Secrets of a Brighter Workplace


Tips on how to understand, recruit and keep the best people for your business


How to recruit the right leader for your business

Call me Ishmael

Trying to find and recruit the right leader for your business can feel like you’re Captain Ahab trying to land the Great White whale.

An epic search, followed by exhausting efforts to actually land the beast. Only to discover, perhaps, that this creature isn’t what your business really needs. And, horrifyingly, ends up destroying your boat.

We all know that recruiting the wrong leader for our organisation can be disastrous. But fewer of us, I think, are clear about exactly what we need to do to get it right.

Here are my practical tips on how to:

  • evaluate what the role of leader in your business entails
  • identify what you’re looking for in your new leader
  • source and attract suitable candidates
  • sift, shortlist and assess those candidates
  • make the right choice.

Here’s how to catch that big fish!

What is the context of the role?

As with any and all recruitment, the first and most important stage is job analysis. Namely, looking at the role in detail and determining what is involved and what good performance in that role looks like.

When it comes to recruiting a leader, though, there is an additional element you need to explore thoroughly before you start looking for candidates.

Context. What is the context of the role you’re trying to fill? What is the world – both externally and internally – that this role operates within?

Because a leader doesn’t lead in a vacuum. A leader needs to be able to navigate the business through a complex, often VUCA, world. How will, for instance, the organisation be affected by technological advances or fluctuations in the global economy? Your leader will also need to be able to work alongside many other interested parties, both within and external to, the organisation. What are the pivotal relationships that inform and influence this role? Who will your leader be accountable to?

As part of your job analysis, talk to key stakeholders to map out all the external and internal factors and relationships that impact on your organisation’s current position, future direction and your new leader’s role within it.

Who are you looking for?

All these factors will help determine the type of person you’re looking for.

Not just in terms of the behaviours, experience and skills that are required to perform the role successfully. But also what do they need to be motivated by in order to lead effectively within the context of this role? What are the values of the organisation that they’ll need to align with?

Because just having the right experience isn’t enough. Your new leader will need a specific set of motivations and values that will enable them to operate effectively in your specific context.

This is about getting a whole person fit. And for that you need a rounded picture of what you’re looking for.

Briefing the headhunters

At this level, it is highly likely you’ll be calling upon the expertise of a headhunter or executive search agency to source your leadership candidates.

All the information you have gathered during the job analysis will be invaluable in providing a high quality brief. The better briefed they are, the better.

You want to be sure they’re providing you with a bespoke service – that they’re looking for leadership candidates that fit your specific brief and requirements – not merely offering you the same candidates they’re also offering to other organisations.

If you decide to hire direct the job analysis will enable you to brief a recruitment advertising agency – or help you compose your own job advert.

Making first contact

Typically, it will be your headhunter who will have the first conversation with the potential candidates. If you do plan to handle this internally, make sure it’s done by someone of a suitably senior rank – your Human Resources Director, for instance.

Because this conversation isn’t just about getting a first impression of whether the candidate’s interested in and suitable for the role. It’s also about selling the role to them – and, I’m afraid, will also involve a degree of flattery!

It’s worth remembering too that often candidates at this level can be resistant to the idea of being assessed and evaluated. They may assume the proof of their abilities is in the level of job they’ve achieved already!

Expert headhunters tend to ask a series of questions using a scoring guide to gather evidence particularly around motivations and values, but are skilled enough to do so in a way that means the candidates don’t feel like they’re being interrogated.

Shortlisting your candidates

How are you going to filter down your candidate pool?

Be very careful when considering what assessment exercises you might use. Too many, or the wrong sort could easily put candidates off.

For instance, you might consider that numerical acumen is vital to this role. But asking someone who has been working as a financial director for over 10 years to do a numerical reasoning test is not going to go down well without careful positioning about why it’s useful and the value it adds.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t assess them at all. You need to be sure, clearly, they’re the right hire for you. It’s about striking a balance between your need for evidence and the need to keep them engaged.

Consider using personality/motivations/values tests. These are pretty standard at this level and there are plenty of tools available that are orientated for senior level positions. Complement the test with a deep-dive interview around strengths, motivations and/or values to explore these in more detail, as well as verifying the candidates’ experience and skills.

You might also ask candidates to deliver a presentation at this stage, either prepared in advance or on the day. Or you may use other one-to-one assessment centre exercises such as a ‘meeting the press’ role-play.

The final stage

You’re down to the final two or three candidates. How will you make your final decision?

Typically the final stage is a panel interview involving key stakeholders, representing those groups who you identified in your analysis of the context of this role.

The interview would usually focus on the candidate’s experience and also be informed by evidence from the shortlisting stage e.g. from personality/motives/values assessments. This would include any strengths and areas of risks to get the candidate’s insight on that.

At this stage there may be a presentation element too, often prepared in advance.

As with any recruitment decision, objectivity is key. But it can be hard not to be swayed by a strong character on your panel who goes with their gut. Comments like ‘I just don’t like them’ need to be probed further – ‘what is the evidence for that? What did they say or do that bothered you?’

It helps to have a panel that is as diverse as possible to ensure there’s a mix of voices and opinions in the room.

Courting the candidate

Once you’ve made your final decision you still have a bit more work to do to court the candidate. Their current employer may make them a counter offer so you’ll need to make a strong case for why they should join you. This is another reason why knowing what their motivations are is really helpful – you can tap into that to persuade them your organisation is the right place for them.

They are likely to have a long notice period so consider how you will keep them warm and engaged during this hiatus.


Recruiting a leader is one of the most important and the most challenging jobs we face. It’s so critical to get it right. And a wrong decision can have a devastating effect. But with these steps, you’ll be better placed to make an informed and evidenced-based choice. If you need more help, please drop me a line for a no-commitment chat.

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