Written by: Robert D. Hennessy, Managing Partner AIMS International Philadelphia

Not seeing the right candidates on your shortlist of executive candidates? Don’t be too fast to place all the blame on a competitive job market or even the low unemployment rate. Your shortlist can also suffer for the following reasons:

Problem 1: Non-experts are compiling your candidate shortlist.

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are a lifesaver for most companies wanting to identify and screen candidates and track each candidate through the hiring process, but this tech only goes so far. That’s when strong, industry-recruiting skills step in. However, if your recruiter isn’t sufficiently experienced in the industry and executive placement, the shortlist you see is almost guaranteed to suffer.

For example, let’s say you’re working with a recruiter who doesn’t work in your industry. Odds are good he or she will start by plugging specified criteria into an ATS, like the following:

  • 15 years’ of solid-dose drug manufacturing experience in big pharma
  • 5+ years managing a team

That ATS only knows what you tell it, so it could screen out a candidate with 10 years of manufacturing experience at a competing small-cap firm, who spent the last four years building an award-winning system from the ground up while also managing a team with almost zero turnover.

An experienced recruiter, on the other hand, will manually search through their own list of contacts and use other means to find candidates who may not, for whatever reason, make it onto an ATS’s list of top contenders. It’s a more accountable search strategy.

By the way, it’s not uncommon for recruiters to tap into applicant tracking technology to identify candidates, too (the ATS is a powerful tool!). A 2014 study indicates that more than 93% of large search firms in the U.S. consider applicant tracking technology to be a key ingredient in recruiting success. It’s a fact of life for big search firms that are attempting to fill so many roles for companies — there’s no other way they could survive.

Search professionals with AIMS International, however, rely on word-of-mouth and reputation, so our shortlists have to be the highest quality. Even if we enlist the help of a tracking system during the search process, we still need to manually review other candidates to ensure we’re not overlooking anyone. Repeat business is our lifeblood, so we develop accountable research and sourcing strategies. We could never stay competitive if we relied solely on algorithms.

Knowing an industry will also give your recruiter insight into the job’s requirements and help them understand the skills that are both needed and earned, all of which can vary widely at the top levels of a company. It’s something you can’t program into a tech-based system.

One more advantage of the industry pro: the best talent may not be looking to change roles. That means they won’t want to talk to just any recruiter. A well-connected industry search consultant, however, may have the connections and means to get people to listen.

Problem 2: The pre-screen interview is merely a recap of the resume. Pre-screening calls are typically used to gauge a candidate’s interest and go deeper into the resume and experience, but most take 15-30 minutes or less, even with executive-level candidates. That’s when problems arise.

One of the search professionals I work with, Amy Blumke, puts it like this: “When you get the candidate to take your call … that’s when the hard work really starts. Not only am I now selling the role and the company, but I’m also digging further to learn if this candidate is going to be a good cultural fit.”

Amy takes time to grow the relationship so she can develop the candidate’s personal profile, too. “You have to see the candidate as more than a worker, find out what inspires them, how they solve problems and interact with people, what’s going on in their lives, why they might say ‘no.’ Yes, I want to understand more about the candidate’s experience, and not just what roles they held. It’s more about how they earned that experience, what they learned, what they’re bringing with them.”

I can vouch for Amy when she says the process takes more than a single short interview. You may need multiple meetings to motivate a candidate and to really get to know them. With our search process, it’s common to spend hours talking with each candidate before determining if they should advance — a lot of candidates never make it past this phase. But it’s something your recruiter has to do, even if you’re looking at a 90-day placement. Because you want a shortlist of incredible options, not a long list of candidates who won’t pan out.

Problem #3. Your candidate care is lacking. Two factors can make or break even the best recruiter’s efforts today:

  1. Market conditions mean candidates are frequently fielding multiple great offers.
  2. Socially connected industries, where a single candidate’s poor experience with an organization has the potential to be heard by thousands of people quickly, can turn prospective candidates away before they’ve even been shortlisted

How do companies address these? Through “candidate care,” the process, respect and attitude a company takes when interacting with all candidates, on any level.

Thirty years in life sciences executive search has taught me how important it is to show each candidate how much you respect them, even if you choose not to hire them. I adopted “candidate care” decades ago as a natural reaction to what I experienced early in my own career at a large, global, retained executive search powerhouse. Candidates weren’t respected, like they should be. They’d start the discussion with a junior recruiter who didn’t really know the right questions and, honestly, wasted the candidate’s time. If a candidate chose to continue, they’d be left waiting in the lobby during interviews, get pushed aside because one of the interviewers had other tasks to attend to, and their questions about the role or the hiring process would be answered “eventually.” That was enough for more than a few great candidates to take themselves out of consideration.

Candidate care starts the moment your recruiting professional decides to talk to a prospective candidate, before the first call is made. If your recruiter doesn’t ensure the candidate’s time is respected, that questions are answered and the entire process seems seamless, it’s going to impact this search and future ones, too.

It’s part of what attracted me to AIMS International in the first place — we’re all schooled on candidate care and so are our clients. The pool for amazing talent is only so deep right now. Everyone should be treated as if they are a guest at your home.

One of my former clients, the former president of Novo Nordisk (U.S.), William S. Poole, equated candidate care to the challenge sales teams have: “All it takes is one unhappy customer to undo the good of having 100 happy customers,” he said, noting that a single poor candidate experience has the power to turn the next 100 great candidates away, too.

You can find out if your search professional is practicing good candidate care by working with groups like AIMS International or by simply asking the right questions, like how many of their candidates become clients. If a CEO or CHRO received excellent treatment as a candidate, you better believe they’re going to want the same experience for everyone who reports to them, too.

And if your recruiter isn’t practicing great candidate care? You’ll see that in the quality of the shortlist. Great executive candidates have plenty of other opportunities to pursue.

Robert D. Hennessy, Managing Partner AIMS International Philadelphia