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Is the Person You Know the Best Person for the Job?

Posted by Lauren Kendall on March 4, 2020
Originally published on LinkedIn by Paul Manning (Managing Director, Software & Technology at The Bowdoin Group).

We’ve all heard, “I’ve got the perfect person for this job…

If you’re hiring and you hear those words, you’re probably thinking, “Great. That makes my life easier.” But what if the recommender is biased? What if there’s a much better candidate out there? What if the person being referred is the best candidate?

As an executive search firm, our mission is to find the best person possible for a job, and we often deal with situations where internal candidates or employee referrals are thrown into the ring. In this article, I’ll share a proven process for determining whether someone you know is actually who you should hire because at the executive level, sometimes the “best” is someone you already know, but not always.

The [candidate] you know vs. the [candidate] you don’t

Think about it: how many people from your network would you highly recommend for an executive position?

In our experience, that number is not high—typically around three to five. People don’t give referrals lightly, especially if it’s for a job at their current organization.

Even when there’s an executive search firm involved, referrals can still be selected for the job. If that sounds a little backwards to you, I get it. “Why would you pay an executive search firm’s fees to hire a candidate you already know?”

Executive search firms scour the market and assess every single candidate to determine who can do the job best—referrals and in-house candidates included. With an objective perspective and proven, vetted methodologies for assessment, you’ll know (rather than just hope) that your hire is the best possible person for your job, which is absolutely critical for executive roles.

The advantages of hiring someone you know

In addition to the obvious advantages like reduced time to hire, lower costs, and greater employee engagement, here are two ‘intangible’ advantages to hiring someone you know:

  • You know how willing they are to learn – One rather difficult thing to assess in the interview process is a person’s willingness and ability to learn something new. Taking on new challenges is something everyone has to do professionally. Those who do it gracefully at the executive level set the tone for the entire organization and can enable your company to reach new heights.
  • You know how someone deals with stress – Like it or not, every leadership team goes through tough times. When you’ve worked with someone previously, you know whether stressful situations send them into a tailspin or bring out the true leader in them.

Take, for example, a CTO search for a large technology company. The key stakeholders knew the role required both domain experience and deep technical knowledge, but that combination was proving challenging to find. After surveying the marketplace, we were able to find candidates with either/or, but finding someone who had both seemed like finding the purple squirrel. After regrouping as a search team, our client suggested we network with someone who had previously been on their customer board who had been at CIO within a client (operating company) and it turned out he was interested in the role. He had all the key ingredients they were looking for, but the question was: Could he make the transition from CIO to CTO? So, he was brought into the mix, heavily vetted, compared alongside of the candidates that were being considered for the role, and deemed the best candidate for the job. It was a great outcome, and he’s been able to go on to be wildly successful, but we wouldn’t have even found this candidate had they not considered backgrounds within the broader market to understand what’s out there and realize this individual—even though they didn’t fit the profile—was the right person for the job.

The disadvantages of hiring someone you know

Aside from two glaring disadvantages to hiring a referral or in-house candidate, namely the creation of unwanted cliques and a lack of diversity, the following additional two disadvantages are more subtle, yet equally important:

  • Your perspective is stuck in time – Let’s say you worked with a CEO, for example, who built a company from $20 to 50 million and you’re looking to do the same at your current company. That would be the first person on your list, right? Well…maybe. That individual may be completely burnt out and not realize it, or could have been in right place at the right time with the right team, and it was more about the team than just that one individual. In the time that passed since you last worked together, things have changed for that person, but your perspective hasn’t. Keep that in mind during the hiring process.
  • You have a tendency to overlook weaknesses – We get called in to do confidential searches to replace executives who never should have been hired in the first place. For instance, companies looking for someone with fifteen years of experience hired someone with eight or have experience with a similar role in a different domain saying, “Oh, but I know them.” Know your must-haves and stick to them, no matter what, and make sure you eliminate your bias in the hiring process.

How to avoid the trap of choosing who you know

“We all want to help our friends. While a friend may be the right person for the role, it’s important to validate that in the market.” How do you do that?

Great executive search firms approach searches through a number of angles, including:

  • Activating their peer network to understand who are the thought leaders in the space
  • Identifying who has been successful in similar companies
  • Looking objectively at the cultural differences between our clients and other companies being used in comparison
  • Researching social channels and internal databases

When you rely on just one of these angles, you’ll get misleading information. What we say is, “When you conduct deep research into all of these angles, certain names light up, and they keep lighting up the more you dig into it. Start with them.”

Wrapping it up

Too often, leaders say, “I’m bringing in my old friend, John, to run sales here,” and that’s the end of the conversation. Whether you decide to use an executive search firm or not, it’s imperative someone at the company or better yet an outside objective partner or board member can challenge that perspective.

Building your leadership team with another company’s leadership team is not what’s best for your company’s growth. You need a candidate who complements your existing team’s strengths (and weaknesses), is passionate about helping your company achieve its goals, and has the right experience to outperform the business’s expectations.

Whether you hire someone you know or someone you don’t, do your due diligence to determine that they are, in fact, the best person for the job without any personal or professional biases.