day, week and month spent trying to make a failed hire “work” is time that you are not moving forward, achieving your business goals.

The long-term effects of a failed hire in an emerging or growth-stage company can be devastating.


You May Need Outside Help


Young businessman acting like a super hero and tearing his shirt

Make sure your executive recruiter is an A-Player, too.

An executive search firm may be able to help you in this endeavor. If you decide to go that route, I encourage you to insist upon the same high standards and make sure they, too, are an A-Player. Don’t settle for resumes from a recruiter’s database sent as an email attachment. A top-notch executive search firm should function as your partner, spending whatever time it takes to understand you, your company and your business objectives, as well as each candidate’s personal and professional goals, motivators and aspirations.

They should have a full understanding what you consider to be an A-Player, and even be able to help you clarify what that looks like. Ask them to describe their own systematic, predictable approach to identifying a perfect fit. They should be able to present a full and complete picture of every candidate, far beyond what appears in resumes and cover letters, and they should supply an in-depth rationale for why they are recommending any candidate.

But, whatever you do, please don’t settle for anything less than A-Players on your leadership team. With failed hires comes great risk; and great rewards are there when you find a perfect fit.



Julie Allen is a Managing Director of Allen Partners, Ltd., a leadership advisory and executive search firm serving CEOs in in the early-stage and growth-oriented sector of the MedTech and healthcare industry.




Photo credit, Avengers: Ryuhoshu via / CC BY-NC