When it comes to project acquisition, many A/E/C and environmental consulting firms have learned (and some the hard way) that it pays to take a strategic approach. Yet, when making critical hires to grow their business, strategy and targeting can often go out the window.

In this issue of The Friedman File, we examine how the lessons of client and project acquisition apply to the hiring of C-suite positions, practice builders, senior marketers and business developers, and other senior management roles.

It’s currently a candidate’s market, and the types of leaders who can make a big impact in your organization are no strangers to being recruited. To bring them on board requires a clear strategy, a compelling message and a carefully executed interview process.

Stage One: Defining the Opportunity

Know what you want and why

When you pursue a project, if you don’t have a vision or know how you’ll define success, it’s easy to waste time and effort, or end up with work that’s not a good fit. The same is true in executive search. Articulating your “why” is important. What strategic needs will this position meet? How does their role fit into your business plan? How will you measure their success?

Are you searching for a president because you don’t feel comfortable with the internal talent or because you want to benchmark against other firms? Why are you hiring a market sector leader and what is your strategy to enter or grow that market? How does that tie into your business plan and strategic plan?

These “whys” should be clearly reflected in the position description. That means thinking through the title, reporting hierarchy, ownership opportunities and position within the leadership structure. Put yourself in a typical candidate’s shoes, so that you’re setting realistic expectations on both sides.

Craft a solid pitch

Once you’re clear on the role and expectations, it’s time to consider how you’ll position your firm and the opportunity to desirable candidates. Clean, crisp messaging that tells them about your firm and your aspirations, what you’re looking for and why they should be motivated sets a positive, professional tone right out of the gate.

In crafting your pitch, you should address candidates’ most frequently asked questions, such as:

  • The strategic rationale for this position
  • Your firm’s culture
  • Your strategic plan and process
  • Your approach to business development and marketing
  • High-profile clients/projects
  • Expectations and success metrics
  • Advancement potential, including ownership and leadership development
  • Compensation range and benefits

When reaching out to candidates, you’ll likely get voice mail. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch them live, but they likely won’t be able to speak. Either way, you’ll want to distill your pitch into a compelling elevator speech and schedule a confidential screening call to discuss the opportunity. The more compelling your message, the better your results.

Stage Two: Research and Preparation

Do your homework

Do you go after every RFP that crosses your desk? Or do you target only the opportunities that make sense for your business plan? Finding the talent to grow your business is the same. It hinges on carefully identifying potential candidates and proactively pursuing them.

Few firms have success finding high-level candidates through job postings, which tend to attract lower-caliber candidates, such as those who are out of work or take a passive approach to their career. That might be fine for junior or mid-level hires, but it takes well-planned outreach to bring in top senior management talent.

Start by developing a target list of competitors that you respect, along with people you believe could be a good fit for your goals. Research LinkedIn, tap work colleagues, network through professional associations and talk with your business partners to identify strong candidates.

For strategic, senior-level hires, a few minutes on LinkedIn provides a wealth of important intel:

  • Do they have a robust LinkedIn profile? Anyone with the initiative to lead a company and/or grow business knows this is an important outward face to the industry.
  • Are they active in outreach with a high number of connections?
  • Are they giving talks, publishing articles or using social media or blogs to participate in the industry or market?
  • Are they active where clients congregate?
  • Do they follow industry groups to stay up on news?
  • Do they have recommendations from clients, partners or professional association staff? (In contrast, LinkedIn endorsements carry little weight.)

Set up a clear process

Many firms use a consultant for high-level searches. If you’re going it alone, designating an internal point person to manage your search is not optional. It will be that person’s job to keep things moving and to be asking “how will this play with candidates?” at every step.

If your initial outreach is successful, you can assess chemistry and develop initial impressions with a casual coffee meeting. You can learn a lot in these “get-to-know” meetings: what questions they ask, whether they did their homework, would they fit in and how they might interact with clients and staff.

For example, one executive search client felt that something might be “off” after speaking with a candidate, but couldn’t identify what it was until that candidate brought up inappropriate benefits minutiae at this initial meeting. That short interaction saved them time and trouble and allowed them to quickly move ahead with other candidates.

Other tips for successful interviewing:

  • Set a schedule and stick to it. Avoid delays and stay in regular communication with candidates. Some firms let weeks go by, which encourages candidates to question your interest and leaves the door open for other firms.
  • Consider group interviews. This enables you to see how a candidate thinks on their feet and allows interviewers to compare notes on the same experience.
  • Respect confidentiality. In another search I conducted, a candidate who was active in industry associations expressed concerns about confidentiality upfront. Unfortunately, not everyone on the interview team took this seriously. When word got out about their interest, trust was eroded and the candidate opted out.
  • Ensure that interviewers read the candidate’s resume and LinkedIn profile before the interview. Not doing so reflects poorly on your firm and sends the message that you don’t value the candidate’s time.
  • Debrief candidates after each round of interviews to assess their interest, identify concerns and answer questions, then feed this intel back to committee decision-makers.

Stage Three: Onboarding

Make an offer they won’t refuse

Once you’ve decided on your candidate, be prepared to come out of the gate with your best offer (knowing that small details can still be negotiated). If you don’t, you risk leaving a bad taste with your potential hire and eroding their trust in your firm.

Start onboarding early

You’ll improve your odds when you think of onboarding as ongoing versus a post-hire activity. That means basing your pitch in reality, highlighting your culture and following through on your promises all the way through the process. Remember that your search is the first taste of what it’s like to work at your firm. Actions speak just as loud—if not louder—than your most compelling pitch.

Have a success story—or horror story—about hiring for a critical role to grow your business? I’d love to hear it. Call me at (508) 276-1101 or email me at rich@friedmanpartners.com.