An Internal Candidate’s Guide to Surviving the Head-Hunter

An Internal Candidate’s Guide to Surviving the Head-Hunter Author: Alex Richardson Published: 30 June 2017

Your Director resigns and you begin covering their role. You feel you’ve been performing well in the job. You are ambitious and start to think ‘this could be my opportunity for permanent promotion’. A few days later, out of the blue – it happens. You get the call from the Chief Exec ‘You’re doing a sterling job covering but we’ve decided to use a head-hunter to find x’s replacement’. Your heart sinks. 

Whilst your initial disappointment is understandable (you are correct in feeling that this isn’t good news) it may not necessarily be the terminal blow you imagine. The first thing to understand is that, unlike agencies, search firms are genuinely objective about the source of candidates for the role. We earn our fee in return for exercising our judgement across all the candidates in the process, regardless of how they come in to it. 

That said, the fact your organisation has decided to take an expensive look at the market is telling. It means someone, whose opinion is valued, is not sure you’re the best candidate for the role. So what can you do to make sure you are appointed? 

First use this time to de-risk your appointment. Demonstrating that you will do the job well may convince the doubters. Throwing your hands up in horror at the bad news and downing tools will not. 

Secondly, have a frank conversation with your manager (or even the Chief Exec) about what the perceived gaps are between where you are, and what is required from the role. These conversations can be uncomfortable but the key is to listen objectively and not to react defensively.  Whether you feel you do have the required capabilities or not, it’s not been apparent that you do to the people whose opinion matters. If you do have the capabilities, great, this is an opportunity for you to bring them to the fore more strongly. If not, then it’s a learning point which you can actively (and visibly) work towards. 

Third, advance your cause internally.  Recruit a network of powerful advocates. Simply informing people you’d like the job won’t do it. If someone’s opinion is valued, they’re unlikely to be convinced by bluster. However if you can start to be the person that makes their long-standing problems go away? That very well could convince them. The internal candidates we’ve seen appointed usually came with a groundswell of opinion hitting the Chief Exec’s desk. You want a situation where it is difficult to explain to people internally why you weren’t appointed to the role.

Lastly, get ready for the interview process. The vast majority of internal candidates we meet are ill-prepared for either the meeting with the head-hunter or the business itself. Overwhelmingly we see people describe what they do, but not their achievements. You need to arm yourself with the evidence of the things you have achieved plus the subsequent outcomes for the business. For everything you plan to talk about you need to be able to respond to the ‘so what?’ question. You then need to rehearse presenting these achievements in a cogent narrative or ‘story’. 

The best way to gather this type of evidence is not a day before the interview. When you’re immersed in a challenging role your achievements can blur or fade. This makes recalling them later difficult. We regularly see internal candidates unable to demonstrate their achievements at interview.  To mitigate this risk, keep a regular journal of the things you have done. That way you can easily go back through it to choose the most relevant examples to present when you need them later in the piece. 

Remember though, you also have a powerful weapon that no external candidate could ever bring to bear; a deep understanding of the business and its culture, as well as a connection to its mission. External candidates can do all the research they like, but they will never be able to speak as authentically on these themes as you can. 

The head-hunter is not your enemy here, but lack of clarity, a sense of entitlement and wishful thinking most certainly are. 

Alex Richardson is Consultant in the IT & Digital Leadership Practice at the search firm Berwick Partners. 

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