Getting the Right Senior Level Candidates on the Radar

Finding candidates at the executive level demands more than a check-off-the-boxes approach. Search expert Bob Hennessy of the Hennessy Group explains how ‘executive selection criteria’ can help land the top-flight talent you need. Veteran recruitment consultants Monika Ciesielska of Carpenter Consulting, Simon Wan of Cornerstone International Group and Mark Geary of Asianet Consultants also weigh in and share their recruiting strategies!

January 17, 2019 – When discussing recruiting, the term “key selection criteria” simply refers to the skills, attributes, knowledge and qualifications that a job candidate needs to succeed in a role. In theory, a hiring manager would find someone who meets all of the requirements, make an offer and take off running.

But when it’s an executive role that needs to be filled, the stakes are much higher. In those cases, the traditional key selection criteria aren’t enough, according to a new report authored by Bob Hennessy, founder and CEO of the  Hennessy Group, a Philadelphia-based executive recruitment firm. Instead, one needs to apply “executive selection criteria.”

What’s the difference? Quite a lot, although there are similarities between the two terms. “You’re still creating a wish list of wants and dreams for the position, only when you’re hiring an executive, the criteria you specify isn’t found on a CV or resume,” said Mr. Hennessy. “You’ve got to know more about the person before deciding if they have what it takes.”

He gave an example of an executive search his firm recently completed for a contract development and manufacturing organization client. “We weren’t looking as closely at years of experience and pay scale, although those did come into consideration,” said Mr. Hennessy. “Instead, we focused on the unique background, details and expertise that we had previously identified with the client — all the stuff that would make the candidate a rock star.”

If we had stuck with just the straightforward criteria — degree, experience, etc. — “we would have handed off a long, impressive list of perfect-sounding candidates,” he said. “Most of them, however, wouldn’t have been a good fit. Using executive selection criteria, we were able to narrow the list of candidates for our client, which is our goal, to help you eliminate candidates, not to add more candidates to your list. Our CDMO client now only had the right candidates on their radar.”

Mr. Hennessy’s report offers what he believes are the most successful ways to develop executive and C-suite selection criteria. Consider the following:

Start Simple, Not for C-Suite Leaders

Determining your five executive selection criteria typically works like this: Start with that simple list of what you want your executive to possess, inclduing:

  • 10-plus years working with clinical trials
  • M.S. in biochemistry; Ph.D. preferred
  • Five-plus years leading a team
  • Compensation range $175,000 to $250,000, with an annual 15 percent performance bonus
  • Willing to relocate to Indiana

“This is all great information,” said Mr. Hennessy. “But it’s only going to take you so far. If I plug those details into a candidate database and hand you a list of results, you’ll need a year to look at every ‘perfectly qualified’ candidate. You don’t have that kind of time. Instead, I’m going to push you and start asking questions.”

Those questions, he said, might include:

  • What will this role be on Day One? In five years?
  • Describe the team this candidate will be leading. What level are the workers? How long have they been working together? How much direction do they need? What roles do they serve? Why isn’t someone from the team being considered for this role? What would you like to see them achieve?
  • What credentials do you really want the leader to have (i.e., infectious disease clinical trials, successfully worked on FDA approval)? Is compensation flexible for the right candidate? What about equity?
  • Would you prefer someone who can grow into this role or someone who is a lateral move and can grow into their boss’s role?
  • Should this candidate be a risk-taker? Between you and me, tell me what your culture is really like and where you’d like it to be. Then, let’s go for a walk so I can see it for myself.

How to Improve Your Candidate Screening Process
Recruitment for senior-level positions can be time-consuming, expensive and sometimes even contentious. And with the unemployment rate reaching record lows, top candidates are harder to find than ever. A new report by Executives Unlimited looks at what recruiters can do to more efficiently move on with candidates during the search process.


  • What is your company’s ultimate goal, and where are you on the path to this goal?

“Questions like these produce answers that point to criteria that do a better job of predicting success in the role,” Mr. Hennessy said. “This is what’s at the heart of your executive search criteria. The candidates I find now will form a much smaller group, all of whom are closer to your dream candidate.”

For example:

  • Start-up mentality. Candidate could probably be hired anywhere in the industry but wants the challenge of working for a small-cap company poised to make a big difference.
  • Doesn’t wait for things to happen — anticipates C-suite within the next three years.
  • Has designed clinical trials that led to FDA approval and some that didn’t.

Related: How to Develop Candidate-Centric Recruiting Strategies

  • Is willing to take a few risks when the rewards are great.
  • Knows how to navigate the gray area.
  • In growth mode: climbing the corporate ladder to establish self as an industry leader; has shown rapid upward progress for 5-plus years.
  • Motivator and driver of change. Can turn around a team that’s not achieving results and is capable of making difficult personnel decisions.

“If all of this looks good, then we’re onto something,” said Mr. Hennessy. “But there’s still a problem: Not a single candidate database can search on criteria like this. My team, however, approaches the challenge differently. We take the basic criteria that was previously identified and use it to help identify a really long list of prospective candidates. Then we get to know everyone on the list personally, and weed out the people who aren’t right.”

Eliminating Candidates

Mr. Hennessy’s report said to remember that the goal of your executive selection criteria is to help eliminate candidates. “Candidate A needs security but you’re at a small cap with no FDA approvals. Next! Candidate B hasn’t experienced failure and may not be willing to take the risks this role needs,” Mr. Hennessy said. “Candidate C has a five-year plan that still sees them in the role you’re hiring, but maybe with a pay bump. While you appreciate the loyalty, you want someone more driven. Candidate D, however, fits your criteria perfectly.”

“By the way, if the executive selection criteria feels a lot like the questions you’d ask during an interview with a candidate, you’re right, it is,” Mr. Hennessy said. “My team treats the initial screen of a candidate as the first, second and sometimes third interview of a candidate because most hiring companies don’t have time to go into this level of detail and get all of the information they’ll need to make the final decision.”


How to Improve Your Candidate Screening Process
Recruiting in a candidate driven market can be tricky. With the help of developing technologies like artificial intelligence, automation and mobile applications, candidates can apply to multiple positions at many different organizations in no time at all. With candidates applying to more places more quickly.


The goal is to ensure that the short list of candidates is pre-screened for the executive selection criteria. “That way our client’s hiring committee can get straight to what they really want to know: how the candidate in front of them will fit culturally, and how she or he is going to help reach the company’s goals,” said Mr. Hennessy.

Veteran Search Consultants Weigh In

Monika Ciesielska, managing partner of Carpenter Consulting and president of IMSA Search Global Partners, said she agrees with the methodology that Mr. Hennessy described. “That is exactly how the executive search process should look like,” she said. “I would add, however, two important factors, which were not used or just not mentioned.”

Related: Hiring Times Rise As Recruitment Screening Methods Multiply

“In order to select the representative groups, which is a base to start, you use certain channels of reaching the suitable candidates and these are recommendations, direct searching and using the contacts which you already have and are part of your database,” she said. “I would suggest making your preliminary selection more efficient and in case of the last channel, which is a database, using artificial intelligence. This small part of the executive search process can be given to your AI colleague (exclusively this part, to make things clear).”

“The second point which I would raise is a team, which is supposed to know each candidate personally,” Ms. Ciesielska said. “I would say – no team is allowed. Only one headhunter can do that, as he or she needs to be the one being in touch with all candidates. The answers on wisely raised questions are never ‘yes’ or ‘no’ nor ‘black’ or ‘white.’ Those answers may provoke more questions which should be asked by one particular person, a recruitment leader, gaining the whole knowledge in order to make the perfect selection of candidates. I couldn’t imagine organizing it differently,” she added.

Related: This Recruiter’s Top Five Secrets for Landing Candidates

“Finding, engaging, and retaining the right people is the biggest differentiator and challenge today in the marketplace,” said Simon Wan, CEO of Cornerstone International Group. “At Cornerstone, we put special emphasis at business and coaching experience of the lead consultants and partners at Cornerstone, backed by technology and shared best practices. We provide personal attention and the clout of a global organization.”

He also doesn’t believe the work is done when the candidate is hired. “Past research has shown as many as 40 percent of executive hires fail within 18 months. To overcome that, we provide services through two gateways: Our executive search professionals use a five star search approach and our leadership development team supports new hires and builds leaders through assessment, reinforcement and ongoing executive coaching.”

This, he said, backs up the recruiting challenges in a powerful way, before the search, during the search, and after the engagement. “Onboarding the new hire is essential to getting a rapid contribution to the bottom line. But it doesn’t stop there,” he said. “The speed with which technologies, processes and strategies evolve calls for a constant updating of leadership skills and expectations,” he noted.

“We only work at the VP and CEO space,” said Mark Geary, CEO of Asianet Consultants. For me, he added, “the most critical factor is chemistry and at CEO level that is as high as 75 percent. That’s also in both directions – I carry out due diligence on the company to find out what their real style of management is like.”

Related: Close the Book on Searches and Hire the Best Candidates

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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