Crafting the Blueprint for a Successful Executive Search

Crafting the Blueprint for a Successful Executive Search

Establishing the Foundation: The Crucial First Step in Building a Great Organization

Great organizations do not happen by blind luck. Greatness depends on alignment within the organization, from culture to chemistry, from values to purpose, from skills to beliefs.

When you embark on a search for a new executive leader, it’s vital to ensure that this internal alignment is already in place. Unless you have proactively built a great organization, you will struggle to attract executive talent—or to even know what to look for in the first place.

Just as in building a home, the project of building a great organization requires a blueprint. A home’s blueprint must include plans for the foundation, the framework, and the buildout. All are required, and there is an order in which they must be executed, even though you can work on different pieces independently before they’re assembled if you adhere to the specifications.

As you build and align the organization, all of this remains true. Let’s see how it works, starting with the foundation.

The Foundation: Culture

In a home or a business, the foundation supports everything else. It determines what can and can’t be done. In building a home, whether you are starting from scratch or modifying an existing dwelling, the foundation drives what can and can’t be done. In building a business, your foundation is the culture—the set of values that guide how people interact, work, socialize, and feel at home, like this is their place with their people.

Clearly, culture is not the physical facility or amenities—it is a sense of belonging, team, and unity. It’s something you feel rather than touch. Values define culture, and the behavioral norms you expect from your employees must be consistent with those values.

Hiring starts with culture, too, or at least a vision of it. A common fallacy is that hiring great talent starts with a job description or knowing someone who can probably handle the job. The real starting place should be a strong culture, communicated simply and clearly in a way that attracts talented people. Yet too often little time is spent here.

To get the most from your payroll expense, every employee must fit the culture. There is an exponential return on cultural alignment for individuals up the ladder, who may now leading 100 or 1,000 people and set the strategy for a whole team, group, or company. Ensuring culture fit does not mean building a company of clones, though—you need different talents and skills, as well as diversity and inclusion, to truly meet the needs of your chosen market.

The CEO is always responsible for creating, articulating, and maintaining the corporate culture, the foundation of the business. This is not something to be handed off to the head of Human Resources; it is your job to make sure it happens. The way you act and work must be consistent with that message—no exceptions. Let’s be blunt—the buck starts and stops with you!

The Framework: Leadership

The framework of a home defines its structure and layout and guides everything that goes within the building. This is much like the leadership capability within your company. Good leadership clarifies everyone’s job responsibilities and eliminates unnecessary busywork. It offers the essential framework for what happens day to day.

A cabinet that’s 4’1” wide just won’t fit on a 4’ bathroom wall—even though it’s pretty close. On the other hand, a 2’ cabinet will look out of place on the same wall and won’t maximize the storage space. This is why getting the framework—the leadership—of your business right matters so much. Your leadership determines what fits and what doesn’t in the workings of the organization.

It’s not just the CEO’s leadership that defines the framework. The leadership of your executives and managers matters as well. While the CEO provides the structure and layout for the entire home, other leaders are essential to providing the framework for each of the rooms. These leaders must help their team understand why they are there and the reason for working hard. They must foster the unity that motivates a team to win together. This takes time, planning, asking, and listening. It takes serious, dedicated effort.

Developing people who have potential to be good leaders, next year or three years out and beyond, requires time and money, but you will pay for it now or later. If you already have people with the required leadership potential in-house, then by all means grow and promote from within. However, If you don’t have the right leaders to support your current business needs, don’t just promote to quickly fill the slot so you can concentrate on other urgent things—this will undoubtedly come back to haunt you. The same goes for hiring your CFO’s cousin or an old college roommate just to fill a position.

Yes, providing the leadership framework takes time—something that’s in short supply for the CEO every day. But again, offloading this responsibility isn’t an option. You understand best which leaders are needed, and it’s your job to make sure you get them in place. To be blunt again—the buck still stops with you!

The Buildout: Talent

Once you have the foundation (culture) and the framework (leadership) in place, it’s time for the buildout—so you can start to see what the finished product, your home, will look like. Many different skilled workers are needed to complete this buildout. In other words, this is where talent comes into play.

In the buildout phase, talent must be carefully coordinated. Electricians need to run the wiring before the sheetrock is installed; nice wooden floors will be ruined if big industrial equipment still needs to be hauled across them. Define what is needed for the long term so you hire appropriately up front. Don’t replace floors that were damaged because you cut corners.

The buildout requires finding the right talent and ensuring that they understand the framework to follow. And like it or not—the buck still stops with you!

Success Requires Planning

Apple’s product marketing teams spend a significant amount of time and money trying to determine what products customers want—often before their customers even realize they want them. Before the iPod was introduced, people had no idea that they absolutely had to have one. This is planning—understanding what is needed to get ahead of the game and succeed long-term.

As CEO, this is a good model to follow in your search for executive talent. It’s up to you to identify what the organization needs long before the need is pressing. The problem is the tyranny of the urgent. Too often, the planning stage looks like this:

We need a VP of Sales now! Grab a job description off the Internet and start looking. I want to see candidates next week. Of course we know what we’re looking for!

As leaders within the same company, we often take alignment for granted because we’re around each other so much. But is everyone else on your team on the same page? For 25-plus years, we’ve seen at least one such internal disconnect on almost every executive search we’ve performed. Maximizing ROI requires maximizing alignment.

Your sales, marketing, finance, and strategy departments should plan like Apple design does, anticipating the future needs of the organization. You must understand what skills, experiences, and background are truly required versus simply preferred, as well as what is needed in the next six to 18 months to remain successful. Does the candidate fit the requirements? Does the candidate fit the culture? A no to either of these is a decision made: pass and move on.

During an executive search, it’s also important to surround yourself with great leaders who can provide insight into your own potential blind spots. Planning requires candid, open discussions so that you end up with the right hire—and with honesty about your own abilities and potential. In this spirit, you should also be open to replacing yourself. If you determine that one of your key employees can’t take the company to the next level, then the same rules should apply to you. If you want and require the best talent, then you must lead by example.

Passing the buck on an executive search is so enticing. Don’t! Make sure there is a clear vision of a great culture that attracts people who want to be part of a long-term endeavor. You need great leadership, starting with yourself, to establish that culture and the supporting initiatives that motivate people to succeed. Now you are in a perfect position to hire and retain talent.

So we see it’s all about talent, leadership, and culture—what we affectionately call TLC. Time to get moving!

Wade H. Allen

Wade H. Allen has been president and CEO at the executive placement firm Cendea for over 25 years. Since 1994, Cendea has provided senior-level executive search solutions for businesses that have high goals and require impact leaders who can take them to the next level. You can reach Cendea at

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1 Comment

  • Great article Wade. Very applicable to any organization aspiring to be great ! Jesse

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