When recruiting top executives, a headhunter must also consider soft skills.

They may not belong to the top movers and shakers, but nevertheless are involved in achieving spectacular results for the German economy. We are talking about the top management of German mid-sized companies.

Our example: The sole owner of a group of 3 companies operating in three distinct markets with about 1000 employees has been running his business together with a general manager. After nearly 30 years, he is now looking for a suitable successor. Who can be entrusted with such an important position? During an extensive conversation with an executive recruiter, another topic that was discussed was how all three companies could benefit from the change. The owner and the recruiter agreed that the ideal successor would have to be a highly skilled electrical engineer with prior work experience in innovative companies involved in mass production in the electrical, plastics and/or precision engineering industries.

There are various ways to proceed with this search.

First, one could place a recruitment ad and mention the hiring company. This would require that a top manager would always be available to field phone inquiries, which in our case study was not possible. The alternative was a consultant’s ad, where the hiring company would be described without actually mentioning its name. The position would be depicted as an exciting, challenging and interesting career opportunity, in the hope of reaching the correct target group and enticing readers to send in their applications.

After considering all the options and the job requirements, the recruiter recommended executive search. The reason: People who run mid-sized companies have very specific expectations about their future executives. Executive search is therefore most likely to produce the ideal candidate.

The first impression counts

How does the headhunter proceed? First, the researcher compiles a list of companies in the required industries where seemingly suitable candidates are employed. This delicate task requires a researcher with a high degree of intelligence, sensitivity, empathy, a quick mind and excellent communication skills. Of course, he/she speaks fluent German and English and has the ability to overcome obstacles.

What follows is the first phone contact by a consultant with prospective candidates. As in a face-to-face meeting, the same rule applies: You’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression! It is at this point that first contact prevails or is derailed. The successful recruiting of a top manager absolutely depends on the qualification and capability of the recruiter.

Once the first objective of seeking out suitable candidates is finished, we come to the second phase. Here we must get an accurate first impression of the candidates. Our experience shows, that highly capable top executives decide very quickly, if they are interested in continuing the initial contact. This short description of phase 1 and 2 might mistakenly lead to the belief, that the entire search process is relatively easy and uncomplicated. In reality, however, the search is full of obstacles, hurdles and voice mails. In our above-mentioned case study, 20 information folders that did not identify the hiring company were sent to interested candidates, outlining in detail the focus of the position including the requirement to strategically drive all three companies to the fore.

The second phone contact made after the receipt of the information folder establishes a preliminary profile of the candidate. Is he/she suitable both professionally and personally? Are we talking to a generalist, with an excellent theoretical as well as professional background and broad experience? Does he/she have strong strategical skills with the ability to lead three companies with a total of six General Managers to new and ambitious goals? Five of the contacted candidates appeared to be suitable and a face-to-face interview seemed warranted for both sides. Such personal interviews are geared to evaluate the personality of a candidate and to make certain that the chemistry between the employer and the candidate is right. The candidate has the right to expect full answers to his questions with regard to facts and figures of the hiring company, which of course now has been named.

Gut Decisions

It is also the task of the personnel consultant to make the client aware of the pitfalls, which can affect him personally, when hiring his dream candidate. This puts the consultant into a moderating role and requires gut feeling to ferret out if these two individuals can and will work together successfully. Of the three candidates presented, one was truly the right one. It was almost like love at first sight. This demonstrates that such decisions are often gut decisions.

What have we learned? One can attract a top candidate, who will bring to the table entrepreneurial spirit and deliver excellent results, if he is given a detailed description of the strengths and weaknesses of the client company, a clear definition of a vision & mission statement and the expressed assurance that the sought-after candidate will be able to lead a company, business unit or division as though it would be his own.

There are no patent solutions, but the initial recruiting phase is very important for a long and healthy working relationship. This is where personal traits play a much more significant role than technical qualifications. In so-called exit interviews with executives one often learns, that in the final analysis, personal problems between the parties led to the separation. Here we hear words like corporate culture, management style, but in reality it comes down to this: If you restrict a very competent position holder, and we are only talking about such people here, in the way he can handle his job, this becomes very frustrating to such an individual and will sooner or later lead to his resignation.

As in real life: If, after great consideration and with the help of a recruitment professional, two people are put together who demonstrate optimism and positive thinking and are flexible, then such a business relationship should last at least five years.