How to Hire an Exceptional Leader

Written by on March 26, 2021

Hiring excellent leaders and coaches is crucial for any organization that wants to grow and thrive, and finding capable leadership isn’t easy. Bad recruiting decisions are costly, and they’re very easy to make. Hiring an ineffective leader or manager can be a huge setback for a company or department.

When we hire an ineffective leader, it usually takes much longer to identify the cause of the poor results. The performance of the ineffective leader will show up first in his team or department’s results. Often, a team is initially held responsible for poor leadership. We’ve all seen situations where it took months or even years to realize that bad results or outcomes were actually a reflection of poor leadership or ineffective coaching.

Why is hiring effective leaders so challenging?

Here are a few of the reasons:

  • Many experienced leaders and managers are not direct producers, so it’s hard to get objective information about their personal performance.
  • Interviewers are often influenced by aspects of a candidate that has nothing to do with leadership.
  • Hiring companies and recruiters tend to sort candidates by title and experience. We all know that a person can have an impressive title and lots of years of experience on their resume… and still be an ineffective leader.
  • Often, a newly-hired leader is replacing an ineffective leader… so the performance bar can be set very low at the start.
  • It can take a while to realize that things aren’t improving with the new leader.

The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to improve your odds at hiring an exceptional leader. Dynamic, growth-oriented organizations should be as diligent as possible with the recruitment of leaders. Finding the right person for your leadership role will pay off in many important ways. There are proven tactics for taking some of the risks out of hiring leaders. Let’s review the top six:

The Top Six Tactics for Identifying Exceptional Leaders

  • Ask for 360° references. That’s references from superiors, peers and… most importantly… people whom this candidate has led in the past. You will hear a lot about the candidate’s personality in these conversations. Make sure you ask about specific coaching skills and priorities, that’s what you really want to know. You’ll get an excellent understanding of your candidates’ actual capability from this 360° view.
  • Ask the candidate how they have deployed different leadership skills for different situations. Having “Manager” or “VP” on your business card does not make you a leader, but a skill-set you can leverage does. Have them explain how their leadership has evolved through the different management roles on their resume.
  • Ask the candidate about thought leaders who have influenced their leadership. Whose books, blogs, talks, and ideas resonate with him? If a leader is not actively looking for inspiration and education, they are not going to evolve and improve over time. They will have a limited positive impact on your organization.
  • Figure out if your candidate has an internal or external motivational drive. We want internally-driven leaders, their performance lid is much higher than their externally-driven peers. Here’s a great question to find out:  Ask your candidate “how do you know when you are doing a great job as a leader?” The externally-driven leader will talk about recognition and targets, the internally driven leader will usually talk about progress with their team, organizational culture or the development of their own leadership skills.
  • Ask about a time where they have failed as a leader or coach. Any progressive leader will have a list of disappointments where their results didn’t match their expectations. Listen carefully to where they assign blame. Do they own it… or do they pass it off on their people or to uncontrollable circumstances? You want to hire a fully accountable leader.
  • Have a conversation with your candidate about leadership. Ask them how they define it, and how they would go about coaching the team and driving growth at your organization. Ask about short and long-term tactics. Listen closely for ideas about organized initiatives, actionable tactics, and coaching strategies. Be wary of the leader who only talks about motivational ideas. Motivational tactics… both positive and negative… are typically overemphasized by underdeveloped leaders.

Do you remember this famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote?

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss circumstances & events; small minds discuss other people

It is surprisingly applicable to recruiting and interviewing. The exceptional candidate will show a lot of enthusiasm and passion for leadership and coaching. They will be excited about working with a new team and helping them discover more of their own capability. Average candidates will want to talk about their old bosses or things that happened to them in previous roles. Ask a lot of open-ended questions to determine your candidate’s orientation.

Those are the Top Six ways to Hire an Exceptional Leader. Remember, finding the right leader is the first step in taking your organization or department to the next level. You want a fully engaged leader with the skills to do amazing things in your organization. Don’t be hasty in your decision… it’s a big one.