How to Find, Recruit and Retain a High-Impact Leadership Team

May 15, 2017

Your leadership team can be your business’ biggest strength – or its biggest liability.

Few things will have as strong a long-term impact on your company as the people you hire in key leadership positions. The behavior and beliefs of your leaders trickle down to the rest of the department. Strong, competent leaders invariably foster strong, competent teams.

Finding, recruiting and retaining impactful leaders remains a massive problem for most businesses. The scarcity of talent means that top performers are usually bombarded with lucrative offers from competing companies.

In this struggle for leadership talent, it’s important to approach hiring and recruitment strategically.

I’ll show you some of the tactics and strategies that we use for finding and retaining a high-impact leadership team.

1. Understand What Top Leaders Want

A misalignment between what you offer versus what your leaders want is a recipe for (eventual) disaster. Although top leadership talent is in constant demand, few are actually willing to change jobs. A survey by Gallup found that while 55% of managers/workers were considering a new job, only 34% of leaders reported the same.

If you are to attract such in-demand-yet-reluctant-to-switch-jobs talent, you have to figure out what top leaders actually want. Think of it as sales: you learn what your prospect wants and orient your pitch accordingly.

According to a survey by Russell Reynolds, most top performers are motivated by more challenging work and better career growth prospects. Surprisingly, better work-life balance, company brand name and higher salaries matter less than the nature and quality of the work.

The survey also found that the emphasis on quality of work and company culture increases with seniority. Leaders at the partner level are nearly 2.5x more likely to value the job title and authority than pre-partner level employees.

The takeaway from this is clear: when you approach a top performer, emphasize the challenges and growth opportunities in the role. Focus less on the salaries and intangibles (work-life balance, employer brand name, etc.).

The “change the world” spiel might sound like a cliché, but it actually works for recruiting top talent.

2. Consider Alternate Avenues for Finding Talent

Instead of using the same recruiting platforms as your competitors – LinkedIn, recruitment agencies, premier job boards – consider turning to alternative avenues. You’ll see less competition and, often, better leads.

Here are a few ideas:

A. Niche platforms

Think of niche platforms where your target audience already hangs out. Many such platforms actively encourage businesses to share open opportunities with their members.

One example is Hacker News. This tech-focused site has massive reach within the tech industry. Browse around and you’ll find at least a handful of posts every day advertising a senior-level position in a tech company, like this:

Such platforms can be a fantastic source of leads since there is close demographic alignment and significantly lower competition.

B. Niche job boards connected to blogs

Major niche blogs usually have associated job boards. These can be a valuable source of leads provided that the blog caters to an older, more accomplished demographic.

For example, TechCrunch has a job board where tech companies routinely advertise director-level positions:

For this approach to be successful, it’s important that your target blog actually attract the kind of leaders you hope to hire. Consider the blog’s demographics data using Quantacast or Google’s Display Planner to see if there is any alignment before placing an ad.

C. Promote internally

An often overlooked source of new leaders is right under your nose: your existing employees.

Promoting internally has the benefit of significantly cutting down on the candidate search. It also means that you already have an extensive verifiable history of the candidate’s performance. Plus, an internal hire already knows your organization and will be productive from day one.

One study by a Wharton assistant professor, Matthew Bidwell, found that while external hires make 18% more than internal hires, they are 61% more likely to get fired due to performance issues.

The prognosis is clear: look at your existing employees for leadership roles before you start your search elsewhere. You’ll save money and have a better shot at success.

3. Develop a Strong Organizational Brand

Think about brands like Google and Coca-Cola. Instead of having to actively hunt for talent, these big brands get hundreds of applications each year from candidates who want to work with them.

Developing a strong brand presence can be one of your most effective leadership recruitment tools. According to a Gallup survey, leaders are 45% more likely than managers and other employees to consider the strength of an organization’s brand when evaluating offers.

Most employers are beginning to understand this. In a LinkedIn survey, 62% of respondents said that developing an employer brand was a “strong priority” for their organization.

Developing an employer brand is a long-term process. Here are a few pointers to help you get started:

  • Start by evaluating your organizational brand from the perspective of a potential leadership hire. Ask: what is your brand’s public image? How is its culture perceived by peers?
  • Developing an organizational brand should be the domain of marketing and not just HR.
  • Own your public image, especially on social channels. Invest in thought leadership content on publications your target audience frequents.

4. Outline and Optimize Your Hiring Process

A common mistake that businesses make is to adopt a more free-wheeling approach when evaluating candidates for leadership roles. It makes sense on paper: exec-level candidates have been through the grind, so why put them through the same scrutiny as a low-level employee?

Such thinking can easily backfire. While it is true that hiring is more subjective for senior level positions, it is still important to treat it as a process like any other. Use the same standards and tactics you use for the rest of your employees: psychometric tests, ethics/values tests, executive assessment, etc.

One thing that has worked for us at Single Grain is to take a look at the candidates who have been successful with us and outline the steps we used to find, recruit and retain them. Once we have an outline, we turn it into a process that can be optimized and scaled.

Try doing this for hiring leaders as well.

5. Develop a Retention Strategy

Retaining talent is a perpetual problem across HR departments. One LinkedIn survey of talent acquisition leaders found that retaining employees was a top priority for 32% of respondents.

The problem is even more acute in the upper echelons of any organization where opportunities abound. If you want to keep your leaders, you have to develop a long-term retention strategy. Again, you need to focus on what leaders want – career advancement and challenging roles – over short-term measures like higher pay packages.

There are a number of things you can do to get leaders to stick around:

  • Develop a coaching program to help high-performing employees transition to leadership roles, and for leaders at lower levels to improve their skills and confidence. Also make sure that you have a mentorship program in place.
  • Assign stretch goals that emphasize ownership. For new leaders coming into your organization, set the stage for ownership by assigning stretch goals that challenge their thinking. Leaders “buy into” what they help create. Asking them to create a new solution or implement a unique idea gives them ownership of the problem.
  • Give leaders autonomy. Micromanagement is the anathema of good leadership. Give your leaders autonomy over how they work, who they work with and even where they work. Strong leaders will enjoy the ownership experience and see it as a challenge to overcome.

6. Think Long-Term

Understand that no insider tip or tactic can overcome a culture that doesn’t value innovation, or a workplace where leaders don’t feel a sense of ownership. Top performers like to work with other top performers. Unless you already have a culture of excellence, you will struggle to attract excellent leaders.

This is why recruiting leaders should always be a long-term undertaking. You can’t just depend on a bunch of tactics; you have to retool your entire organization to attract and retain top talent.

The first step in this process is to accept that top leaders can amplify your existing capabilities, but they can’t completely alter the performance of subpar teams. If a certain quality is not in your corporate DNA, it can be hard to create it – at least not in the short-run.

This is why you should always think long-term when evaluating leadership performance, setting goals and shaping your company’s vision. Creating the kind of workplace top leaders want to work isn’t something that happens overnight.

Keep that in mind when you’re recruiting your leadership team.

Your leadership team defines the direction of your business. A high-performing leader can have a 10x effect on your company’s growth.

However, finding and retaining such top-tier talent can be a massive challenge. Top performers have ample opportunities and high expectations. To recruit such leaders, you need a strategic approach that gives potential hires what they want.

Try some of the tactics I’ve shared above as a start. Some of these are easy enough to implement, such as changing your hiring process, but others will require completely reorienting your business to naturally attract top talent.

Know a top performer? Refer them to OpenView’s talent network and you could receive $1,000.


Eric Siu is the CEO of digital marketing agency <a href="">Single Grain</a>, which has helped venture-backed startups and Fortune 500 companies grow their revenues. He's also the founder of two marketing podcasts, Growth Everywhere and Marketing School.