Do you really need an expert from your industry?

Do you really need an expert from your industry for an effective executive search?

The first requirement we often get from our clients, when they describe the profile of the executive that they are looking for is “we want someone from our industry”. While this might make a lot of sense for many reasons, we would like to share our opinion that has been crafted through years and hundreds of Executive Searches for a variety of clients since DSML performs nationwide searches from our offices in Chicago and Boston.

Our bias is that we specialize in finding executive talent in the US for the local subsidiaries of European and Canadian companies. Therefore, our clients always face additional challenges in their growth and development pursuit. Their initial request for someone “coming from their same industry” is mainly motivated by the reassurance that this executive will understand what they do quicker, will already have useful contacts and a quicker ability to grow the business in the US. They also think that their industry is so unique and complex that it will take someone new, months, if not years to understand it.This is particularly true for Sales Executive recruiting.

Our experience is that “recruiting from your industry” is not a guarantee of success. At DSML Executive Search, we find that it is more important to find a candidate:

  • Who shares the company’s values and culture.
  • Someone who is able and willing to learn.
  • Someone curious enough to ask the right questions and not be arrogant.
  • Someone who has an immense drive to make strikes.

We find the drawbacks of recruiting from within “your industry” are:

  • An executive “from your industry” will almost inevitably come with habits and preconceived notions. If the candidate has spent most of his/her career in that industry, he/she might have become so comfortable with it that there is a risk of complacency or lack of creativity.
  • During the difficult phase of adapting a business model developed in another country to the US market, many qualities are required that a candidate “from your industry” may or may not possess. (e.g. Experience working with other cultures and / or for overseas based upper management).
  • In some cases, the “industry expert” could even clash because he/she feels entitled and communication gets messy with the European or Canadian management.

We have several examples where the candidates were not coming from the industry of our client and did extremely well while the opposite also happened: someone with the industry credentials proved to be a disappointing choice.  In this last case, it seems that both parties may be playing a role in the disappointment: in Europe, the upper management might rely so much on the local executive’s expertise and address book that some topics may not be discussed and clarified. Locally, in the US, the “Industry veteran” might rely too much on his/her experience and make assumptions, leading to quick disconnects and even lack of mutual trust.

Another interesting facet to this question is the “uniqueness” and complexity of the specific industry at play. While the initial reaction is often one of protection, when we dig further through questions, we often uncover that the person we are talking to (or other C-level executives at the company) are themselves relatively “new” to the industry. Often, they would admit that it took them a few months to get immersed and learn it to be able to manage their jobs. Aren’t we all learning all the time in this ever-changing environment anyway?

So next time you insist on recruiting someone from your industry for a C-level or Executive level role, challenge yourself, remember the importance of cultural fit and values and think in terms of challenges ahead for the role you want to fill.

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