Recruiting Managers: A Tricky Proposition

I was recently talking with an executive recruiter. “I’ve been recruiting managers for years, but in the last couple of years, it seems more tricky. My clients don’t exactly know what they want, and it seems as if everyone’s had an ‘untraditional’ career path. What’s going on?”

Managers are people too—so why is recruiting managers so hard?

Too often, the organization hiring a manager doesn’t quite define what they really want. Here’s a description one of my clients was trying to fill: “QA (Quality Assurance) manager, expert in processes and process improvement, able to manage testing and hands-on test developer. As part of the QA role, present the process and process improvements to customers (Fortune 1000 companies), and work with the project managers and development managers to improve processes. As part of the test management role, organize and run the day-to-day testing for all products in test. And be able to write tests when needed.”

Superman couldn’t do that job; the job description is at three levels of work. The process work requires someone who can drive strategy at the organization level, who’s data driven, can turn data into strategy, and has the influence skills to work around the organization. The test management is strategic only at the product level, and is tactical for a given project. The test development requires only project-level strategic skills, and is primarily tactical “What tests can I develop and run today?”

There are three different roles in this one job description. How can you possibly recruit for that?

You can’t. And that’s the tricky part. Your job as a recruiter is to help your hiring manager realize the job—as defined—is too big. Sure, you could recruit someone, but that person would work at the one—and possibly two—levels that they want to work at, but not at three levels. You could even find someone who says they can do all three parts, but the reality is that a successful employee will focus on one thing at a time. You need to help your hiring manager define what’s most important now, so you can find the candidate who will fill the immediate need. Once you’ve filled the immediate need, the other needs will become clearer.

You can ask your hiring manager, “I realize you want all three areas of expertise in one candidate. This will be a tricky search. You may not have realized this, but you’re asking for expertise at three distinct levels. Which area is most important? What’s next most important?”

Sometimes the most important question doesn’t work. In that case, you can use context free questions:

  • What does success look like?
  • Why are these results desirable?
  • What is the solution worth?
  • What problems could a successful candidate solve?
  • What problems could a successful candidate create?

When you ask about success, you’ll learn about how your manager envisions the future. If the manager says, “I’ll have someone who can talk to Very Important Customer so I don’t have to,” you know you need someone who can work at the most strategic level. If you hear, “I want to know that every project is being tested well,” you know that you need someone who can work at the medium strategic level. If you hear, “I want to know that testing on Product A is going well, no matter what,” you know you need to look for a hands-on tester who might be able to manage a small group.

If your hiring manager is still vague, keep walking through the context free questions. If you ask them, your hiring manager will explain what is most important.

Once you learn what’s most important, you’ll know how to succeed in your recruiting efforts. And, that’s not tricky.

© 2007 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published on

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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