Don’t fit the “job spec”​ but want the job? Read how the current job market favors the bold…

according to the gatekeepers℠…

If you don’t fit the job posting or spec (as commonly known in the executive search world), you are out of luck – don’t waste your time or your networking bullets. Right?

What if the leadership team or your potential peers are different from you? All men? All under thirty? No persons of color? Is inquiring about the opportunity even worth your while when you don’t fit the unwritten parts of the spec?

Given the rapid change in the current and very hot job market, we wanted to know if those in the talent industry were now willing to take bigger risks and bet on different types of candidates. We surveyed thirty of the gatekeepers℠, CHROs, Heads of Talent and Executive Search Consultants who continually seek new leadership talent for their companies and clients, and we asked them the following:

Have you ever made the bold decision to champion an “out of spec” or “different” candidate, knowing your recommendation may backfire on you or your career?

  • 79% responded “Yes.”
  • 21% responded “No.”
  • 42% said they recommend “out of spec” candidates ALL THE TIME.

So, the age-old advice seems, well, old and out of date. We wanted to find out why. First, we talked to a sample of gatekeepers who are executive search consultants. While most of the consultants we spoke to said something similar to “our clients pay us the big bucks to get them exactly what is on the spec,” we did hear from some bold and courageous executive search consultants and executive search firms. Here is what they shared:

1)     You don’t need to be from the right industry or the right business model if the executive search partner believes in you.

Managing Director of Herbert Mines, Dave Hardie, told us about one of his firm’s experiences with an “out of the box” candidate. It was the first and only time one of their placements was announced in Rolling Stone magazine. Their client, Gibson Brands, a legendary guitar company, were looking for a CEO and their spec required an executive with private equity and music industry experience. A partner within Herbert Mines, Brian Meany, was handling the search and his favored candidate, JC Curleigh who would be coming from Levi, didn’t have either of the primary requirements on the spec. However, he had experience managing global premium enthusiast brands and had a deep passion for the client’s product. “Our clients trusted our judgment, and once they met the candidate, they were sold,” says Hardie.

“Have I presented out of spec candidates? Absolutely, but always as a part of a range of options that might be closer into the spec,” says Rick Routhier, a Senior Director at Spencer Stuart. “If candidates have a great track record, the right leadership skills, and I believe they will fit into the leadership style and culture of my client’s company, I will present them even if they are from a different industry or different type of business.” However, Routhier says the stumbling block often is the potential candidate. “It is often difficult to convince strong “out of spec” candidates to consider jobs that are too far from their comfort zone,” Routhier added.

2)    You don’t need to be a “known player.”

Mark Polansky, a Senior Partner in the Technology Officers practice at Korn Ferry and a Board Advisor at Waterman Hurst, recalled conducting a c-level search for a company in Silicon Valley. Polansky was looking for a unique executive – one who could turn around the financials and had the emotional intelligence to improve morale within a Silicon Valley technology company. Mark championed someone from outside of both the Bay Area and the technology industry. His clients literally laughed at him when he presented his favored candidate. However, his out of town and out of industry candidate turned out to be the right person for the job and later assumed a bigger job within the same company.

3)    You don’t have to come from the “typical” talent pool.

Heidrick and Struggles, one of the largest global executive search firms recently announced the following, “At least half of the Board candidates we present to our clients in total over the course of the year as a firm will be diverse.” This was not a specification from all their clients, but it was a commitment made by the firm.

While championing diverse clients does not necessarily mean “out of spec”, it often requires an open mind on the part of clients, because many diverse populations are underrepresented in the traditional leadership talent pools. And telling clients what they want or what is good for them (which is not written in the spec) can be risky.

Bonnie Gwin, Vice Chairman and Co-managing partner of H&S’s Global CEO and Board practice, and a member of the gatekeepers commented, “There is no shortage of experienced, qualified talent and we have already been making great strides in our efforts to present more diverse board candidates. By the end of last year in North America, 57% of our board director placements were diverse, and we are increasing our efforts to build this momentum globally.”

We called gatekeeper Anne Lim O’Brien who is also Vice Chair of the Global CEO and Board practice at Heidrick and Struggles to get her point of view. “By and large, our clients are already aware of the benefits of having diverse boards, and we are further strengthening our commitment to support our clients in turning their awareness in high-performing boardrooms. The advocacy role we play in this regard benefits both the candidates we work with and our clients,” said O’Brien.

After we heard from the executive search community, we started calling gatekeepers who are Heads of Talent and CHROs. We asked them, “Do you present “out of spec” or different candidates to hiring managers at the risk of your reputation within your own company?” This is what they told us.

4)    When talent executives champion unusual candidates it benefits their reputation and career.

Ed Evans, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts spoke about the positive impact that presenting an “out of spec” candidate has had on his relationships. “If anything, it helped my career because it painted me as an independent thinker who was able to look at things from a different perspective and as a thought partner,” said Evans.

James Baker, Global Head of Executive Search and Talent Analytics at Jaguar Land Rover, said presenting an out of spec candidate happens regularly, and he sees it as an important part of his team’s role. “We’ve not had a problem recommending out of spec candidates. We work in a scientifically minded engineering organization where we actively encourage evidence-based challenge as part of the culture. Once you have trusted relationships, it is much easier to present “out of spec” candidates and we’ve been lucky enough to have built those,” said Baker.

5)    Presenting an out of spec, different or diverse candidate is both an advantage and a necessity for talent executives and their companies.

One of the gatekeepers confidentially shared with us that he presents out of spec, different, and diverse clients due to the intensity of the war on talent. “It is so competitive out there, I do it without even thinking about it.” “These days,” he says, “you have to look for people in unusual places and with atypical backgrounds. If you get half of the things you are looking for, you are lucky.”

Nigel Hurst, Chief Human Resources Officer of HEI Resorts and Hotels, says he is often expected to “think creatively” to raise the competitive norms on leadership teams. While the hiring manager may want a very typical background, as CHRO, Nigel knows that the organization might benefit from a different type of candidate who would raise the bar. “Earlier in my career, I recruited a leader who was on the autism spectrum. The candidate dressed differently, didn’t have a need to fit in or engage in small talk, and he didn’t have a typical career within our industry. He demonstrated significant results within other companies, and our leadership team needed someone to think differently and shake things up.” After some persuasion, the hiring manager agreed. The senior leader remained at the company and delivered on his potential by not only improving the results within his own business, but by putting creative and competitive pressure on the whole leadership team.

6)    CHROs and Heads of Talent have great flexibility to stray from the spec.

Every CHRO and Head of Talent we surveyed said that internal executive search departments have much more freedom to present leadership candidates that are out of spec or in some way different. “We have so much knowledge about our business and partners, and typically, we have long term trusted organizational relationships because we are part of the same team with the same purpose. That is very hard to achieve as an external consultant.”

the gatekeepers’ bold and creative experiences, whether in-house or as an external consultant, have shown that taking a risk on an “out of spec” different or diverse candidate can pay off in a big way. The pay-off is not only for the unusual candidate and the talent industry executive – the advantage is realized by their client or company as well.

Waterman Hurst sponsors the gatekeepers, a virtual community of leaders who donate their time and expertise to deliver relevant, unique and valuable advice as free and accessible content for emerging leaders.

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