Choosing Leaders: Field Notes for Candidates
21 June 2012
The following feature forms Chapter 12 of “Choosing Leaders and Choosing to Lead: Science, Politics and Intuition in Executive Selection”, by Douglas Board, £65, Hardback, 978-1-4094-3648-5, 276 pages, published June 2012.
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These notes address the situation of a candidate facing an example of a difficult senior management selection, namely applying for her first chief executive role. Practical advice is context-dependent, in this case multi-sectoral but British. It will date and have gaps. Therefore in actual situations the sense of the advice is as important as the letter.
Do You Want the Job?
The question’s several aspects are all worth taking seriously. One is how much enthusiasm to express, another is researching the role. These are dealt with in separate sections below.
Perhaps only one chief executive role in the world could attract you and this is it. That situation is different from being in the market for a range of possible roles, either sequentially as they come up, or all at once because your present job is coming to an end. In either case, a further question is relevant to you but less appealing to your potential employer: compared with other possibilities, is this the chief executive job you want most?
In the sequential case, get as much advice as you can from experienced individuals who know you well before any selection process appears on the horizon. What characteristics should you look for and what should you avoid in your first chief executive role? Otherwise when opportunities do arise you will apply speculatively, dither or accept something prematurely. None of these is wise chief executive behaviour.
Speculative applications are not made whole-heartedly. Selectors will probably sense that and turn you down. Because you were not whole-hearted, the learning experience will not be deep. A few failed speculative applications further on and you will start to be seen as – and experience yourself as – not quite chief executive material. Alternatively, the learning experience may be deep but nearly fatal. Speculative candidates lacking prior chief executive experience are most likely to be appointed when more experienced candidates will not touch the situation with a barge-pole.
In the situation of pursuing several opportunities, playing up to a potential employer that you are likely to receive several offers works badly as a senior-level tactic. If you may need to decide on another offer on a particular timescale, deal with that factually and briefly (don’t unveil it as a surprise), but don’t harp on it. Appointing a chief executive is more like marrying than going out on a hot date.
Wanting the available job very badly is a dangerous situation. Thinking in that way often leads to not getting chosen, through behaviour (for instance not asking many searching questions) which marks you as unimpressive or desperate. Be excited about what you know, but more aware of your ignorance.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]-->
An immature but common enough game in advertised recruitment or internal promotion situations is that candidates are expected to show a high level of enthusiasm about the role at all stages. In any senior role there are always strategic or political factors which will not be paraded before multiple candidates in early stages of the process, so unqualified enthusiasm is foolish. However, in this game being too quizzical may mean you are not shortlisted. In these situations consider expressing excitement about the role; acknowledge that in making any appointment of this importance both sides have much to check out about each other; and express the hope that you will be the candidate with whom the employer most wants to have those final conversations. The structure of this game defers most important questions to the end; you can parade your enthusiasm while making clear that there will be questions at the end.
With headhunters who are known to you and command your confidence, be frank and expect frankness in return. If a position is of no interest to you, either in general or now, say so early on, and why. Otherwise the most useful stance is a frank version of qualified enthusiasm: I would be interested (or very interested) if X – X being if they have the capital to expand, if the board is united behind the strategy, if I can eyeball the minister to check that she is on the same page, if there is the opportunity from day one to own equity).<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]--> Everything you do is of course part of the selection process. Spelling out X,if the conditions are short and show that you are grasping the organisation’s agenda as well as your own, increases your chances of being shortlisted.
Another viable stance (if true) is, I think this is a long shot but I’m willing to have a meeting if you think that’s worthwhile; however I may not take it any further.
We can give the thumbs down to being chatty or coquettish but vague. If the opportunity is not a good match but you want to meet the headhunter because of future possibilities, consider saying that to the headhunter directly. Or say that you were impressed by some aspect of the headhunter’s approach and would be interested to meet in a couple of months, when they can tell you what sort of person looks likely to get the role about which they have called you. You can be sure of a headhunter’s attention if you have a search assignment you might give them, but don’t bluff.
Getting Noticed by Headhunters
Some situations need to be considered individually, for example if the kind of chief executive role you seek is in a specialised field with a handful of specialist headhunters, or if all of your career to date has been within one large company. In more generic situations the main reason why a good headhunter will come looking for you is because you have done something well which is relevant to their search. While it makes sense to invest 20 per cent of your career advancement effort in painting the rainbow in the sky (things like networking, having an appropriate web presence and presenting at conferences so people can notice you), keep 80 per cent of the effort on producing real gold (skills, achievements, track record and character) for headhunters to find once they have noticed you.
Some actions both paint the rainbow and dig for gold. For example, if you are in a large organisation and are looking to become chief executive of something smaller, try to join the board of a small or medium-sized business in a different field, or a public sector organisation or charity. Experiencing as a non-executive the actions of a chief executive can fill in one of your blind spots if your own organisation is too large for you to have much closeness to the board.
If You Are an Internal Candidate and the Favourite
In other words the chief executive vacancy is in your own organisation, in which you have spent a lot of your career, and you are seen as the front-runner. A loose estimate statistically which is truthful psychologically is that front-runners have a 40 per cent chance of winning. In other words, you might be far ahead your competitors (say five candidates with probabilities of 40 per cent, 15 per cent, 15 per cent, 15 per cent, 15 per cent) or more closely challenged (say four candidates on 40 per cent, 30 per cent, 15 per cent, 15 per cent), but the number to focus on is your 60 per cent chance of not winning.
For reasons which Bower (2007) explains, if change is needed, internal candidates can be best placed to bring it about. However internal candidates face two hurdles: the selectors falling for the excitement of the stranger whose flaws they do not know, and, paradoxically, if they overcome this, nailing down as strong a mandate for change as an outsider would exact.
To address the first hurdle, if you have a year or two’s warning, gain as much diverse externally focused experience as you can. Consider business school courses outside your main specialism, or finding an opportunity to join or to shadow for a year a quite different board (see the preceding section). With the help of someone with board experience in a different organisation, work on your CV/application materials rigorously (do not assume that the selection panel know anything of the wealth of detailed information which your organisation has accumulated about your performance) and, again with their help, craft carefully what you will present as continuity and what you will present as change from the present chief executive, if you are appointed.
To address the second hurdle, if you are approaching being appointed, go back to the person who helped you with your CV and talk through with them what conditions you would stipulate before taking the role if you had the knowledge which you already have, but were two or three years into a successful chief executive assignment somewhere else. While remuneration might be relevant, your focus should be primarily on understandings or commitments which you want from the board. If your stipulations are grounded in what the business needs rather than in your ego, then you will not be bluffing; you will turn the promotion down if they are not met, and be right to do so. It will be difficult to recover from your first chief executive role being a failure, especially in an organisation you already know well.
This advice is especially needed in the public sector but hard for candidates to take, where there may be an ethos of being willing to serve wherever needed, and promotions may be in short supply. You are now sufficiently senior that your country may need you not only to serve but also to refuse to serve.
If You Are an Internal Candidate and Not the Favourite
Situations in which someone influential asks or advises you not to apply are tricky and need individual consideration; let us suppose instead that the responses to your informal soundings are positive but indicate that there is a front-runner. Again, the important number is their 60 per cent chance of not succeeding.
So apply with vigour but from the beginning plan to be generous in congratulating the winner. Avoid anything which will make people wonder about your team-playing if you are not chosen, such as an arrogant tone or loudly publicising your application to staff and colleagues. Think hard about the opportunity which an application presents to offer a distinctive vision of the business to your board or other superiors.
Getting Information about the Process
Before you can decide your strategy for getting information about the job, you need information about the selection process. If the person responsible cannot tell you much about it, that is not a good sign. Two kinds of process are common.
The first is structured. If so, write down the structure and the approximate timetable. Ask approximately how many candidates they hope to take through the main stages of the process; what are the intended opportunities for candidates to ask questions; and whether at a later stage the business plan or other confidential reading will be supplied (publicly available reading should be on the website).
The second kind is a less structured process mainly of one-to-one meetings. If so, ask approximately how many people and who may want to meet the candidates. (In some firms the number of such meetings could be between 10 and 20.) After one or two initial meetings, you may wish to influence the order of any following meetings, either to get earlier on information which matters to you or to establish the seriousness of the other side’s interest.
In either case, establish whether initiating your own private conversations to find out more about the employer is expected or forbidden. Be equally clear about your own confidentiality requirements, especially if rumours about your candidacy could be damaging to you: how many people will be privy to the details of actual or potential candidates at the main stages? In sensitive situations in which the position to be filled will attract speculation, consider whether silence would be a tenable stance for you should the speculation include your name. If you would need to deny being a candidate, then invite the headhunter to propose a way of managing the situation.
Getting Information about the Job
Unless ruled out by the particular situation, all the normal avenues to find out more about organisations are open to you. However, for a chief executive role it is essential to have the opportunity of a substantial one-to-one conversation with the chair or line manager exploring expectations of each other, and in which you insist that any tricky issues (for example of board or senior management team functioning, parent organisation strategy or political context) are surfaced.
If the process does not include such a meeting at an appropriate stage, make clear from the outset that you will not accept any offer before such a meeting.
While your views may change as you learn more about the organisation, making surprise demands could harm your chances. Are there any other meetings which you wish to stipulate? These might not take place before you become the organisation’s preferred candidate; it might be unworkable or undesirable for the employer to offer similar meetings to other candidates while they are still in the running. Here are some possibilities to think about, without implying that you should ask for them all.
Reading: CVs of the senior management team (were any of these candidates?); recent board minutes; the auditor’s most recent management letter; the most recent risk register, including any significant possibilities of litigation and so on.
Meetings: an experienced non-executive director other than the chairman (for example the senior independent director, treasurer or chair of the audit committee according to organisation type); any dominant shareholder, funder or regulator; the current or most recent chief executive (depending on circumstances). Whether to meet with one or two, or all, senior management team members before accepting the role depends on circumstances and your management style. Often this happens once you have accepted the offer but before your appointment is announced. Be wary of such a meeting before you have a firm offer; you may be the pawn in a political game (for example around declared or undeclared internal candidates) of which you are unaware.
You may not be asked early on for referees. However, since you are likely to be competing against established chief executives, having significant backers can be of moderate help.3 To have these cards to play you need enough exposure to the individual (for example through a project) for their opinion to mean something, as well as their consent. Play significant backers matter-of-factly and early, without exaggerating how well they know you. Withhold your consent for them to be approached by the employer or headhunter until an appropriately advanced stage of the process.
Be clear when negotiation about money (and other important terms such as contract length or notice period) will take place. Usually this is at the end of the process, but if you have important ‘red lines’ (and if the information provided by the employer about remuneration has been vacuous and aspirational) these should be in writing from you not long after the start of the process. A short, polite email will suffice. Having disclosed your existing remuneration will not suffice: some private sector employers think nothing of proposing a cut.
If benefits are important to you, or for any very senior role, do not start the final negotiations without a draft contract or a letter setting out the main terms accompanied by an example senior management contract (for example your predecessor’s or a senior management team member’s, but with personal details redacted).
In public sector processes, confusingly both of the following patterns are known: no negotiation at all on any of the advertised terms; or a claim that the scale or rate for the job is fixed, but in practice some negotiation at the end. Normally, if the latter is the case there will be some reference to the possibility of negotiation or exceptional treatment in the fine print about the job. If this latitude exists it is unlikely to exceed 10–15 per cent of salary. Conventions both on amount of bonus (as a proportion of salary) and the likelihood of actually receiving maximum bonus are quite different in the private and public sectors. If in doubt, put your red lines in writing.
Applying and Preparing for Interview
Find out about your selectors: from the internet, from the employing organisation’s website, for outside or non-executive selectors from the websites of any organisations which they run, or by asking your contacts or using internet networking tools to see whom you know who knows them.
If a CV (or résumé) is appropriate, with the exception of academic CVs,4 keep it to two sides or pages with a one-page appendix (for example typical assignments) if needed. Drastically prune your early career (brief references to anything striking or particularly relevant are still useful). Dispense with an opening paragraph on your ‘transferable skills’. This book has argued that at senior levels there are limits to the transferability of skills, but more importantly, these paragraphs are typically riddled with unspecific over-claiming and are therefore not read by many selectors. Instead convert your three most relevant ‘transferable skills’ to points in a covering email or letter: each point should begin with something important which the employing organisation needs, and then cite your most relevant achievement.
Ensure that your responsibilities and achievements are clear and, in more recent jobs, quantified. To prepare for the interview, also follow the steps for a competency-based application through to the stage of the revised one-pager. Instead of competencies, focus on the abilities which you think the situation demands but also take into account any leadership attributes emphasised in the organisation’s recent annual reports or on their website.
If a competency-based application is being used, before filling in any form provided make your own one-page table of the competencies which you are told (or infer) are sought. Against each, jot down brief phrases which remind you of your most relevant achievements (drawing from your whole career). Take time to explore with a friend, possibly one with an HR background, which examples carry most weight and what detail you need to provide – including context, quantification and outcomes – in order for them to carry that weight. Eliminate weaker examples: less is more. Quantification can be estimates from memory provided you either make this clear or err on the side of modesty. You now have a revised one-pager to use as your guide in completing any form, or from which to prepare your detailed application.
You are prepared for an interview if you have:
- prepared your opening presentation/closing remarks (see below);
- researched your selectors’ backgrounds;
- dealt with separately or put down markers about your own information needs prior to accepting any offer, together with any ‘red lines’ on remuneration or other matters (all discussed above); and
- prepared the revised one-pager described in the preceding paragraph, to refresh your memory about your relevant achievements and experience ahead of the interview.
Let the interviewers see you in the role. Dress as you would if you had been appointed to the role and were going to your first meeting with a significant stakeholder.
Opening Presentation and Closing Remarks
If you are asked to open an interview for a chief executive job with a presentation, time yourself and keep it short. In most cases you are being invited to give the selectors five minutes to attune to your body language and the way you speak, while putting a few interesting thoughts into play which they might like to pick up with you in conversation. If you have a detailed manifesto (and think that is the right approach to doing the role), show the trailers and let them ask for more.
Unless the interview is scheduled to run for over an hour, be wary of presenting for more than seven or eight minutes, even if asked for 15 and a lot of detail. Sometimes the presentation task has been set without the selectors’ knowledge. Watch their body language closely and be ready to drop parts of your presentation in favour of handing over copies of a two-page written summary.
If no presentation is requested, still be prepared if asked to open with three minutes on the three most important points which you want to leave in the selectors’ minds. If no opportunity is given at the beginning, adapt the points for use at any opportunity at the close (‘Do you have any questions?’). In any case you should have no closing questions (other than ‘What timetable are you working to?’ if this has not been explained already), because the information you need to accept a chief executive appointment needs to have been dealt with separately (see above).
If you have made an opening presentation, do not say anything at the close other than how pleased you would be to be part, with the board, of taking this organisation forward. Probably the selectors are running late.
Take into the interview a blank card (postcard size) and, if you were asked to supply a long and detailed application form, a copy of that. If you applied by a two-page CV, you are expected to know what you said. You can use the blank card’s top face to write any notes to yourself (see next section). On the underside you can write keywords or phrases to remind you of the key points for your opening and closing remarks, which you can then either do from memory or after looking at the card. If you look at the card, do so unhurriedly.
If the interview is formal and there is no clock visible from where you are sitting, place your watch face down on the table, unless you can read it on your arm without awkwardness. Ensure your mobile phone is off. Do not place a BlackBerry or similar device on the interview table, even if you are only using it to tell the time.
Stumbles and Unexpected Questions
It is normal to stumble over one or two interview answers. You can say ‘Let me try that again’, and re-phrase. If you are in any doubt that your selectors have grasped your meaning, ask them.
You might do worse than stumble: it happens. Suddenly you have a mental blank. Don’t keep floundering. Stop speaking, write the question (and who asked it) down on your card, and find your own words for, ‘I’m not happy with that answer. If I may, I’ll take two minutes at the end to come back and have another go.’ Without fail you must then do that. Recapitulate the question accurately while facing the person who asked it.
Hypothetical questions are generally to be avoided by selectors. However you may get them. You are entitled to ask a clarifying question and to take 30 seconds (a long time) to think. Make sure you state the obvious even if you go on to say something more advanced. Taking a typical case, the hypothetical question may want you to balance conflicting priorities but show decisiveness by choosing one. Typically, however, there is insufficient information to make a wise choice. The question may be a political test or simply a piece of poor-quality interviewing. You may have read the political game and spotted the ‘right’ answer. If not, summarise the conflicting priorities and say your choice would depend upon the situation, adding, ‘When something a bit like that happened in my last job, I chose X.’ The questioner will probably be too smug about her own scenario to probe yours. You will have shown decisiveness without committing yourself to an unknown.
After a nerve-jangling interview what usually follows is unexplained silence. You will imagine that they are negotiating with another candidate. It is possible, but it may also be that another candidate had an appendicitis scare or missed their flight. If headhunters have been engaged they should be attentive to your situation, but sometimes they are not. Sometimes clients are foolish enough to order their headhunters not to talk to any of the candidates. At a certain point your patience will (and should) run out – perhaps a week after the selectors had led you to expect contact – but otherwise save your energy and your imagination.
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