In my work across the sphere of high-tech executive recruiting, I’ve had the privilege to meet a diverse population of leaders. Some I’ve met on the conference and speaking circuits, some have been clients, and others have been cherished coworkers. Most have been charismatic, intelligent, and passionate individuals, with a genuine sense of concern for the wellbeing of the people under their command and a vision for the future of their organizations. While many people in executive positions would likely earn a similar description, a much smaller portion of executives can be described as “truly impressive.” So what makes the distinction?

In my experience, and based on anecdotal evidence, the difference between a successful leader and those that fail usually has something to do with their ability to rally the right people around an initiative and keep them engaged. Isolating and identifying that quality in an executive, however, is often not a priority during the hiring process. Companies face a tremendous amount of pressure when filling an open executive slot. The focus on hiring someone with the right industry experience, proven success rate, and educational pedigree can sometimes feel so aggressive that it becomes easy to forget that an executive’s job isn’t about “doing the work” – it’s about building and managing the team of people that “do the work.”

It’s all too common for CEOs and their management teams to fall into this trap. Over the course of my career, I’ve noticed that a lot of companies prefer to evaluate their candidates primarily based on numbers and figures (year-over-year revenue growth, number of successful product releases each year, net increase in customer-satisfaction scores, etc.). Make no mistake, these are all worthy data points to gather. But even though these numbers might be good quantitative indicators of success, they provide little-to-no insight into how the individual manages and assembles their team to accomplish goals or deliver on key business priorities.

Since hiring is typically a substantial portion of any executive’s job, and because building the right team is critical for success, we encourage the companies we work with to spend more time trying to understand how an executive approaches the talent side of their job. It may feel natural to assume that a candidate knows how to shape a team, evaluate good talent, and create a positive team culture if the track record of success is there, but when was the last time you verified that? In all likelihood, the executive you’re hiring will oversee some form of mission-critical objective in your business. If you hire an executive that doesn’t actually have an informed point of view on how to mold and grow their organization, how likely is it that they’ll be able to deliver on that objective for you? And if they fail, what will it mean to your business?

As you begin the hiring process, sit down with your hiring team and talk through how you might assess candidates in terms of their ability to shape and build a team. Some suggested questions for discussion include:

  • How will the candidate determine the necessary shape and structure of the team underneath her, needed to fulfill the business objective? How will she do that within the current resource constraints of the business?
  • How will he gauge the current team’s capability (skill) and/or capacity gaps?
  • Will she try to cultivate needed capabilities through training existing employees? Does she plan to hire new talent from the market to fill any gaps?
  • How does the candidate assess talent? (We suggest that you probe deeper into this question with candidates who say that they hire by “gut feel.”)
  • How will he maximize his organization’s ability to predict a hire’s success on the job, and how will he do it in a repeatable and scalable way?
  • How will the candidate create a consistent approach to assessing talent from the top to the bottom of her management team?
  • What will the candidate do to create a culture where individuals, both inherited team members and new hires, feel motivated to perform, collaborate, or innovate?

Try blending this line of questioning into your executive hiring practices and see if it helps you isolate the “truly impressive” executives who will create the biggest impact on your business. If you’re not sure where to start, reach out to us at 215.568.8363 or, and we’d be happy to see how we can help you!

Andy Farrell, Principal