Assessing suitable candidates for the C-suite


Financier Worldwide Magazine

October 2015 Issue

October 2015 Issue

The C-suite. For many low to mid-level executives looking to ascend the greasy corporate pole it represents the ultimate destination, the business world’s version of utopia.

For organisations striving to execute successful corporate strategies, there is a constant requirement to have the right executives and senior leaders in place at the C-suite level to provide the credibility, authority and ingenuity to effect change. However, assessing the myriad behavioural and performance metrics involved in successfully filling a senior role is, of course, easier said than done.

Recently demonstrating the difficulties in assessing the suitability of candidates for C-level positions were the circumstances surrounding the appointment (and subsequent exit) of Ellen Pao as interim chief executive of Reddit – an external, as opposed to a through-the-ranks, appointee.

During her short tenure as interim chief executive, which lasted little more than six months, Ms Pao’s attempts to broaden Reddit’s core user base were a resounding failure. Unpopular and derided, Pao’s time in charge also saw her receiving death threats from angry users. Whatever the exact truth of the accusations and counter accusations, the case illustrates the calamitous consequences that can ensue in the event that an ‘unsuitable’ appointment is made.

As the case of Ms Pao attests, assessing a candidate’s particular management style for director, vice president and C-level leadership positions is a demanding process, fraught with pitfalls which, if unheeded, can have a detrimental effect on a company’s productivity, turnover and reputation.

Identification and recruitment

As one might expect, there are numerous strategies that companies can deploy to identify and recruit suitable candidates for a C-suite appointment. Overall, these strategies are utilised to pinpoint individuals in possession of the qualities necessary to flourish at a senior level. This will involve early consideration of whether an internal or external candidate is the best option.

As Tresha Moreland, founder of HR C-Suite, explains, most businesses will assess whether or not they have internal candidates who meet the criteria to fill their C-suite positions. “Otherwise the search must go to external sources for executive talent,” she says. “Although technical expertise is what brings many to the C-suite door, it is qualities such as leadership, global business perspective, strategic planning and execution, team development, change driver, communication and integrity that are often sought out.”

Candidate assessment tools, such as the behavioural and psychological tests espoused by the McQuaig Institute, clarify the qualities a candidate must possess to have any chance of succeeding at the upper levels of an organisation. These C-level qualities, according to the Institute, are identified via a targeted set of specific behavioural traits. In looking at their client data, they have found that a majority of companies are looking for a common grouping of traits when recruiting for C-level roles. Among them, a candidate should be competitive, ambitious and goal oriented. They should welcome responsibility, and be restless and energetic, with a lot of drive. In addition, they should be varied and have the ability to work well under pressure. They should be independent, persistent and decisive, someone who wants to take charge and show initiative. They should also be sociable, outgoing, a good communicator and persuasive.

“The best practice we recommend, and which many of our clients use, involves creating a job profile, or ideal candidate profile, for a C-suite position,” says Ian Cameron, managing director of the McQuaig Institute. “This profile captures not just the skills and experience required, but also the behaviours that are required for success in the role. Much more than skills, an executive’s success will be decided by how they work – their level of self-awareness, ability to motivate and how they make decisions. By inviting key stakeholders to provide their input on what the candidate will need in terms of behavioural traits to succeed, companies can create an accurate benchmark to compare both internal and external candidates against.”

Wrong or right

In today’s challenging corporate environment, it is essential for companies to adapt to shifting competitive and market demands to assure the future of their business. As part of this blueprint for success, board members, the CEO and other members of the executive team must take the time to consider what kind of leadership skills they seek, and determine how they (or their recruiter) should go about the task of finding those with the requisite skills. “The leadership style has to be right for the challenge ahead or the problem that needs solving,” believes executive coach Mary Keeley. “But the bigger picture needs to be viewed carefully. It’s not as simple as a candidate having dealt with a similar issue elsewhere.” A good leader, she adds, must be brilliant on all fronts. How will they go down with employees? What will customers think of them? Will they be amenable to stakeholders? Will they be able to close the gap between the board’s desire to improve the bottom line and a workforce who thinks the board focuses only on profit?

Assessing the myriad behavioural and performance metrics involved in successfully filling a senior role is, of course, easier said than done.

Such concerns, taken alongside the wealth of leadership paraphernalia currently available, appear to confirm that there is indeed no ‘one size fits all’ leadership style, especially when it comes to searching for leaders to fill C-suite positions. “Every candidate comes to the table with his or her own set of skills, experiences, attitudes and philosophies. Similarly, every company has its own culture and needs. The key is to find a candidate with a complementary set of characteristics that will be able to work within the environment of the company but still lead and drive change where necessary,” says Noel Z. Golden, a partner at the Golden Advisory Group.

For some, there is no right or wrong leadership style, so identifying a suitable candidate is situational and depends on a number of factors, including the culture, size and maturity level of the organisation, as well as the market in which it operates. “That’s why it’s so important for companies to really think about what’s needed for their company to succeed right now, and in the future,” argues Mr Cameron. “Just looking for someone who was successful in another role, or at another company, is no guarantee of success in the role they’re trying to fill. You can see countless examples in the press about successful leaders who moved to a new role or company and failed. It’s not because they were bad leaders, necessarily; it’s because they were a bad fit for that particular situation.” He adds that, in the end, the key to establishing what is really needed at the C-level comes down to creating an ideal candidate profile which includes essential behavioural traits.

Reliance on archetypes

When conducting a search for a candidate suited to the demands of the C-suite, companies put their faith in a variety of methods – some tried and trusted, some perhaps unorthodox. However, what can happen is that recruiters who are guilty of not fully understanding leadership dynamics and how they impact the workplace then resort to relying on leadership archetypes to fill important senior roles.

The problem with this scenario is that candidates selected using a leadership archetypes process are unlikely to be closely aligned with a company’s future strategy and will have little appreciation of what is required to support it. To avoid this, advises Mr Cameron, companies must ensure their recruitment process reflects the probability that the leadership roles they have today may not be the roles they need to move the company forward in the future. For each and every role, senior management has to define the competencies, skills, knowledge, values and behaviours required. “Companies often rely on archetypes. More importantly, too few consider the leadership necessary in the future when developing talent from within,” he says. “As a result, their pipeline isn’t providing the leadership they need and they have to spend money to get it from outside.”

For Ms Moreland, companies can also fall into the trap of selecting candidates out of convenience, with time and budget concerns often pressurising decision-makers into sidestepping critical steps in the recruitment process.

Internal vs. external hires

For many companies, a through-the-ranks approach to recruitment, rather than an external appointment, is the preferred option. “Most research I’ve seen suggests internal hires are more successful and last longer,” points out Mr Cameron. “A big part of the challenge with external candidates is that they have to learn the culture as well as the role. Therefore, it is much more daunting for an external hire that doesn’t already know the culture and lacks those networks.” A 2014 study by Career Partners International puts forward six major reasons why many external appointments fail: a lack of essential partners or connections, an unfamiliarity with office politics and a lack of support in learning them, an inability to fit into the corporate culture, a lack of understanding of their role, insufficient coaching and feedback, and poor team building skills.

Business leaders prefer to evaluate all options before making a decision. “A company may have an internal candidate identified, but will typically wait and see what is ‘out there’ in terms of external candidates as well,” says Ms Moreland. “It may be that in the end they do decide on the internal candidate after evaluating all possibilities. The rationale to go with an internal candidate is often because they may have a better understanding of the organisational culture and objectives. They may have already established relationships and demonstrated the ideal qualities needed to be successful.”

Ideal qualities

For all the theories and postulations as to who or what constitutes an ideal candidate for the C-suite, many are of the opinion that, overall, there are two qualities that one needs to possess to be able to reach and flourish at this most venerated of corporate milestones: self belief and self awareness.

“Does the candidate have the self-belief to lead an organisation towards its goals objectively and without personal agenda?” asks Ms Keeley. “The candidate may have arrived at the door to the C-suite by focusing on their own advancement, but recruiters need to be on the lookout for altruism. Which candidate is wholly at ease with putting what’s best for the company first because they have little need to prove themselves to others?”

For Mr Cameron, self-awareness is the single most important quality for a C- level leader to possess. “As a leader, you have to know what you don’t know,” he suggests. “You have to be aware of your blind spots and weaknesses so that you can surround yourself with people to fill those gaps. No one person could possibly possess all the skills an organisation needs to succeed.”

What, then, are the consequences of an unsuccessful appointment? To what extent is a misstep at the C- level likely to impact a company’s productivity, turnover and reputation? It rests with the board to identify these issues and limit potential damage. However, there is no cookie-cutter solution to pinpointing the ideal qualities that a C-suite candidate should possess. According to Mr Golden, the complexity of C-level positions, the diversity of organisations, and variations among candidates looking to take on senior roles makes it extremely difficult to deal in specifics. “What leads to success in one organisation could ultimately lead to failure in another,” he says. “Each company faces different challenges depending on where they are on the growth and development spectrum and will have priorities or goals set by the board of directors that are unique to that company. Most C-suite candidates will have a foundation of competence and experience in positions progressively leading up to the position that they are being considered for. What other qualities will prove to be advantageous for a candidate will vary depending on the challenges to be faced.”

The stakes are certainly high. Choosing the wrong person for a C-suite role can cripple a company. “Making such a hiring mistake can lead to unhappiness or even an exodus in the management ranks,” notes Mr Golden. “This can affect the ability to execute on business strategy and can bring the organisation’s progress to a grinding halt. The ripple effect can often be felt all through the organisation, and out to customers and suppliers who may decide to take their business elsewhere.”

In addition to self-belief and self-awareness, another key requirement for a C-level candidate is the need to be an accomplished communicator. In today’s business environment, a great deal can be achieved by having the ability to communicate effectively. Be it interpersonal, small group or public speaking, communication that spans the corporate strata is one of the most desirable skills for C- level individuals. “It’s not just about sending emails or putting together memos, it is about having the ability to speak to different audiences such as board members, employees, unions, customers, community leaders, government associates and so on,” says Ms Moreland. “An unsuccessful leader can have a detrimental impact on the success of the business. Poor leadership qualities – such as being ego-driven, self centred, a poor listener and lacking a moral compass – have a direct correlation to high turnover and minimal productivity.”


Clearly, the importance to a company of assessing and appointing the best candidates for C-suite positions cannot and should not be underestimated. If organisations take the time to ensure that the right executives and senior leaders are in place, they should expect a resultant upsurge in credibility, authority and ingenuity that can be used to drive effective and worthwhile change.

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Fraser Tennant

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