Never hire leaders based on word of mouth

It took more than a year to find the right candidate to fill the newly-created position of Chief People and Culture Officer (formerly the Head of Human Resources) for a major financial firm. The firm believed their industry would be reshaped and disrupted in the future. Succeeding in this future would require people with a different skillset – one that is adaptable and able to make a difference regardless of the context. They wanted their Chief People Officer to signal this change, both in how she was hired and her skillset.

The new leader helped her team pivot from reacting and responding to requests based on gaps to sitting alongside the CEO to proactively project and define the future of the company. The new executive moved from a hierarchical view of development to a more fact-based and diverse view of hiring and developing talent, targeting selection and personalizing development through analytics.

In this talent-first era of business performance, having the right person in the right position is essential. Hiring by word of mouth means talent referrals from someone you know and trust, and the speed and power of the grapevine is clear. However, word of mouth hiring can introduce bias into the process by potentially limiting the number of candidates for consideration. It also discourages diversity of the talent pool by highlighting candidates with a connection to the company.

The need for a fresh leadership baseline is acute. The nature of the word “leadership” has evolved through digitization, automation, shifts in generational expectations of work and a gig economy. Leaders today must demonstrate they care about the individuals on their teams to best magnify the impact of their talent and align the right talent to the right value creation opportunities. They must be curious about change and its implications on their own sphere of influence. They must have the courage to make hard choices, raise risks others aren’t seeing and maintain their course when others embrace a new fad.

It is no longer sufficient to hire leaders based solely on performance data or the word of top executives. To ensure leaders not only deliver performance results, but are also great people, requires a more thoughtful view of hiring that considers a range of factors and procedures. How do you identify the right talent? There are some essentials to look for in a candidate:

  • Caring, curiosity, and courage: A balance across these multiple attributes, including a fit with the organizational culture; the ability to complement the existing team; the right mix of knowledge, skills, and experiences specific to the role; and the central motivation to grow.
  • Problem-solving abilities: A candidate’s business and interpersonal skills should be taken into consideration for the specific role.
  • 360-degree feedback: Hearing from peers and potential direct reports in the hiring decision.
  • Being able to Lead: Assessment of interest and passion for leading others, when a candidate lacks leadership experience.

But hiring isn’t where the new baseline approach to leadership ends: It must include the new leader’s onboarding, ongoing development and performance assessment.

Onboarding requires several elements, including establishing expectations in terms of performance, culture and personal behaviors; one-on-one time with each team member and key internal and external stakeholders; and transparent communication about the leader’s organizational mandate and commitment to action.

A leader’s enhanced development, especially for a first-time leader, should encompass year-long coaching and learning linked to key business events, reverse mentorship from those who have “grown up” in the organization, special projects to develop specific skills in context of work, and exposure to new thinking through external forums.

Ongoing leadership development should be a blended journey through experiences that stretch leaders to think, act and lead differently, and to increase their impact on the organization.

Overseeing this reimagined leadership approach must be the shared responsibility of the CEO and the CFO, under the direction of the People function, and a new mandate by leadership must be respected and trusted within the organization. Leaders must be the ultimate role models of caring, curiosity and courage as they look ahead and empower the talent on their teams to take actions that drive goals of the company, even in times of complexity and change.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice