It takes tremendous courage to make a hire. 10x that when hiring executives, and 10x again when you’re a startup accountable to the VCs providing your funding. There’s no room for error.
CEOs conducting executive searches have immense pressure to hire the right person. They believe—usually correctly—that hiring decisions are perceived as a measure of their judgment and leadership. It’s one thing to select from a pool of candidates who have been referred in by the board; it’s another game entirely to hire someone unknown.
When you need to fill an executive role, where do you start?
The obvious answer is to find candidates in your industry who have market experience that they can transfer over to their new position.
But the obvious answer isn’t always the right one.
One of the ways CEOs subconsciously quell their fears about hiring is by focusing their search on “safe” options. They look for candidates who are not only from the same industry but also whose market experience aligns precisely with the open position.
The biggest problem with this approach is that the risk of hiring someone whose specialized experience in one market has led to myopia. I love this quote by David Epstein, best-selling author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:
“In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.”
When we conduct executive searches, we don’t rely on traditional recruiting strategies like scanning a resume for buzzwords or looking to a company’s competitors. There’s more to hiring the right person than finding someone with hyper-specialized experience. More often than not, the best person to fill your executive role may not even be in your domain at all.
The Case for Expanding Executive Search Across Markets
When you open up your executive search, you’re more likely to get candidates from diverse professional backgrounds—who bring fresh perspectives and ideas that help you differentiate in the market. You’re not in this field to be just like everyone else.
On the other hand, when you limit your search to people who only have experience in one market, the candidates often have a fixed, predetermined way of thinking about your product or service. They’re more likely to be feature-focused and less willing to veer outside their lane for creative problem-solving from different perspectives.
Candidates who aren’t from your specific market often take a more holistic approach to your product or service. They’ll ask smart questions. They’ll challenge preconceived notions. They’ll help fuel genuine growth and improvement.
Case in point: When one of our banking clients came to us in search of a Head of Technology and Innovation, they tried working with a search firm that sourced from executives at other banks but failed to find the right fit. We talked through the benefits of looking at other industries that would have the same sort of alignment, such as healthcare. We ended up finding them a talented individual out of education who brought in an energy and approach that they didn’t even know they needed.
A Better Way to Approach Executive Search
How do you break the mold of stale, status quo executive searches?
Kill the buzzwords. When typical recruiters conduct executive searches, they’re mostly matching buzzwords to identify candidates. Rather than chasing buzzwords, recruiters should focus on learning what their clients really do and understand their needs.
Consider backgrounds and career evolution. Successful executives aren’t afraid to reinvent themselves throughout their careers. Those dynamic individuals can bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table. Instead of laser-focusing on market experience, look at an individual’s entire career history to see their true potential.
Look beyond competitors. CEOs commonly look to their competitors when searching for potential executive candidates. But in addition to navigating non-compete agreements, they risk finding people who are hyper-specialized and unable to escape their own limited way of thinking. While executives who are working for your competitors shouldn’t be off the table for consideration, make sure to assess their background and experience holistically.
This approach is especially important when working with early-stage, venture-backed companies who can’t realistically afford to hire away from one of their billion dollar competitors. We like to analyze those individuals’ profiles to see how they have evolved to where they are now. Then we’ll search for similar candidates who are less senior but have comparable career trajectories.
Work with people you trust. If you don’t trust your recruiting partner’s judgment and abilities, you’ll never overcome the fear and anxiety of making an executive hire. Going out of the domain for your search isn’t about taking a blind leap of faith or acting recklessly. A good partner should be working hard to earn your confidence, especially if they’re making recommendations that seem unusual or out of the box!
If you keep an open mind and find the right hiring partner, you can start to run executive searches that are bigger, broader, and better.