How to Run a Secret Search for a CEO

February 5, 2015 at 11:00 AM by Kathleen de Lara

ceosearch_blog.jpgAs careful as the process is for hiring the right people for your team, there’s even greater pressure and attention placed on finding the best candidate to lead the team.

The CEO hunt and hire is hardly perfect. Think American Apparel’s Dov Charney, Microsoft’s Steve Balmer, Target’s Gregg Steinhafel, Groupon’s Andrew Mason, Pandora’s Joe Kennedy, Market Basket’s Arthur T. Demoulas.

Running a search for a CEO may prove to be one of the team’s biggest hiring challenges. As public or private as the company chooses to make the search, any communication gaps within and outside of the team can be a hitch to finding someone to hire and maintaining the morale of those on the team.

A CEO being replaced can signal the company board and management teams aren’t getting the results they expected, the team may be unhappy with the way they’re being managed, or the public may be upset with the way a company has impact on the community – and likewise, a combination of the three! Flip side – it’s a much-needed transition to the company changing course, improving, doing what may be necessary to catalyze growth.

Recruiting CEOs may sometimes take on being a discreet process. Think Yahoo's Marissa Mayer.

1) Use a retained search firm.

A retained search firm is the buffer you need to meet potential candidates. These firms receive an upfront payment to run a specific search typically for senior executive positions. This is the common approach to running an undercover search for a CEO. No one on your team will be in touch with the candidate, and instead, the firm has conversations on behalf of the recruiter or hiring manager. Pick a firm that has a track record of doing well and keep a lookout for if they’ve recently run a search for a similar candidate and/or position.

2) Keep the hiring team exclusive to a small, select group of people.

Who’s business is it anyway? Keeping hiring updates inclusive to a small, limited group of people decreases the chances of the news leaking. Leaks can be bad for the company hiring, the retained search firm, and those part of the interviewing process who end up having to prove their loyalty to their current team. Before starting the search for CEO candidates, communicate any terms of confidentiality.

3) Keep the number of conversations on prospective candidates small, concise, and under secrecy.

This goes along the lines of the previous point. The shorter the process, the less speculation and the smaller the gap between the sourcing and the hire. In addition, in taking meetings with candidates, your intentions to reel them into the opportunity don’t have to be communicated immediately. In-person meetings to simply build connections are a good way to get a feel for what candidates are looking for and if they’re open to taking on a new, executive-level role.

4) Consider the risks of having people from the exec team on the same team as those who are hiring.

Is there a chance for a leak? Leaks can be bad for a hiring company, and those who are part of the interviewing process, who may later need to claim loyalty to their company. In some cases, the board may communicate to the exec team they think the CEO needs to be replaced and runs the search process entirely on their own.

In any case, the key to successfully hiring a new CEO is a swift transition – minimize uncertainty and recruiting fallouts, maintain the way the team currently runs and is managed.

Looking out for more ways to get smart about recruiting? Check out these tips from Lou Adler, Marvin Smith, Gerry Crispin, and other hiring influencers!

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