December 13, 2017

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7 Valuable Lessons Gleaned From an Unforeseen Candidate Placement

Five years ago I was in the process of helping a client locate an exceptional sales leader for a high-profile global account position within their organization. I had arranged for the VP of Sales to meet with a very well qualified, proven group of five individuals. Unbeknownst to me, however, another candidate was slipped into the process.

The interviews had been set up to take place in successive order over a period of five hours. The hiring manager and I had agreed to dissect the discussions immediately after all had been completed. Unbeknownst to me, one of the account executives (let’s call him Mark) had spoken with an associate at another company about his candidacy for the position and, upon further discussion, both had apparently decided that our new player (designated Steve) would be a better match for the role. Subsequently, they devised a plan to have Steve show up for the meeting and hope that it lasted long enough for him to avoid bodily damage.

I became aware of this fine bit of cunning immediately after I contacted Mark at the time we had assigned for a post-interview debriefing. Needless to say, I was not overly pleased. This was an individual I had never spoken with, and I knew nothing about his background and abilities. I had carefully and thoroughly prepared Mark for his evaluation the day before it was scheduled to take place. I also checked in with him the next morning to make certain all was still proceeding accordingly and to address any potential loose ends we may have thought of in the interim. He had given me excited reassurance that his interest in the position was strong and he looked forward to his engagement with the company’s leadership.

When I asked Mark why he had not simply brought Steve to my attention and let me make a proper introduction to the hiring manager, he told me that he felt there was no chance I would move forward with him due to his specific experience. Upon further discussion, I suspected he was most likely correct. Although I always put a premium on qualities such as motivation and desire (and it was clear that this individual was quite driven and he did indeed have some relevant contacts who would undoubtedly be of great assistance), his background simply was not within even the most generous outer parameters established by the hiring manager and myself.

Fantastic, I thought. Hours of networking and careful recruitment had just been undone by an errant act that would most likely not only cast a somber timbre over the entire slate of talks due to the fact that Mark was expected to be the first to appear for the sessions but, most importantly, my relationship with the hiring manager would be irrevocably damaged.

As I picked up the phone to get feedback from the VP, my initial thoughts were rather similar to those Washington must have had when he learned that Arnold was interested in signing away the fort. Perhaps not quite so vexing, but very disconcerting nonetheless. However, I had been in awkward situations such as this in the past and had found that it was always best to find the potential positives and gracefully temper any amount of ire that may be forthcoming - warranted or not. I had already spoken to the other four candidates and had not detected any signs of untoward animosity or outright disdain. Indeed all individuals had greatly enjoyed their respective conversations and looked forward to pursuing the position with all alacrity. My general outlook on things picked up ever so slightly. Even though Steve had most likely tainted the process and possibly set up a rather unpleasant round of discussions for the subsequent individuals, I started to get a feeling that things had progressed better than expected.

The other end of the line became live and I was greeted with… a laugh?

“Dan, I had a rather interesting day today,” Bob the VP said. “Yes, Bob,” I said, “I suspect you did.”

He then explained how the unexpected guest had blown into the room, rapidly outlined the situation, and asked for 30 minutes of his time. As Steve had undoubtedly hoped, Bob figured the hour was fairly well shot anyhow and thus acceded to his request.

Things went exceptionally well. Bob told me that there was no way he would have agreed to see him based on his standard qualifications and experience. However, this particular candidate had three things going for him:

  • A proven record of superb accomplishment in a wide array of fields.
  • Tangible evidence of his willingness to do whatever was necessary to achieve his selected goals.
  • Bob simply liked him more than the others.

The biggest surprise came next. Bob wanted to hire him on the spot. He was absolutely convinced that Steve would be an incredible asset to the company and wanted to have him join his team as soon as possible. We rapidly agreed upon terms for all parties and Steve started work there that week. He is still with the company as has consistently been ranked within the highest echelon of performers each year since he started.

This experience was quite valuable as it reinforced my belief that certain highly appropriate variables are all too often discounted in the quest to locate what is perceived to be the ideal candidate. There are a multitude of pertinent thoughts that may be extracted from this particular event. Here are a few:

Generate your own luck

Did I have a great deal to do with this placement? Aside from helping to construct the contract and attending to all final ancillary items, the general and seemingly obvious answer would be no. However, the individual who produced the successful candidate may very well have never been located and prompted to action without hard, focused work, a strong presentation of the benefits of the position, and a willingness to continually strive to improve one’s professional approach. Diligence and perseverance always seem to be hallmarks for most people who are perceived as having more than their fair share of fortunate breaks.

Never underestimate passion, motivation, and proper organizational agreement

All too often the key figures involved in the hiring decision framework become overly fixated on quantifiable minutiae and, in the process, often neglect or erroneously diminish other crucial factors that are essential to determining whether or not a potential employee will flourish in their particular environment. I am familiar with some highly successful technology sales executives who decided to enter the recruitment field and ended up generating results that were far less than spectacular. In many instances, they had become accustomed to recurring streams of income and often disproportionately large customer wins that readily filled their respective quotas. Unfortunately, such ingrained reliance left them ill-prepared for the unequal demands of an executive search role. Others simply preferred to spend the brunt of their time in the field or found the nature of the work to be dissimilar from what they had expected.

Clearly it is important to make certain that potential employees possess a minimum amount of relevant skills and abilities to effectively operate in a certain role. However, it has been my experience that the truly great performers are more often than not those who may lack the most appropriate background, but are willing to do whatever is necessary to far exceed established standards. Their desire to be the best is unflagging, and they will quite often achieve far better results than individuals who have an applicable line of descent and highly pertinent knowledge. Underperformance by those perceived as exemplary may be due to a host of reasons, some of which include: a) lack of necessary impetus to excel, b) satisfaction with current expectation/success ratio, c) improper fit with the company’s structure and systems or d) outside demands that require a great deal of attention. The important thing to note is that employers must give sufficient weight to qualitative intangibles when making a hiring decision.

Always expect the best possible outcome

It is absolutely essential to maintain confidence and resolve even in circumstances that may appear dire. A positive perception of one’s abilities combined with a diligent and professional demeanor, particularly during the most trying of circumstances, will produce extraordinary results. Even if a certain assignment is not completed successfully, all involved will greatly appreciate the sincerity and determination of your approach and will be more than willing to utilize your services again in the future.

Never assume anything

I recall working at a company with one individual who only became aware that a placement had gone awry when the client organization called the day after the candidate was to begin work and wondered why he hadn’t shown up. It turned out that he had received an offer from another company which he had decided to accept. Neither person felt it necessary to make contact and the results were abysmal and very possibly avoidable if the recruiter had followed basic protocol.

Some things will simply be beyond our control. Many others, however, can and should be attended to with as much diligence as possible. Increased attention to seemingly small details such as candidate presentation, interview preparation, follow-up, and other pertinent factors will dramatically increase success in all areas of the hiring process and life in general.

Embrace the unexpected

In the example given above, it would have been a simple matter for the VP to storm out of the room in anger and call off the entire slate of examinations. However, he was an individual who had experienced great success by wielding the ability to recognize opportunity where others simply saw distraction. Most importantly, he had always made it a point to confront, control, and nimbly guide all potentially deleterious events in a direction and manner that was as undaunted and forthright as possible. Even if things do not fare as well as hoped, the lessons learned from the unforeseen event are quite valuable.

Systems and structure are great; adaptability is golden

We all have developed particular standardized methods that have proven to be productive. However, too many people seemingly become bound by the confines of an established continuum and are either unwilling to advance their abilities due to perfectly natural apprehension, or they simply are not allowed such latitude due to corporate policies. The difficulty, of course, is that humans are not hamburgers and, try as we might, there simply is not a single approach or framework that ensures uniform success for all. Individuals must be allowed sufficient leeway within an established scheme in order to fully utilize their particular skills and abilities.

Do everything possible to maintain and enhance relationships with clients and potential candidates.

Certainly a very basic tenet but one that often seems to be depreciated or entirely disregarded is the quest to generate business. In the case illustrated above, not only did the company still offer to pay a recruitment fee, they did so without hesitation due to the fact that we had an exceptionally strong track record with the firm and many of its executives.

Through great initiative, preparation, and basic drive Steve had won a highly coveted position over a number of supremely qualified applicants, all of whom had exceptionally appropriate experience and proven success in the sector in which the company operated. The VP of Sales had been willing to take a studied chance on an individual who would require training and a brief period of time to appropriately acclimate. Nevertheless, the amount of business Steve might generate above that of other candidates would more than make up for the initial investment requirements.

Bob had always believed that items such as motivation, extended record of performance, and attitude should carry as much (if not more) weight than product knowledge, company pedigree, and time in the sector. By being open to an overture that many may have quickly dismissed, and maintaining an approach that willingly incorporated a tempered tolerance for calculated departure from the standard, he had hired a champion sales professional.

- Dan McLaughlin

Dan McLaughlin is the President of Renascent Solutions, a Seattle-based executive recruitment company – He has successfully completed numerous searches for a wide array of high technology companies ranging from early-stage enterprises to well-established Fortune 500 corporations. Dan earned a Bachelor's Degree from Montana State University and a Master's Degree in Public Administration from the University of Montana.

Copyright 2006 by Dan McLaughlin.