Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Viewpoint by Jeff Forbes, Vice President

As a leader, you know that hiring is an inherently risky proposition. People are complex, making it challenging to assess the ability of any candidate to successfully perform a particular role in an organization. Although any failed hire is detrimental, the impacts are amplified at the senior management level. Over the past decade I have led dozens of search assignments for mission-critical senior leadership positions across Atlantic Canada. On occasion, we are asked to come in after an executive has failed in a role. With very few exceptions, the cause is usually the same: the person was not the right fit for the organization.

The difficulty of hiring for the right fit has come up often in my recent conversations with executives and HR leaders. All have recounted instances in the past of compromised productivity, lost opportunities or costly settlements stemming from executives who failed to meet expectations, or were unhappy in the organization. While the current economic downturn may have eased the talent crunch for the moment, the demographic shift will make it an issue once again as conditions improve. These leaders know that the companies that prosper and grow as talent becomes scarce will be the ones that consistently identify, recruit and retain the right employees in the right positions. Hiring the right fit is the key to these efforts.

Although most organizations recognize the importance of hiring for fit, available figures suggest only a minority do so successfully. A Harvard study conducted several years ago found that 80% of employee turnover is due to poor hiring decisions. Other surveys I’ve seen indicate that up to 40% of all executives either leave or are fired from an organization within 18 months of being hired because they were the wrong fit. This figure is particularly alarming given the influence your executives have over your processes, people and culture. The wrong executive in the wrong position may breed discontent amongst your employees. Engagement and productivity levels will subsequently decline, and your top performers will likely look for employment elsewhere.

In my experience, the companies that are consistently successful in finding the right fit begin their recruitment efforts with a clear understanding of who they are as an organization and what they are looking for in the role. A cultural assessment provides a detailed insight into an organization’s DNA, encompassing everything from leadership style to shared values and behavioural norms. The rationale is simple: the more you know about your organizational culture, the easier it is to determine the suitability of a particular candidate. The second component is a position profile to establish the accountabilities for the position and the competencies a candidate must possess to excel in the role. A comprehensive position profile will help assess how a particular individual will contribute to or detract from your culture. For example, it doesn’t matter how many great initiatives the leader creates if they have no ability to motivate staff to execute on them.

Though an organizational cultural assessment and position profile provide a strong foundation for success, the tools you use to evaluate candidates are equally important in hiring for the right fit. A good place to start is a traditional face-to-face interview that incorporates behavioural event questions. These questions will reveal how an individual has historically met expectations, overcome challenges and demonstrated accountability. This will give you some indication as to how he or she will react to similar situations in your organization. Psychometric assessments will provide additional insight as to how well a candidate’s personality, temperament and values match your organizational identity and position profile. Finally, thorough reference checks provide an opportunity to confirm past performance and verify your assessment with the candidate’s peers.

As much as the above strategies will help ensure a good fit, there is something to be said for following your intuition when evaluating a candidate. Failing to trust your gut instincts is the most frequent mistake made in assessing a candidate’s suitability. For whatever reason – the individual’s expertise or just a pressing need to fill a position – they ignore that little voice, the red flag telling them a particular individual is not the right fit. Our advice to clients is that if you have misgivings, heed them. You will know instinctively whether someone has the right credentials and core competencies to succeed in your organization.

Despite your best efforts, there is always a chance you will hire the wrong fit when
recruiting. Such errors aren’t always lethal and can, in some cases, be corrected. It all depends on the degree of misalignment with the organizational culture and role. Talented executive coaching can bridge many gaps, in terms of leadership style, personality traits or approaches. That being said, if adapting to a new style goes against the grain of that person’s identity, a change is often best for both the individual and the organization.

Of course, failed hire situations, and the difficult conversations that ensue, are best avoided altogether. The better you understand your own organizational culture, the position profile and assess for fit during the hiring process, the greater the likelihood you’ll hire the perfect fit who will excel in your organization.

Jeff Forbes is a Vice President at Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, Atlantic Canada’s leading integrated human capital solutions provider. He has extensive experience in successfully recruiting professional and executive talent for organizations across our region.

Jeff Forbes
Jeff Forbes , CMC
President & Managing Partner
902.424.1126