What a Recruiter Looks for in CEO Candidates

A grasp of the numbers helps, but an increasingly complex world demands better communication skills too.

If you’re on the hunt for a CEO job, it’s good to have some hard numbers to talk about—how much you’ve increased revenue, membership, attendance, and so on. But that’s not the only thing a recruiter and hiring committee are looking for.

Pamela Kaul, president and founder of the executive search firm Association Strategies, Inc., says she’s seen plenty of association executives fail because they’re lacking in so-called soft skills such as conflict resolution, relationship-building, and visionary thinking. Those things may seem relatively unimportant—that’s part of why they’re called “soft,” after all—but in Kaul’s experience, they’re why many CEOs get shown the door, or don’t make it into the office in the first place.

Boards these days really expect CEOs to have a global view.

“What I hear when I come into an organization is that boards might find an excuse about why they moved somebody out of an organization or invited a CEO to look at new opportunities, but the bottom line is that it was the behavioral style,” she says. “The person didn’t build relationships, perhaps destroyed relationships, and didn’t mend fences.”

And in the same way that matters of behavior style can spell the end of a CEO’s career, it can also eliminate potential executives from later interview rounds. The issue has become pronounced enough that it inspired a session at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo next month, “CEO Temperament and Leadership Success,” where Kaul will be joined by National Parent Teacher Association executive director Nathan Monell and Building Owners and Managers Association International president and CEO Henry Chamberlain.

So what are recruiters and hiring committees looking for? A capacity for addressing conflicts head-on, for one. “People tend to look the other way when there is a red ant or a problematic board member or other negative influence in a leadership role,” Kaul says. “Some execs think, ‘I’ll just wait it out and this issue will just go away at some point.’ But often people really don’t go away.”

A sense of the big picture helps too. “Boards these days really expect CEOs to have a global view,” she says. “What’s going on in the world that will somehow—not even related to our industry, profession, or cause—that might have some impact on our organization or industry, either as an opportunity, a threat, a potential collaboration, as a new product or business line? They really expect the CEO to be the eyes and ears on the global news.”

It can be hard to suss out that capacity in the interview process. Asking a candidate to list some of his or her weaknesses is likely a dead end paved with pat answers. (“I’ve heard all of them, and search committees see through them in a New York second,” she says.) But asking candidates to talk about moments when they faced conflicts and how they addressed them can be revealing on two levels: in terms of the specifics of what happened, and in how the answer reveals the candidate’s own level of self-awareness. How comfortable are you with expressing a professional shortcoming in a genuine way? And do you present yourself as somebody with the capacity to address it?

Self-awareness is a tricky business, as I discussed in last week’s post. Association executives (and those who wish to become them) do well to understand how they’re perceived by people around them. But doing so requires time, consistency, and a trust-building attitude. People resist all of that not just because it’s time-consuming, but because inevitably the process will reveal flaws. But candidates can take some reassurance in the fact that that hiring committees aren’t looking for perfection, just the appropriate fit. As leadership expert Ram Charan wrote in Harvard Business Review last December on the CEO selection process: “Every CEO has an open flank. The typical vetting process will bring candidates’ quirks and flaws to the surface, but wise selectors accept imperfection when they make their decision.”

In a pinch, though, Kaul suggests that there’s one way for you to get feedback about how you’re perceived. If you didn’t get offered the C-suite gig—and perhaps even if you did—get in touch with your references and have a candid conversation about what was discussed. The reference may not have delivered the glowing praise you’d expected. “I’m aware of situations where references have come forward about a candidate’s behavior….[and] isn’t moving forward in a job search because the reference’s information was not helpful to the cause of the CEO,” she says. “You have to find out from your references what was said.”

What has worked well for you as an executive when going through the hiring process, and how do you get comfortable expressing your shortcomings? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!