Seven Tips to Find Great CEO Candidates

Cory King, president and CEO of Chicago-based search firm Kittleman & Associates, offers up seven pointers to recruiting your next best leader. Let’s take a look!

September 13, 2018 – Selecting a new chief executive officer is critical because so much rides on a positive outcome. When determining a CEO’s suitability, companies should remind themselves that no candidate is perfect. The goal is to understand the relative trade-offs among the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and to ensure that prospects’ deficits are not in areas that are especially critical for company performance.

Today’s recruiting market presents a wealth of opportunities for talented leaders and, as a result, it is now a truly competitive arena for organizations in a leadership transition, according to a new report authored by Cory King, president and CEO of Kittleman & Associates, a Chicago-based executive search firm that specializes in finding non-profit sector leadership. Given the robust economy, relative recovery of housing in many markets and the continuing retirement of Baby Boomers, exceptional leaders now have the freedom to be highly selective about the next step in their career, the report said.

“It seems that every time I sit down with a client to discuss the search for their new CEO, the question is asked: How many qualified candidates should we expect to attract?” said Mr. King. “While there is a general range that every firm seeks to provide in their ‘long list,’ more often I find myself reflecting on the environment in which non-profit organizations find themselves.”

Positioning Yourself for Success

Mr. King focuses on CEO searches across the non-profit sector, with a particular emphasis on social services, grant making foundations, cultural institutions and conservation organizations. He has been in the sector since 1998 and brings executive-level experience in higher education, healthcare and social services.

Mr. King offered the following advice on what can boards do to best position themselves for success in finding their next leader:

1. Know your market: It is important for board members to understand the hiring trends in their specific sector. “The non-profit world is a vast industry encompassing everything from the local food pantry to a hospital system with revenues in the billions,” said Mr. King. “If there are specific compensation strategies in the sector, familiarize yourself with these strategies or engage a firm that will bring that knowledge to the table.”

2. Change happens: Talented leaders are visionary and thus, agents of change. “The biggest criticism we hear from candidates in post-interview debriefings is that the organization wasn’t ready for the kind of change they would bring,” Mr. King said. “Showing throughout the interview process that you are receptive to and have an open mind, at a reasonable level, to the ideas and vision that a new leader will bring is often all it takes for the board to keep a great candidate engaged.”

The CEO’s Important Role in Succession Planning
At the most basic level, the CEO’s role is straightforward: driving management succession at senior levels, including the early identification of any inside CEO contenders, ensuring that the organization is developing succession-ready executives for all senior roles.

3. Be prepared to compete: This is executive search after all. The Kittleman & Associates report said that it is possible that you may encounter a candidate who is weighing other opportunities (a more frequent occurrence even at the CEO level these days). “Additionally, we see candidates weighing a current opportunity against one that will likely come up soon,” said Mr. King. “Accept that this might happen and do not discount candidates for lack of interest as they view your opportunity through the lens of the current market dynamics.”

4. Be aligned, very aligned: Speaking with one voice is critical, the report said. All too often candidates conclude that board members were not on the same page. “Long before the first candidate walks in the door, you will need to discuss how you will answer candidates’ questions about the overall strategy, current status and future direction you envision for the organization,” said Mr. King.

Related: Generational Shift: Succession of Older CEOs Slows

5. Get ready for an annual check-up (and perhaps a few tests): Once intrigued with an opportunity, most candidates will commence a high level of due diligence, according to the Kittleman report. They begin to ask for much more information about the organization in addition to the typical financial information, strategic plans, bylaws, etc. “Often, they are asking for items like employee satisfaction surveys, member surveys, copies of contracts with partners (public and private) and in some cases board and staff self-assessments,” said Mr. King. “You will need to discuss your position regarding requests for further information.”

Five Tips to Help a CHRO with the CEO Succession Process
CEO succession planning has three main leadership components. Most boards of directors embrace their role, accepting that designating the would-be future leader of their company is an ongoing process requiring consistent, dedicated work on their part. 

6. Pony up: The adage “you get what you pay for” has never been more true. The talent market today demands a higher level of compensation. “This is, in part, because candidates are keenly aware of the demands and expectations placed upon them as the chief executive officer,” said Mr. King. “Early in the process, consider what your threshold is and creative ideas on how to meet those demands should they arise.” Seek counsel from your search firm to ensure you are both realistic and competitive, said the report.

Related: Here’s Why Succession Planning Matters

7. Don’t panic: Many recruiters say that CEO recruitment is a journey filled with twists and turns, many discoveries and some intense moments. It is a process that takes time and finding the right fit requires a level of communication and dialogue unlike any other hire. Don’t be afraid to have the sometimes difficult conversation about the “attractiveness” of your organization to potential candidates. Bring your best thinking to the table, work with a firm who will help position you best for success and be honest, transparent and enthusiastic.

Non-Profit Specialists

Kittleman & Associates, which was established in 1963, is one of the nation’s oldest executive recruitment firms exclusively serving non-profit organizations. Search services include recruitment counsel, organizational assessment, development of position specifications, prospect research, source identification, candidate development, background assessment & verification, reference checking, offer preparation and transition assistance.

The firm has led searches for executive directors and CEOs for Food Bank of the Rockies, PEER Services, People’s Resource Center, Moore Farms Botanical Garden Foundation, South Suburban PADS and Boys & Girls Country, among many others.

Related: Putting Effective Leaders In Place Now Seen As Urgent Priority

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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