Need an A-player? Your network is not enough

by Jim Etling
Senior Vice President at Charles Aris Inc.

Charles Aris colleague Ryan Krumroy recently wrote a blog post titled “How do I find and hire a CFO?”, in which he presented some great ideas to apply in hiring any senior executive.

Ryan’s first suggestion was to tap into your own network of experts – banks, audit firms, investors, board members – and ask them to provide leads to true A-players. That struck a nerve because most private equity firms I’ve partnered with, or spoken to about assisting with a senior-level search for one of their investments, say they begin a search by reaching out to their network. For some, querying that network is their go-to strategy, and some will tell you that this strategy delivers.

Reading Ryan’s advice got me thinking: If I had a critical senior-level search in which I absolutely had to find the best candidate in the shortest time possible, would my first move be to reach out to people I know and ask for their help?

It might be. Why not try for a quick hit? I’ll talk to people I know and look for recommendations from them, hoping they’ve worked successfully with the type of talent I want in my organization.

But what do I know about my network as it pertains to executive talent? Does my network know what A-players look like? Does my network know how to attract and hire them? Do they understand my business as well as I do, and what I need in that specific A-player? Will the contacts in my network take time away from their busy schedules and obligations to help me?

The truth is that no network, regardless of its depth and level of commitment, will be able to answer “Yes” to all those questions – and you need the answers to be “Yes” if your network is to be your go-to strategy. In fact, you need those answers to be “Yes” for whatever search strategy you select.

So what’s the best way to find those elusive A-players? I read an article by a startup CEO recently in which he said that A-players are always stretching goals, they hate to lose, and they take personal responsibility for everything. They put their professional lives ahead of their families and are risk takers … they’re the high potentials.

Pick the definition that best fits your view of the world, but at the end of the day you want A-players on your team. It’s unrealistic to think you could create a team 100 percent full of A-players, but the fact is you need them – and lots of them. You have to know how to find A-players and how to attract, hire and retain them.

What does an understanding of A-players have to do with determining your best search strategy? Everything.

Over the past 46 years in the executive search business, we’ve learned a lot about A-players. They change jobs for Four Reasons:

  • the company they’ll work for
  • the people they’ll work with
  • the job they’re going to do and
  • the opportunity it will provide them

Even more important than understanding the Four Reasons is recognizing that A-players already have these four things. They have everything you’re going to offer them. They work for a great company, they love their colleagues, every day they’re working at their dream job, and they can’t believe someone is actually paying them to do what they do. And A-players typically aren’t out looking for a job. Their résumés aren’t usually on the Internet and they’re rarely interviewing. They’re putting in the “necessary time to win”, as one CEO recently said. They’re succeeding in the role you want them to do for you … they’re just doing it for someone else.

So how do you attract the person who has everything you can offer? You have to find them – plain, pure and simple. They’re not going to come to you, even from your network. You have to proactively go out and search for them. You have to interrupt their perfect day at their perfect company, doing their perfect job with their perfect colleagues, and show them how your Four Reasons are significantly more compelling than what they have.

Ask yourself:

  • Are the contacts in your network going to do the research to learn all about your company? Probably not.
  • Are they going to do the research to find 100 or more potential A-players? Definitely not.
  • Are they going to get on the phone and speak to all those potentials to determine who actually is qualified for your role, then explain your Four Reasons to them? No.

Your network will do what you would do if you were in their shoes: They’ll spend a few minutes thinking about the individuals they know, then send you an email with the names and contact information of a few potential leads, and that’s understandable. You can’t really expect more from them. They want to help but they’re busy, have their own day jobs, and quite honestly aren’t trained in the art and science of searching for A-players.

Retained search firms are trained in the art and science of search. It’s what they do.

The best will get to know your company – both where you’ve been and where you’re going. They’ll learn about your key employees and be able to speak passionately about their value to the organization. They’ll intimately understand the job the candidate will do and what it will mean to them when they do it, and articulate that in a compelling way to A-players. The VERY best will reach out to as many A-players as necessary, often 100 or more, until they’ve narrowed the field to the two or three perfect fits. That’s how you hire A-players.

So next time you have a critical search, go to your network for a few days and hopefully you’ll get that quick hit. I hope you do. But if you don’t, bring in a team that does this every day, that is passionate about finding the best talent for clients, and that will find and attract those A-players for you.