5 common mistakes made in hiring leaders (and how to avoid them)
Passion is eluding New Zealand business leaders, with only two in every 10 people in leadership roles feeling engaged in their jobs, as revealed in a 2013 global workplace engagement study by business research company Gallup.

Given the impact a leader has on an organisation’s bottom line, culture and reputation, it is a frightening statistic, according to engagement specialist Dawn Russell, but one she says proves that many businesses are hiring the wrong people for the top jobs.

The most common mistake a company makes during the recruitment phase, she says, is being awed by someone’s technical skills and not differentiating what is required for a leader. “A leader needs an entirely different skill set,” she says.

Russell spent 14 years in senior leadership roles at Singapore Airlines, before founding her training facilitation business The Heartware Group, and says to recruit the right person you must be clear about what you need the leader to achieve.

An employee, she says, needs the skills to do their job; while a manager moves resources around, overseeing the team; yet both of these are quite different from a leader whose core focus is to rally others behind them. A leader inspires, engages and empowers. They have the vision, but get the work done through others.

Steve Shepherd, an employment market analyst with international recruitment agency Randstad, agrees. He says while it may be someone’s self-drive and selfishness that make them your best sales rep, those skills may not work for them in a leadership role if they have to be consultative and thrive on team work.

Similarly, says Shepherd, the person who likes to keep everyone happy and makes a fantastic customer service rep may not flourish in a role where tough personnel decisions have to be made.

What to look for in a leader

  • Ensure they’re aligned with the business’s values and mission.

  • That they are future-focused – they have the plan and are able to motivate others to nut out the details.

  • They are open to the ideas of others.

  • They are self-aware enough to know their own strengths and weaknesses.

  • They possess good people and communication skills.

5 common hiring mistakes to avoid

1. Vague search criteria

Often the recruitment of a leader is left to people who have never been in a leadership role themselves, and it is easy to get it wrong if you don’t know exactly what you're looking for. Be sure to have a clear description of what the job entails and what style of leader is needed at this point in time.

“Often we let emotions and first impressions cloud our judgment,” says Shepherd. “Just because you like someone or form a quick bond with them doesn’t necessarily mean they will be great for that job. You must back it up with evidence.”

2. Not asking the right questions

Experience can be over-rated, as can the ‘flashy’ big name company. Sometimes the ‘safe hire’ by looking at a resume may have ridden on the coattails of a great team or the draw of their former company’s brand. Instead, look for a leader who is a good ‘cultural fit’ for your organisation.

Put adequate time into preparing for an interview and ask behavioural-based questions that will test people for their values, ability to inspire and ability to engage their team.

“A lot of the time when we recruit for leadership we focus on ‘can the person do the job,’ without knowing their values, what their vision is for their life, their morals and what is driving them,” says Russell. “You need to get into those people’s skin.”

3. No reference checks

Shepherd says it’s surprising how many small businesses fail to conduct reference checks. Gut feeling isn’t good enough, particularly for a leadership role.

He recommends getting the former employer’s perspective on how they handled the scenarios you asked in the interview, and telling them clearly about the role you are offering and the personality traits you need – do they think their former employee is a match?

Looking beyond the obvious references handed to you can be important too. They will likely be positive, so Shepherd advises to dig deeper to gauge their level of enthusiasm. Don’t just talk to their former boss too – ask for references from their direct reports or ring some of their best clients.

4. Too much haste

A vacancy can feel like a big hole in a business, so it can be tempting to fill it with the best of a bad lot of applicants. Weigh up the damage hiring the wrong candidate could do to your business versus waiting a few more weeks for the right person.

Russell believes getting those who will be the leader’s peers or direct reports in for the interview panel can be extremely valuable.

Another worthwhile test is to see the candidate in a less formal environment. Take them and possibly their partner out for dinner, get them to drive you to a coffee shop and see how they react to the stresses of traffic, or do what Russell did and invite them to an office lunch.

“We had interviewed someone to the second round and they seemed to have all the right credentials but my intuition was saying something wasn’t right,” she says. “We took him out to lunch with the rest of the team so we could observe him, and as he got more relaxed he started talking about not liking being bossed about by women and he really let his guard down.

“We found out he had difficulty reporting to women and since he would be reporting to a woman in this role we knew he wouldn’t be right for the job. The more casual the interaction in the final stage can tell a lot.”

5. Leadership is an investment

It is well documented that a bad leader is bad for business. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing promotion as a reward for high-achieving employees. If a fantastic sales person, accountant or engineer doesn’t have what it takes to drive the team they are in charge of, it won’t just be them held responsible when the team comes crashing down.

“As a hiring manager you are putting your own reputation on the line,” says Shepherd. “You are making a decision that others will judge you by. Spend the time you need because what you get out of it is what you put in.”