CEO as Recruiter

By Stephenie Overman April 1, 2008

HR Magazine, April 2008 Even during a downturn, you must still recruit. And your top executive could be a powerful influence in your process of attracting talent.

The recruiting world is a stage; HR is in the director’s chair, and the chief executive officer is “one of your star actors,” says HR consultant Valerie Frederickson.

No star, of course—not Brad Pitt, and not even the CEO—proves right for every scene. “Send in that actor for the right role at the right time,” advises Frederickson, founder and CEO of Valerie Frederickson & Co., in Menlo Park, Calif. “A good director knows how an actor is going to act.”

The extent to which a CEO should be involved in the recruiting process remains largely HR’s call, although, as staffing experts and CEOs themselves acknowledge, the degree of involvement can hinge on factors such as the company’s size and culture, its industry, the level of the positions being filled, and the CEO’s personality.

“Some CEOs feel neglected if they’re not involved. Some don’t want to be involved,” Frederickson says.

HR professionals, experts say, can build the business case for top executives’ participation in the strategic objective of talent acquisition, and HR can supply those executives with the framework for contributing.

Frederickson says involving top executives in the recruiting process reflects a company’s culture. A “handshake and pat on the shoulder can go far in making the candidate feel special,” she says. “And there’s nobody better than the person in charge to make a candidate feel good.”

Frederickson has seen the positive impact of bringing in a CEO—Cisco’s John Chambers, for example, or Andrew S. Grove when he was chief executive at Intel—to wow a candidate for an important position.

A CEO’s participation can be valuable in recruiting for key positions, agrees Robert Fulmer, academic director at Duke Corporate Education, a not-forprofit corporation held by Duke University, and distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

Much depends on the size of the company, Fulmer continues. “The top management could be involved at entrepreneurial firms starting to grow to such an extent that they’re creating specialist [positions] and at professional services where new hires are only a couple of levels from the top.” In those instances, “we’re talking 50 or 100 employees, not thousands.”

Shaping the CEO’s Role

Fulmer and Frederickson say that at large corporations the CEO should set the talent acquisition strategy for others to implement. “The CEO can translate the board’s directive into people strategy,” Frederickson says. “When it comes to setting the tone for employment branding, nobody can do that better than the CEO. … For every 10 minutes a CEO spends upfront on strategy, it saves recruiters 100 hours of labor.” Recruiters at her firm came up with those numbers by calculating “the time not wasted” in misdirected recruiting efforts.

Fulmer says the CEO should be involved in setting “the leadership model that the company will be recruiting against—the skills, competencies, objectives. It’s vision-setting as much as anything else, and values articulation.”

And after that, it’s delegating, Fulmer says.

Jørgen M. Clausen, president and CEO of Danfoss Inc., a heating and cooling products manufacturer based in Denmark, doesn’t have time to interview job candidates in the dozens of countries where the company operates, but he makes sure that talent management is on everyone’s agenda, says Sandy Miller, senior-level HR person for Danfoss North America in Baltimore. “Our CEO is great at educating the top-level people [who are] critical to hire high potentials. He makes sure that people know that is a top priority.”

Two Who Get Involved

Rob Reindl, head of HR and global communications for Edwards Lifesciences Corp., a medical technologies company in Irvine, Calif., says he has just the right actor to star in recruitment: Chairman and CEO Michael A. Mussallem. He’s “a great communicator,” Reindl says. “Mike rolls up his sleeves and does whatever it takes to encourage a candidate.”

Mussallem says he spends about 20 percent of his time on talent acquisition and development activities for the company of more than 5,700 employees worldwide. “It’s the critical jobs that get my attention, regardless of level. I rely on our HR leadership team to let me know if and when there is anything that I can do to help a candidate make the decision to join Edwards. Regardless of the level of the position, I will gladly speak over the phone or meet with a candidate if Rob and his team think I can make a difference.”

Jay LeCoque, CEO of Celsis International, a provider of life science products and laboratory services, says he will interview candidates below the executive level “if we have a specific need or an area where we need a very solid new addition to the team” of 272 employees. He likes to stay involved in the interview process for openings in sales, marketing, scientific positions and human resources at Celsis, with headquarters in Chicago and Cambridge, England.

“In spending time with candidates,” LeCoque says, “you can get a feel for their energy, drive and ability to execute, which you can’t get from a resume. If I like a particular candidate, I always like to pump them up on the opportunities here at Celsis for people who want to make a difference. … I am also very honest with them. I tell them that I know how their background or particular skill set will help them excel and why. I like to make the fit personal.”

LeCoque tells of a candidate ready for an upper management job, “but our timing was off—he had obligations, then we had to wait for other workforce issues to subside. I had to keep him posted on the situation, keep him motivated on the win-win of the opportunity. As importantly, we constantly updated and prepared this person to come in and hit the ground running. In the end, this individual did just that and has been a great fit for the organization.”

Partners in the Process

Top-level executives at small professional service companies and consulting firms often have the motivation to take a handson approach to recruiting. Partners at both Triage Consulting Group, a health care firm in San Francisco, and Ventera, an information-technology professional services and management consulting company in McLean, Va., concentrate on undergraduate recruiting. Triage was recognized last year by HR Magazine as one of the Best Small Companies to Work for in America. (See “Triage: Methodically Developing Its Employees” in the July 2007 issue of HR Magazine.)

At Triage, each of 11 partners takes responsibility for a different university, according to Jeff Coolican, a principal in charge of overall recruiting. Usually, he matches partners with their alma maters. This helps candidates who “can see a mentor or role model who has graduated from their school and gone on and had success and risen to partner” at Triage.

The partners go to campuses, conduct initial interviews with candidates and then contact select candidates to take part in all-day interviews. At those sessions, each candidate meets with a manager and two partners and goes to lunch with a senior associate and an associate. With that approach, Coolican says, “a candidate can get a feel for each of the different levels. The candidate can have a much clearer idea of the specific career path and be able to ask pointed questions” at each level.

Finally, when offers are extended, “the partners actually call those candidates, discuss details [and] congratulate them,” Coolican says. “The partners really enjoy the recruiting process. They find it valuable to get out, meet those candidates face to face and talk to them about Triage’s business, our processes and the values we have.”

An employer has “to be willing to commit the time it takes to go out and spend a day recruiting on campus and looking for quality candidates,” Coolican continues. “But the return that you get— being able to attract brighter, stronger, better candidates—is a return that comes back many times over.”

Robert M. Acosta, CEO of Ventera, participates in the recruiting process because “If we could attract good people and do right by them, they will stick around and do well for us.”

Ventera now has about 85 employees and hires 15 to 30 people every year. Acosta relies on the company’s HR professionals to schedule and coordinate, qualify, and match. “But HR alone wouldn’t make the final call,” he says.

Why Involve the Top?

Both Coolican and Acosta say involving top-level people reflects and maintains the cultures of their organizations.

“Candidates appreciate that we send out partners,” Coolican says. “Others may say people are their biggest asset, but actions speak louder than words. I can’t think of anything more important than attracting the best, and part of that is going out and meeting with [candidates]. When we have partners on campus, it helps to show those candidates that we’re very serious about providing them with access to senior management.”

Acosta appreciates being able to look for “the kind of people I would want to work with. We want a match for culture.” He views being part of the recruiting process “as necessary to assemble a talented team. It comes down to knowing people. And it shows the whole organization that [the process] is important.”

An interview with a candidate, Acosta says, “gets to be a conversation. ‘What kind of leaders have you worked for? Who do you admire? What have been your life lessons?’ I pick up on good fits. The people who want to come to work for us want the big picture. We want to get them comfortable, show them that we have a transparent environment, a trusting environment. Some of that comes out in the initial conversation.”

‘Extreme Impact’

As beneficial as it can be to bring top executives into recruiting, Frederickson has cautions. For example, she warns against over-involving top executives. Many “spend most of their time with two groups—highly trained executive assistants and executive teams,” she says. “They may not know when they see a good junior person. They’re better at selecting a chief financial officer than a financial analyst.”

And don’t be tempted, she says, to bring a CEO in just so he or she “can see how hard recruiting is. That’s crazy. That’s suicide.” Moreover, don’t waste an executive’s time, she says. “I can’t see a CEO at a card table at a job fair asking, ‘Would you like a free pen?’ ”

While it’s generally a plus to have top executives help fill important positions in the company, it also can be good to have the executive exit the stage before the final curtain. Don’t ask the CEO to actually make the deal, Frederickson advises.

Above all, she says, do not involve the CEO “unless you know what the outcome is going to be.” Keep in mind that “the CEO will have an extreme impact—positive or negative.” She illustrates her point with an example of a company that was looking for a vice president of compensation and had found the right person for the job. Then, she continues, the CEO had a courtesy meeting with the candidate and “told him, ‘Only dysfunctional people are successful here. Because if you like your family, you’re going to want to go home and not work long hours.’ He then went into detail about how each member was dysfunctional.”

In that instance, Frederickson says, the CEO had “an extreme impact,” but not the one that she and the company had in mind.

Stephenie Overman, is editor of Staffing Management magazine.

Web Extras

SHRM article:
Triage: Methodically Developing Its Employees
(HR Magazine

SHRM video:
Consultant Valerie Frederickson on CEOs’ involvement in attracting diverse candidates 

SHRM toolkit:



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