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How to recruit High-impact Leaders?

As an Executive Search Consultant, I have been recruiting leaders for two decades and I am still doubtful about the way most “top” companies recruit their senior executives. Last week, I was reading a McKinsey study that mentions, once again, that “a whopping 82 percent of companies don’t believe they recruit highly talented people. More alarmingly, only 23 percent of managers and senior executives active on talent-related topics believe their current recruitment strategy works.”

I believe the main reason for this major failure is that most companies recruit leaders for what they can do and forget that people are inspired by leaders and organisations for who they are.

Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote an inspiring article some time ago about the way great companies think differently. She listed six common characteristics of high-performing companies: a common purpose, a long-term focus, emotional engagement, a focus on societal interest, a drive for innovation, and the ability to trust people and to rely on relationships instead of rules and structures.

Reading this and other serious articles in the same domain, it leaves no doubt that, in order to join the club of high-performing organisations, CEOs must hire leaders with a high level of consciousness—a level that often goes far beyond the average level of consciousness of the assigned recruiters. And this is where the performance gap starts.

So, my first advice to the CEO is to stop thinking and behaving as if recruitment was a transactional process.  If you want to hire high-impact leaders, start by selecting exemplary recruiters—ones that are deeply connected to their roots and their purpose, and are able to align their process with their values even under the strongest pressure. There is no added value in digitalising your recruitment processes if the people behind the processes don’t know who they are and what they deeply care about.

Once you have these recruiters in place, select your leaders based on their exemplarity and their level of consciousness.

The following five characteristics are foundational for such leaders. As these characteristics may be difficult for less-experienced recruiters to assess, below I offer some tips for effective assessment.

→ A commitment to a noble purpose

  • Start each conversation by asking what the leader cares about and who they care about.

  • Ask them why this is so important for them, and deepen this part of the conversation to assess their level of consciousness and credibility.

  • Ask, with very concrete examples, how those drivers influence the way they lead their own life and their current organisation.

  • Don’t forget to explore the tensions they could experience in relation with what they care about. Leaders with a noble purpose often experience tensions as they look for the “right” balance between meaning and economical sustainability.

→ A compelling presence

There are many definitions of a corporate presence. I understand a leader’s presence as the ability to stay in the present moment, free from thoughts about the past and the future, deeply connected to what they care about and what their environment cares about.

There are different directions you may take to assess a level of presence:

  • Develop your ability to put words behind your own experience of someone having a corporate presence. In other words, cultivate your ability to listen to yourself and to verbalize your own experience. You may have a personal experience of deep trust, of being deeply listened to, of being inspired and invited, or of depth and spaciousness during the conversation.

  • Ground your assessment of a corporate presence through what you see in the moment: You notice serenity despite the high level of pressure, resilience, agility, curiosity, balance, or even a certain sense of timelessness in the way the leader engages in the conversation. All those leadership traits are often supported by a deep level of presence.

  • Presence is something that is cultivated over time. Ask the leader what practice(s) support(s) their ability to stay present under most circumstances.

→ The courage to face and enter difficult situations

Courage has nothing to do with not being afraid. Courage is being able to move forward despite the fear and knowing why you do it.

  • Ask senior leaders to list situations where they could experience true fear, anxiety or discomfort. Choose one or two and go into detail about the experience.

  • Ask them what they know about their fears and what it says about themselves. Courageous leaders know what their fears are taking care of and they have learned to stay with the fear for the sake of something bigger than themselves. 

  • Ask the leader what motivates them to stay with their experience of fear despite the strong physical and emotional discomfort. By doing this, you will learn a lot about their purpose and level of courage.

→ A high level of authenticity and integrity

To be honest, I have always had difficulty assessing the integrity of a leader during an interview.

  • Often, I use reference checks for this one. If you decide to use reference checks too, first be sure you can share your own definition of integrity. For me integrity describes how leaders live the moral values they say they believe in. I believe you should spend time finding yours in order to recognize it in others.

  • During the interview, explore their moral values and see how they fit with your own list.

  • Then, again, check for the tensions they could have experienced while living these values. Conscious leaders are aware of the difficulties of upholding their values in all circumstances.

  • Finally, based on the previous conversation, call references to double-check and look for counter-examples.

  • Admitting their mistakes, saying sorry and making things right are powerful qualities in leaders that strive for integrity. These are easy things to check for during an interview.

→ Accountability for their life and actions

Being accountable for your life means taking full ownership for what you care about, in each domain of your life.

  • As an example, you may ask senior leaders about their relationship with their family and friends—explore with them how they manage the tension between high corporate expectations and personal life purpose.

  • Explore what difficult decisions they’ve made, and what challenging actions they’ve taken to take care of themselves and their life purpose. What may have been the cost of these decisions?

  • Again, explore where the tensions are.

Recruiting a senior executive who will create sustainable added value for your organisation and its environment is an art that requires an investment in the process. It is time that CEOs consider it this way when they start the recruitment process to find exemplary leaders for high-performing organisations. Otherwise, in the years to come, I trust McKinsey will have many more opportunities to develop new studies about why companies have difficulty recruiting high-impact leaders.

Would you need support to recruit High-impact leaders or to train your recruiting teams become conscious and effective recruiters, feel free to contact me at


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