Reducing Risk in Executive Hiring

By Paul Bohne, WittKieffer, and Terence Bostic, Ph.D., CMA

In challenging times like today, it is even more critical to hire the right leaders. Yet if they’re being honest, most hiring managers will tell you that they “get it right” about six or seven times out of 10. This is true even at the executive level. That’s not a great ratio, especially when you consider the cost of a bad leadership hire. The “opportunity costs” alone of hiring the wrong executive – not having the right person setting the vision and making key strategic decisions for your organization for the coming years – are exorbitant.

For this reason, reducing hiring risk should be the obsession of every hiring manager and search committee. It’s our obsession as two people who support executive hiring for a living. We’ve come to realize that with every executive recruitment, getting it wrong isn’t an option. It’s critically important to maximize the likelihood of hiring the right person. People’s careers and organizations’ well-being are at stake.

There are two kinds of risk that enter executive selection, really. One is that the person hired won’t have the leadership qualities to fit the role; the second is that they won’t have the qualities to fit into the culture. While “culture fit” can be a loaded term from an implicit bias perspective, we have seen many instances in which an executive who fit the role didn’t fit the culture, and the results were disastrous.

Why Assessments Matter

Leadership assessments are a way to address both role and culture, to reduce risk. A whole industry has evolved around these assessments as a means of providing reliable, objective data to either support or disprove opinions formulated through the vetting and interviewing of candidates. Validated psychometric assessments are an important way to conduct pressure-testing of candidates on specific themes. They inform the vetting process, providing texture and insights on someone beyond what interviews, referencing, and resumes may indicate.  

Assessments have the most impact when job performance variability is high – that is, their validity increases with the complexity of the job, which is why they’re so critical as a supplement to executive-level hiring. On that note, we’ve put together the following rules of thumb for leveraging assessments to mitigate risk:

Rules to Reducing Risk, Leveraging Leadership Assessments

  1. First, define the role. Before assessments take place, the hiring authority must be clear about the leadership agenda and the definition of success in the role—which should be outlined in detail in a leadership profile or job specification. (Too often position descriptions are overly general, not providing a clear, rigorous framework of critical competencies for the role.) Only then can you overlay what leadership behaviors are mission critical. If you overlay assessment data without this foundation, people may use the data to build a case that projects their own preferences, or possibly biases, rather than what the collective has worked to identify.
  2. Use the right battery of assessments. Every assessment instrument alone is an imperfect measure of the construct it tries to measure: from cognition and critical thinking to personality to motivation to leadership behaviors. The goal, therefore, is to use a complementary mix of proven, validated assessments (“multitrait, multimethod” in psychology terms), those that measure the gamut from hard-wired abilities and to changeable behaviors.
  3. Get experts to decipher the data. The right assessment data in the wrong hands can introduce risk into the hiring process. For this reason, professionals who are trained and proven on given assessment instruments should interpret and translate the results for the candidate as well as the hiring manager or search committee.
  4. Blend in market insight. This is where executive search consultants figure in. Reducing hiring risk requires bringing to the table knowledge from the field that search consultants have and which, combined with the psychologist’s interpretation of the candidate’s assessment data, serves as the foundation for expert judgment. Such judgment eliminates the risk of hiring in a vacuum only to find out later that the marketplace demands leaders with different competencies or capabilities.
  5. Don’t take your foot off the pedal. The hire is just the start. For the chosen candidate, receiving assessment results from a licensed expert is a powerful way to support the onboarding process and early success in the role. Too many hiring authorities take their foot off the gas pedal after a selection is made. (And, we admit, too many search consultants view the hire as the completion of their responsibilities to the client.) After a selection, continued coaching and attention to strengths and areas of need provides ammunition for success in the role.

Leadership assessments, if integrated into the hiring process expertly and wisely, add a high degree of certainty to the risky endeavor of selecting executives.

Terence Bostic, Ph.D. is a managing partner in CMA Global, Inc., a market-leading assessment and leadership development firm. Paul Bohne is the managing partner of WittKieffer’s Healthcare Practice.