What headhunters look for in a chief executive

Executive recruiters are more interested in your background and references than prior performance, according to a study by the LSE.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 25 Jan 2016

If you’re a former chief executive who was shown the door after a run of bad results then you can breathe a sigh of relief. Headhunters on the search for a new CEO are more interested in your personal background than in prior performance, according to an academic study published today.

Researchers at the London School of Economics interviewed senior execs at 10 British and international executive search firms in a bid to determine what they look for in a top dog. Their research found that headhunters dont's spend a lot of time trying to determine past performance. 

That's partly because it’s too difficult to distinguish between how well an executive has done personally, and how well their company has performed. Some businesses couldn’t be saved by the most accomplished of operators, but others will trundle along happily with a fool at the helm. 

An impressive career path will set you in good stead. In some sectors that means prior experience in a similar field (engineering or finance, for instance) and it also means having significant managerial experience and responsibility, rather than a more technical role.

‘The firms interviewed agreed that in some industries experience in that industry is essential,’ the report said. ‘In others that is not the case. But all call for candidates having held a variety of posts, a fairly clear upward progression, and some managerial appointments.’

References are also key. Headhunters may not be great at appraising performance, but they hoover up the opinions of others. That ranges from written references to formal chats and even naked gossip. ‘There’s an awful lot of hearsay,’ conceded one interviewee, so keep your friends close.

The process of hiring a CEO is ‘usually inherently conservative’, the report adds, because ‘the main concern is avoiding a patently bad appointment.’ Unfortunately for those yet to land a top job, that means the best way to win over recruiters is to have been a chief exec already.

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