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Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Making the Final Candidate Selection

Christian Spletzer - May 20, 2020

After completing the assessment stage of the executive recruiting process, your client should have all the information they need to make a decision. Nonetheless, executive searches can get stalled just before a decision is made. Although your client is doing most of the heavy lifting at this point, your work here is far from over and your role remains a crucial part of the process still.

When it comes time for your client to narrow down their evaluations, your primary role is to be your client's expert consultant. In order for you to assist your client through their evaluations, you'll need to know how to:

  • Conduct reference checks
  • Enforce good decision making

Using the information they've gathered thus far alongside your expert input, your client should feel confident making that final decision.

Conducting Reference Checks

It's not always the case that you will be conducting reference checks on behalf of your client. However, it's always a good idea to know the best practices here so you can advise your client. The objective of reference checks is to verify everything that the candidate has told you about themselves. You are confirming the candidate is who they say they are and can do what they say they can do. If you are fortunate, a reference will tell you something you didn't already know. This can then provide you with more conclusive feedback on a candidate that you can pass on to your client.

Ask the Right Questions

One thing to keep in mind is that your reference checking process for an executive-level hire might be a little more rigorous than others. You might have to contact several references and those references might have to meet stricter criteria. For example, a client might request a reference from a previous or current employer within the last 5 years. The questions you ask may differ depending on these requirements. And while these questions are always going to differ depending on the company or the role, they should also be specific and unique to executive-level hiring.

Below is a list of topics that you can cover in a reference check regarding a candidate's abilities that should give you a better idea of how well the candidate will fit in your client's company. These topics can be found in our Example Reference Checking Questions sheet from The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search online course.


These questions are a great way to break the ice and start a conversation. Discovering what sort of relationship the candidate has with their reference can help you decipher the type of questions to ask later on in the interview.


Effective teamwork is the pinnacle of efficiency and productivity. As an executive-level candidate, the ability to work well within a team is a must. Therefore asking a reference about a candidate's ability to work well with others is a critical point of discussion. Consider talking about the candidate's strengths working in a team versus when they work alone, how well they were able to reason with others, etc.


Growth in this context means a candidate's career path, ask the reference what they know about the candidate’s goals and how they got to where they are currently. You want to ask the right questions to determine the candidate's long term goals and if this is in line with your client's company values.

Leadership & Management Style

You want to ask the reference about a candidate's leadership and management style to determine if they are a good fit for your client's company. You also want to ask in regards to the candidate's particular style to ensure that they can work well with that of the other executives on the team.

Adaptability & Challenges

These questions are what every client wants to know about their executive hire: how well does the candidate work under pressure? Not only that but how they handle conflict, change, particularly difficult challenges, etc. How do they react in the face of adversity and how do they overcome it?

Agility & Fit

Lastly, you want to decipher the ideal situation in which the candidate would thrive. Again, this inquiry is to ensure that the candidate will indeed be a good fit for the role.

Tips for Conducting Reference Checks

The number one component to conducting not just a great interview, but a productive conversation is to be prepared. This stands true no matter if you're conducting interviews with the candidates or with your candidate's references. Here are a few rules of thumb to help you go into a reference check feeling prepared:

Always ask for permission before contacting a candidate's current employer. This goes back to matters of confidentiality. There's nothing worse than contacting a candidate's current employer, only for said employer to discover at that moment that their current executive is contemplating employment elsewhere. This can create problems for the candidate in their current place of employment should they cease to progress further in the search.

Prepare a dialogue. That said, don't be overly scripted either. Know the path you want the conversation to take, what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Ask follow-up questions. Especially if you find that a reference is responding vaguely. Be an active listener so you can latch on to something they said and expand on it.

Know how to speak to a reluctant reference. When speaking with them, take a humble approach by asking for their help first. They are more likely to talk to you when you ask for their help as opposed to when you jump right into talking about the candidate.

How to Guide Your Client's Evaluation Process

So you've finished checking references for every last candidate on the final list. Now, all that's left to do is present your findings to your client and help them come to a decision. Taking a consultative approach here will ensure that your client doesn't make an irrational or hasty decision about a candidate.

One thing you can do to ensure this stage flows smoothly is to encourage your clients to have all their documentation readily accessible. The reason why documentation is always encouraged early on and throughout the search process is that it makes coming to a conclusion easier. By taking notes on a candidate, recording everything that they liked and what stood out, a client can easily refer to these documents when they need to.

Another way you can help your client is by being able to recognize when they are making an error in their evaluation. Anyone can choose a candidate from a list. The hard part is to choose a candidate for the right reason. Familiarize yourself with the following biases in your client's thought process that can impede their ability to choose a quality candidate.

Leniency Bias

Your client is going too easy on all candidates. They are having trouble identifying outstanding qualities in a candidate because they are 'all great' and so cannot decide which one is the best fit.

Strictness Bias

The opposite of leniency bias - your client is too harsh on all candidates. If your client is having a hard time deciding on a candidate, determine if this is because they think all candidates are great or because they think no one is a great fit.

Similar-to-me Bias

Your client is biased towards the candidate that is most like them. Whether they went to the same university or they have a lot of the same interests, make sure that your client is not swayed by these minor details.

Contrast Effect

Your client is evaluating a candidate based on their comparison to other candidates rather than the actual job description and criteria. This can cause your client to rate another candidate higher or lower that can lead to misguided judgments.

Halo Effect

When a client allows their perception of one attribute in a candidate to affect their perception of all attributes, this can be considered a result of the halo effect. If your client favors a candidate solely because they had a 'good presence' or because they 'work well with others', work with them to uncover a thorough perception of the candidate.

Of course, your client is not going to come right out and admit their bias because oftentimes a person's bias is subconscious. They don't realize they're making a biased decision until someone points it out to them. Make sure you have a thorough discussion with your client on their reasoning behind choosing a particular candidate to ensure they choose the right one.

Using executive recruiting software like Clockwork can significantly ease the strain on the client's part. By gaining access to the search project on Clockwork, they're able to view details on every candidate and any notes or documents associated with each one - all in one central location. This includes your notes, their notes, feedback from references, resumes, and anything else that a client may need to refer to.  

The Example Reference Checking Questions sheet is from Clockwork’s free online course on The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search. Register today for many more examples and best practices.

Topics: The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search

Christian Spletzer

Christian Spletzer

After years of working as an executive recruiter, Christian Spletzer founded Clockwork to improve how search firms and clients work together on retained search projects. He designed Clockwork to help recruiters demonstrate their consultative value to their clients at every stage of each project.

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