The Ultimate Guide to Hiring Effective Leaders
Written by Ashley Heywood
Learn how to find and hire better leaders, from planning to assessment to onboarding.
Anyone who’s built a business knows there are more than a few ingredients to success. Blood, sweat and tears alone aren’t enough.
Why? Because even the best strategies won’t implement themselves, nor will the best products take themselves to market or offer support to the customers who buy them.
Growing a successful business relies on finding, assessing, hiring and onboarding effective leaders - experts in their fields that understand your vision and use their strengths and experience to help you realise it.
"If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants."
What is Leadership Recruitment?
Leadership recruitment is the process of sourcing, assessing, hiring and onboarding new employees in lower, middle or senior management positions.
Why Leadership Recruitment is Important
"People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision."
Your businesses top asset is its people. And to get the most out of people, you need leaders.
Leaders work at all levels of your business to guide, motivate, empower, engage and delegate. More importantly, they work to understand and communicate your vision to their team and create a sense of ownership in achieving it.
Investing in identifying the right leaders for your businesses can help improve productivity, performance, retention and more.
Types of Leadership Recruitment
The types of leadership recruitment are based on the levels of leadership within your organisation, which probably looks something like this:
1. Executive search
If you’re recruiting at the top tier of management, you’ll be looking at a retained executive search assignment.
This type of leadership recruitment relies on working with a highly experienced recruiter who has a good track record in executive search and the ability to engage, attract, assess and manage candidates who aren’t actively searching for a new job.
Recruiting at this level can take anywhere from 3-12 months, depending on notice periods, the difficulty of your specific search and your process.
2. Middle management recruitment
Recruiting middle managers doesn’t require a retained search but can benefit from one. It’s also still a good idea to work with an experienced recruiter with a good handle on your market and, ideally, an established reputation in it.
The process for recruiting leaders at the middle management level will be shorter than an executive search assignment but can range from 1-6 months, depending on notice periods and your process.
3. First-level management recruitment
Recruiting first-level managers also doesn't normally need a retained search, but may benefit from one. Again, it’s still in your best interests to work with an experienced recruiter who knows your market.
The process for recruiting first-level managers will be shorter still and should take between 1-3 months.
Leadership Recruitment Strategies
The right strategy can help you find, attract and hire better leaders for your business, decreasing your time to hire and saving your business money.
“Without strategy, execution is aimless. Without execution, strategy is useless.”
Here are a few of the leadership recruitment strategies you could use:
1. Ask for employee referrals
Start by asking your existing leaders if they know anyone who might be a good fit for the role you’re recruiting. Utilising the networks of existing employees can help you identify, attract, and hire talented and trusted leaders quickly and affordably.
88% of employers said that referrals are the #1 source for above-average applicants.
2. Invest in your employer brand
Talented leaders want to work for organisations that they admire or respect. and that share their values and vision.
Making the right investments in your employer branding can help attract potential leaders who align with your culture.
72% of recruiting leaders worldwide agreed that employer brand has a significant impact on hiring.
3. Niche down
Focus your search around the right audience. For niche roles, advertising in specialist publications and on niche job boards can help put your opportunities in front of the right people.
Also consider having a presence at relevant events, conferences and meet-ups, whether as a sponsor, speaker or attendee.
4. Develop your own leaders
Okay, this isn’t strictly a recruitment strategy, but developing your own leaders can ease future recruitment headaches by enabling effective succession planning.
Creating leadership development opportunities can also help you retain your best talent by offering training and progression.
Best-practice management development can result in a 23% increase in organisational performance.
5. Target your competition
Targeting leaders from your most successful competitors can help you add relevant and specific experience to your team, but it might feel unethical.
The reality is that there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to leaders who are in your industry, providing you’re hiring them for their skills and experience rather than simply to build your knowledge of competitors’ inner workings.
Tip: Be aware of non-compete clauses that could impact the way you approach the leaders of your competitors.
6. Develop a ‘dream team’
Creating a ‘dream team’ of potential future leaders enables you to take a long-term view and approach people strategically to build a relationship, create trust and sell the prospect of working for your organisation in the future.
Using a longer-term approach can help you approach, attract and hire leaders who may have been inaccessible through traditional methods.
7. Work on your Employer Value Proposition (EVP)
Your EVP is the value you can offer a potential candidate as their employer and includes salary and bonuses, benefits, career development opportunities, working environment, organisational culture and more.
By understanding what type of candidate you’re looking to hire, you can get a better handle on what might help attract those people to your business and build those things into your EVP.
Leadership Recruitment Process
A leadership recruitment process is your plan of action for planning, sourcing, engaging, assessing, hiring and onboarding for leadership roles in your business.
What role are you recruiting?
Create a job description and advert or delegate this task to the marketing team
Engage recruitment partners
Post job adverts and review responses
Search your existing database
Social media recruitment (LinkedIn)
Review shortlists from recruitment partners
Utilise careers pages, employee testimonials and videos
Share recruitment and employer-focused content on social media
Personalise candidate interactions
Manage candidate expectations
Deliver an experience that reflects your culture
Review CVs, online profiles and portfolios
Run interview stages (telephone, video or face-to-face)
Administer applicable testing (emotional intelligence, cognitive ability, job knowledge, situational judgement, work sample etc)
Conduct reference checks
Make an offer to the successful candidate/s and negotiate their terms of employment (start date, salary, notice period, expectations etc)
Manage the rejection and feedback of unsuccessful candidates
Communicate hire internally to arrange the paperwork and inform relevant team/s
Prepare and agree an onboarding period
Create and provide an informational pack
Facilitate introductions to stakeholders and direct reports
Communicate points of contact for support and organise regular updates with line management/HR
Remember, your process will be specific to your business’ needs, sector and more.
Leadership Interview Types
Once you’ve identified a candidate who you think might be a great fit for your business, you need to put them through their paces with an in-depth assessment process. To do that, you need to decide which interview types you’ll use:
1. Informal interviews
Normally taking place in a neutral location like a café or bar, informal interviews are exactly that – casual discussions around a candidate’s background, current role and what type of opportunity they’d consider moving for.
2. Telephone interviews
Nearly always featuring at the very start of a process, telephone interviews are a great way to qualify candidates for a face-to-face meeting or video call.
3. Video interviews
This type of interview is ideal to host a virtual meeting with candidates who aren’t local to you. This might apply to regional/field-based roles or individuals who are open to relocating for the role.
4. Face-to-face interviews
Also referred to as in-person interviews, face-to-face interviews are the most popular interview format and normally involve a hiring manager exploring a candidate's background and experience.
5. Group interviews
Usually seen in processes for entry-level roles, group interviews allow you to meet multiple candidates at one time, help you assess how candidates interact with others and observe how they function as part of a team.
6. Sequential interviews
Useful for when you’re looking to validate different skills and experiences with multiple stakeholders. Each interviewer should focus on their area of expertise to avoid repeating the same general questions.
7. Panel interviews
Popular in the latter stages of executive recruitment processes, panel interviews involve several stakeholders (usually board members) sitting as a panel to interview a single candidate.
8. Competency-based interviews
In competency-based interviews, you’ll ask questions that allow candidates to demonstrate their competencies in a particular area. For example, you might ask them “give me an example of when you had to manage change in the working environment and talk me through your process”.
Leadership Interview Techniques
You only get one chance to make a good impression and the best leaders are in high demand. Using these techniques can help you get all of the information you need while also giving people a positive first impression of your business:
1. Agree what information you need
Before any interview, sit down with any other internal stakeholders and decide what information you need to make an informed decision on next steps.
2. Use a framework
Ever gone off on a tangent mid-interview? You’re not alone. Establishing a consistent framework or structure for your interviews will help you cover all of the bases and get back on topic when you get side-tracked.
3. Review every CV
It might sound obvious but it’s always worth reviewing a candidate’s CV just before their interview. Keeping each candidates’ background and achievements top of mind will help you better explore their experience and demonstrate your interest.
4. Put candidates at ease
Interviews can be a stressful experience. Offering a drink, opening with information about yourself and the business, choosing a welcoming environment and remembering to smile can all help put candidates at ease. Remember to also open with what they should expect during the interview.
5. Focus on listening
It’s easy to hear and understand someone when you’re talking to them but it takes focus and concentration to really listen. Maintaining eye contact, smiling or nodding and leaning slightly forward or to the side are all great non-verbal cues to show a candidate you’re listening.
6. Don’t rush to fill the silence
Your natural reaction with silence might be to fill it with talking. A bit of silence can help you both digest the interview so far and even prompt candidates to expand on a previous point or allow them to ask you a question.
7. Mind your note-taking
Taking notes can help you capture important points or thoughts, but all too often you can find yourself playing catch up and missing important details or ignoring the candidate while you jot down what was just said.
Avoid the distraction by asking a colleague to take notes on your behalf or taking an audio or video recording of the interview.
8. Use body language
Reading a candidate’s body language can give you a better insight into how they’re feeling and what type of person they are. It’s a two-way street though and candidates will be observing your body language too.
Leadership Interview Questions
A well thought out set of questions can help you structure interviews and reveal which candidates have the leadership characteristics you’re looking for.
Below are some examples to consider adding to your leadership interviews:
Strategy / Operations / Culture
What would you do in your first 30 days with our organisation?
If you could have three key priorities in your first year, what would they be?
What would you look to achieve over the next three to five years?
What is your professional opinion of our culture and values?
Do you think our culture and values are compatible with your vision for the business? If not, what changes would you make and how would you implement them?
What makes you the right person to achieve that vision?
Which businesses do you see as our greatest competitors? How can we differentiate ourselves from them?
In your opinion, what are the biggest threats our business will face over the next three to five years?
Describe the best leader you ever had. What did you admire about them?
How do you help employees to develop their skills and careers?
How do you motivate your team?
How do you prefer to give feedback to employees?
How would others describe your leadership style?
How would you describe your leadership style?
How would you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your team members?
How would you communicate your vision to the team and get them on board with it?
Tell us about a complex team project you’ve managed. How did you divide and delegate responsibilities?
What traits do you think a good leader should have?
When did you last disagree with a colleague? What did you disagree about and how did you resolve the disagreement?
When have you had to deal with a difficult employee? How did you deal with them?
Which element of people management do you struggle with most? How do you approach it?
Experience / Personality
Tell us more about yourself. What are your ambitions? What drives you?
Walk us through a time you had to make a difficult decision. How did you handle it and what was the outcome?
What are your proudest personal and professional achievements to date?
What failures have you experienced in your career? What did you learn from them?
When was an idea of yours used to improve a business process, product or service? How did you put forward and begin implementing it? What impact did it have?
Why do you want this position?
Onboarding Business Leaders
A good onboarding process empowers your new leaders to get off to a great start with their team – something that’s important at all levels.
Tip: There’s a misconception that executives only need a basic onboarding process. After all, they’ve got a wealth of skills and experience, right?
By creating a thorough onboarding process, you can help every new team member become fully operational and effective as quickly and painlessly as possible – execs included.
Research also shows that an effective onboarding process could prevent new senior leaders from struggling in a new role:
You should begin your integration process for leaders as soon as they’ve accepted your offer too. In the same Egon Zehnder survey, 74% of leaders agreed onboarding support is most helpful when it starts before their first day.
Your leadership onboarding process could include:
What history does the organisation have?
What changes has the business gone through over the past five years?
How has your range of products or services changed over the past five years?
What is the culture of the business?
What core values does the company have and how do they impact the way you operate?
Are there any books, videos, documents or other resources you can share that demonstrate your culture?
What are the strengths of your business?
Where is there room for improvement?
What challenges should the candidate expect to face?
What reputation does the business have?
How is the business performing today and how has performance changed over the past decade?
What are the short and long-term goals of the business?
What individual goals will the leader have?
How and when will the leader’s performance be measured?
What’s the structure of their department?
Who makes up the team? Are there any individuals you need to brief them on?
How does their function fit within the wider organisation?
Is there any recent activity they should know about (E.g. promotions, new hires, dismissals, conflicts etc)?
Who will they be working closely with? Don’t forget to arrange one-to-one meetings with those people.
How are employees reviewed?
Do you use any software for reviews/performance?
How frequently do reviews take place?
Is there any management training they be expected to undertake or can opt to attend?
How are employees rewarded?
Which policies do they need to know about (e.g. annual leave, remote/flexible working, confidentiality etc)?
What budget do they have to work with?
What can the budget be used for?
What’s the process for getting purchases approved?
What support is available to them and how can they access it?
Do they have a mentor? If so, facilitate an introduction and provide contact details.
How often can they expect reviews with you or the HR team? What format will those reviews take?
Remember, start as you mean to go on. Your onboarding process should reflect your organisation’s culture, communicate your vision and give every new hire the best possible opportunity to hit the ground running.
How to Identify Great Leaders
Remember, good managers don't always make good leaders.
Hiring someone with the wrong characteristics can mangle morale, play havoc with productivity, and contaminate your culture.
Here are some of the things you should be looking for when recruiting leaders:
1. They care
Great leaders care about people. They do everything they can to make people feel happy, engaged, rewarded and recognised.
2. They’re passionate
Leaders unite people under a shared vision. By being passionate, they inspire people to follow them in achieving the organisation’s vision.
3. They challenge and develop people
Great leaders drive people to achieve their potential by challenging them constantly, encouraging their development and building on their skills and knowledge.
4. They act with integrity
Great leaders are trustworthy, honest, and reliable. They adhere to the same rules as everyone else and own up to their mistakes.
5. They use ‘we’, not ‘I’
Strong leaders form part of the wider team and share the highs and lows. They recognise the importance of teamwork at all levels and use ‘we’ more often than ‘I’.
6. They’re optimistic
Great leaders believe. They believe in the ability of their team and in what the organisation stands for. They take risks and are confident they’ll succeed.
7. They’re present
The best leaders are accessible, but more importantly, they really engage with people. They listen to what people have to say and are present in every interaction.
Leadership Recruitment Quotes
Looking for some motivation? Here are some of our favourite leadership quotes to inspire your search:
"A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent." - Douglas MacArthur
"The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves." - Ray Kroc
"The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership." - Harvey S. Firestone
"The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers." - Ralph Nader
"A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way." - John Maxwell
"A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." - Lao Tzu
"No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it." - Andrew Carnegie
"Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out." - Stephen Covey
"The supreme quality of leadership is integrity." - Dwight D. Eisenhower
"As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others." - Bill Gates
"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." - John Quincy Adams
"A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better." - Jim Rohn
“Leaders need to provide strategy and direction and to give employees the tools that enable them to gather information and insight from around the world. Leaders shouldn’t try to make every decision.” - Bill Gates
Recruiting effective leaders can help you hit your objectives and these simple questions, techniques, processes and tips can help you start, manage and successfully close your search.