Search Savvy: Don’t pigeon-hole searches

Mar 12, 2014

Consider the unexpected in your next candidate search and you’ll be that much closer to winning the war for talent.

Dwight Eisenhower made a statement once that bears repeating. He said: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” He meant that a plan should be pliable; it should be flexible to adapt to changing circumstances. However, the fact that plans sometimes demand adjustment down the road doesn’t excuse the absence of careful planning now. That was Eisenhower’s point. Echoing that sentiment, I would say that foresight and the careful, thoughtful mapping of our plans today will help eliminate a potentially costly planning adjustment tomorrow. It’s not enough to “dig the well before you get thirsty” (as the old proverb goes) because digging in the wrong location (absence of foresight) will only make you thirstier. For this article, I want to apply this principle to recruiting and selection. There seems to be an inordinate amount of “revising” taking place at firms with respect to a particular candidate profile they seek at the outset of a search. The search campaign usually starts with a good preferred candidate profile in place – but then, slowly, over time, the hiring team comes to the realization that what they’ve put on the menu can’t be realistically cooked in the kitchen, so to speak. Regrettably, weeks or months are spent (and a lot of money) looking unrealistically for the kind of candidate that was never going to materialize in the first place. As a result of a whole lot of well-digging, your have nothing to show for your efforts, except an elevated thirst. So, with that principle in mind, I’d like to offer just a few encouragements that I think may help spare your shovels a bit and get on the right track EARLY toward hiring your next key employee.
  1. PLAN for what you really NEED. Recruiting campaigns incur more delays for this reason than perhaps any other (which is why I’ve given it the #1 spot on my list). For example: Is it absolutely critical that your next mechanical engineer be a P.E.? If so, fine. But think carefully about that requirement because you may be passing up some outstanding (and perhaps better) talent if you suffer from tunnel vision here. Sometimes, you simply can’t compromise on the must-haves. But keep in mind that the more MUSTS you stipulate, the fewer candidates you can court; the longer (and more costly) your search. Just ease up a little on the traditional requirements of the job in order to avail yourself to a wider array of candidates. Besides, you can still keep a sharp eye out for a P.E. along the way. I’m not talking about “settling,” by the way. In fact, opening up the search like this will probably yield you a better candidate in the long run. And wouldn’t it be regrettable if 12 months later you ended up hiring a fantastic, loyal, committed non-P.E. candidate anyway.
  2. PLAN for other viable candidate OPTIONS. This is closely related to #1, but with a nuance: Suppose you’re looking for a design leader for a healthcare sector you want to open in a new market. You need to get boots on the ground in that market so that you can start doing some work you’re winning out there, right? You haven’t budgeted for someone as high as an office leader/managing principal, but you know you’ll need to hire one eventually. For now, you just want a senior designer. So, you spend the next four months pigeon-holed into looking for a 10-plus-year designer-type person but nobody’s biting because there’s simply too much risk in taking a position with a firm that is just now entering a market. Now, mind you, along the way, you’ve managed to strike up some conversations with a dozen or so excellent 15-plus-year office leader level candidates (who happen to be the seller-doer types), but didn’t think twice about courting them for the position because you’ve got blinders on! They’re too senior – they’ll expect a higher salary. But the fact is, they can do the work too…. AND sell the practice. And, in all likelihood they’ll be able to hire the necessary design staff you need in the market because they’re so well networked. See? Plan for viable options at the beginning of the campaign and give yourself room to recognize/consider the different options the market reveals to you. You’ll capture better talent and save A LOT of time – count on it.
  3. Plan to “calibrate” the whole hiring team. Last but not least, everyone on your hiring team should know the profile options on the table – just to be sure you’re all on the same page. Nothing is as detrimental to a hiring campaign as a fractured hiring team. So, before you ever kick-off the search, be sure everyone knows what the nice-to-haves are, and what the must-haves are. Take time to truly mentor the hiring team on the value of thinking outside the box, of being truly entrepreneurial in their approach to hiring and selection. The most successful firms approach recruiting this way.
Don’t get tunnel vision. It’s a tragic mistake to pursue an unrealistic, pigeon-holed candidate profile. Plan to carefully consider (and even embrace) the unexpected in your next candidate search and you’ll be that much closer to winning the war for talent. Jeremy Clarke is the director of executive search consulting with ZweigWhite. Contact him at This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1047, originally published 3/17/2014. Copyright© 2014, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.