In hiring for a top leadership position, you can make costly errors by either incorrectly diagnosing the situation, letting red herrings or other so-called rules get in the way of choosing the right person, or failing to set and follow a rigorous disciplined process. Here's a look at the six top pitfalls to recognize and avoid.
1. "His charisma was intoxicating"
Having personal magnetism does not make someone the right person for a position. We have seen leadership appointments go awry by being overly swayed by a charismatic candidate. While it is impossible to ignore charisma in making people decisions, be aware of what it is and is not.
Recognize that charisma is a personal attribute, just like height, eye color, or left- handedness. Charisma can surely be a valuable trait in interpersonal situations as varied as general management, customer service, and sales, but it should not overwhelm having the right other qualities and experiences to fit into your organizational jigsaw.
2. "We don't want any failures"
It is fair to make performance assessments based on someone's tangible achievements and impact. However, considering only people whose career trajectories have been a straight line of successes is risky. After all, it may be your situation where the candidate crashes and burns for the first time. Furthermore, such a strategy limits your pool of potentially-attractive candidates. Assess mistakes carefully and focus as much on the competencies that are required for success in the position.
There is another important benefit to considering candidates who have suffered setbacks. They are highly motivated to succeed and eager to reclaim their reputations, so you may get a deeper reservoir of underlying motivation and work ethic.
3. "We thought we really knew him"
Gerry and Lindsay were close friends from law school and followed parallel paths to the executive suite. When Lindsay became CEO, no one was surprised that she picked Gerry as her COO. It didn't work out, though. Lindsay's leadership team took great satisfaction in their extraordinary work ethic and their patient, consensus-oriented management approach. In contrast, Gerry found the slow decision-making process frustrating, and ruffled feathers by trying to improve the efficiency of meetings and placing strict limits on his workday to fend off burnout.
It turns out that the seemingly trivial frustrations on both sides actually reflected deep cultural differences. Therefore it is essential to probe deeply into the underlying values behind cultural norms to really make sure that even if you think you know someone, the cultural fit turns out to be right.
4. "We never really agreed on what we were looking for"
A not-for-profit institution was six months into a search for a new executive director when the lead candidate withdrew from the process, only days before he would have received an offer. He later said that the more time he spent at the institution, the more he saw fundamental disagreement as to what the leadership team was looking for. He believed that without alignment about the direction and priorities for the institution, he would be ineffective at trying to lead the organization. Similar leadership opportunities have gone vacant for years because candidates perceived disagreement among those responsible for the hiring.
To mitigate this risk, invest the time to discuss openly what you are looking for before the hiring process begins. Utilize the process of developing a position description to bring the group together around a common situation analysis and set of selection criteria.
5. "We didn't have time to run a thorough process"
A driver's education video shows that for a typical suburban trip of five miles, the difference between one driver speeding, running through all yellow lights, and weaving in and out of traffic, and another driving conservatively at the speed limit is about seven minutes. For the speeder, the marginal time savings will be eaten away by a traffic stop.
So it goes with choosing the best person for an important leadership position. If you try to save time by eliminating a thorough process, such as hiring the first candidate for the job or skipping a detailed review of references, it is more than likely to cost you in the long run in terms of hiring mistakes.
6. "Let's bring in a No. 2 and, when he's ready, promote him to the top job"
Many believe that an outsider should be brought in through a two-step process: first as a second-in-command, and then promoted to CEO within one to two years. This approach rarely works, however, because of four serious disadvantages:
• The candidates you will attract will not be as strong as those you would attract by bringing in a CEO out of the gate.
• The skills for success are different between a No. 1 and No. 2.
• A COO or No. 2 does not have the change mandate typically granted to an outsider in the top job.
• The heir apparent is more likely to play things safe with a CEO who still calls the shots and is the primary conduit to the board, who will determine when the No. 2 is ready for the job.
This article is excerpted from the new book by James M. Citrin and Julie Hembrock Daum, "You Need a Leader—Now What?" published by Crown Business.