David & Goliath: The Art & Science of the Underdog Search
Updated: Jul 11
In a previous post titled, “When a Seemingly Perfect Candidate May be Fool’s Gold”, I presented a candidate case study we call here at BSG a “false positive.” This time I’m directing the focus to the opposite—the risk of rejecting a great candidate just because they don’t have the perfect looking profile. Said another way, how to avoid the mistake of rejecting a “false negative”, or underdog candidate. In contrast to false positives that look like a Ferrari but drive like a Yugo (no offense, I’m sure they were fine cars…), false negatives engender unexpected delight in their ability to outperform first impressions. Remember Susan Boyle from the 2009 season of Britain’s Got Talent?
Metaphorically speaking, highly qualified executive candidates come in all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, so does perceptual bias. If unchecked, that bias can lead to poor decisions that, in the moment, may feel perfectly reasonable. Don Henley and the Eagles cautioned accordingly in Desperado—Don’t’ you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy; She’ll beat you if she’s able; You know the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet. As an adolescent once enamored by the allure of shiny things and determined to date above his pay grade, I can relate.
Wayward adolescence aside, just how, exactly, can executive search address the challenge of recognizing false negatives? In photography, two concepts are particularly important to image quality—aperture (the amount of light that comes in through the lens), and depth of field (the amount of the shot that will be in focus).
In the case of executive search, you might think of aperture as highlighting what is most obvious about how a candidate looks (e.g., personal features, educational background, career chronology, and, to a degree, demonstrated competencies). Most typical executive search tends to focus heavily, if not entirely, at this level, which is particularly ripe for bias.
Depth of field on the other hand provides a broader context. Think here about photographs that contain a subject within a larger landscape. You know, like that selfie you took too close the rim of the Grand Canyon. The resulting social media post provides more specific information about who you are (adventurous, outdoorsy, and perhaps a little desperate ;-), not just what your goofy mug looks like.
In executive search, depth of field is analogous to focusing beyond visually knowable, but limited characteristics to learn more about who a candidate is at a deeper level. It’s like having an infrared lens that allows for heat mapping a candidate’s core personality, “derailing” risks, values & motives, and associated areas of lurking potential. Sounds far fetched, you say? Metaphors aside, it’s exactly what our process and associated tools can do.
In one recent example, we were retained for a mid-market CFO search that ultimately narrowed to two contrasting finalists in terms of aperture. One was a consensus “All American”. You know the type—tall, dark and angular; went to all the right schools; had all the right moves; and was qualified in terms of related competencies and executive presence. From an infrared perspective, there were no major red flags. In short, he was a stereotypically shiny, off the shelf finalist. No surprise, he also came with a premium price tag in terms of compensation.
The second finalist almost didn’t make it to the final rounds to begin with, in part, because he had initially been interviewed very early and, while the CEO liked him, the private equity investor was reluctant. In some ways, this candidate was the yang to the first candidate’s yin—they contrasted in many visible ways. This candidate had also held fewer, but longer-term positions, and had a lower cost of living. While both candidates were local, the second was a bargain in in terms of compensation.
Despite continued client/investor ambivalence, we persisted in recommending that he be reconsidered as a finalist. Eventually, the client and investor agreed. There were three primary “depth of field” reasons we went to the mat for this candidate:
His psychometric profile was very strong. He was composed, ambitious, socially flexible, accommodating, conscientious, open and creative, and had what is referred to as a high “learning approach” (he held a position as an adjunct professor of accounting at a local college). His risk for “derailing” behaviors was quite low, and he was highly motivated across several “driving” values.
He aced our internal review of competencies and his knowledge and experience was an excellent fit for the position. AND, he had grit, which has emerged in research as one of the strongest predictors of success, broadly defined.
While executive presence was less obvious at first, it emerged (almost surreptitiously) during our vetting process. He consistently presented as confident and poised, knowledgeable and succinct.
We were sold. But the client side still had doubts. So, it went to the cards—literally. Both finalists were given a case study based on an actual acquisition target and asked to generate an integration checklist and timeline across responsible parties. Subsequent interviews were scheduled so that both could discuss their responses with the client and investor. The rest, as they say, is history.
In his bestselling book, Principles, Ray Dalio observes that, “Organizations typically hire people by having job candidates’ resumes reviewed by semi-random people based on semi-random criteria, which leads them to invite candidates to have semi-random groups of people ask the candidates semi-random questions and then make their choices of whom to offer jobs based on the consensus of how well they like them.”
There is nothing random about how we do search. Our focused, high-touch, scientifically informed process is specifically designed to find the right balance between aperture and depth of field so we can help our clients avoid not only the most obvious mistake of hiring false positives, but also to help them recognize and reconsider potential false negatives. Ultimately getting the right talent into the right position at the best possible price point for both parties is our passion, and we are dedicated to doing that as well as possible.
Speaking of dedication… I did eventually find my Queen of Hearts. Still well above my pay grade as it turned out, but she likes Yugos. Go figure.