Secret (of Recruiting) In The Sauce

For years, I have tried to replicate my grandmother’s homemade pasta sauce. MeMe’s (as we called her) recipe was carefully preserved and hand-written on sauce-stained stationary from the late-80’s. Having spent a few lazy adolescent afternoons in official sauce-making instruction alongside my Italian culinary mentor and her giant boiling pot of homemade goodness, I would have hoped to say with some certainty that I knew what was needed for sauce-making success.

Batch after batch, I kept trying to perfect the nuances of the recipe. Those who remember Me-Me’s sauce share wonderful sauce-making memories and those who never knew her (nor the sauce) have great expectations all the same.

Replicating the magic of the family pasta sauce reminds me of a similar challenge in executive search. Does your search process involve:

  • Replacing an incredibly talented, rock-star employee?
  • Finding a successor for a long-tenured-yet-now-retiring key executive?
  • Locating a unique leader who is capable and qualified to follow in a founder’s footsteps to advance a remarkable organization?

If so, the stakes are high. And when the recruitment stakes are high, decision-makers get nervous—not surprising and understandably so. There may be a fair amount institutional or historical knowledge walking out the door. There may be a belief that success is tied to an existing leader’s relationship with key stakeholders. There may be concern as to whether a leadership change will trickle down and impact dedicated and long-tenured team members.

Almost like clockwork, some version of the same endearing yet nervous message arrives at my doorstep alongside such search requests. The words may vary but the recruiting mandate is almost always the same, “We have big shoes to fill. We need someone with a great vision, charisma, personality, network, strategy. We need someone capable of inspiring a high-performing team, taking us to the next level, filling a critical leadership gap … delivering innovative thinking, operational efficiency, strategic greatness! And we cannot afford to get this wrong.”

In these moments, it’s more comfortable to want to replicate the sauce. To look at what worked in the past because it yielded great success. Organizations want to duplicate the qualifications or personality of a departing leader or compare new applicants professionally and personally to a known entity. We get it—leadership change is hard and high-level transitions can be scary. Exploring different leaders with diverse approaches and varying philosophies may feel just as risky and as uncertain as it did to lose your key contributor.

Nonetheless, experience has shown us that attempting to replicate the qualities of a departing leader is not where the recipe for success starts in recruitment. Organizations change and companies and teams evolve. New technologies and innovations emerge. Just like the talent and leadership necessary to support the growth of an early-stage business is not the same talent needed to support later stage development, it is possible that what made your past employee a rock star or even a founder so successful is no longer the most important ingredient for the future of your organization.

High stakes recruiting and Italian pasta sauce-making aside, selecting future talent and hiring key leaders requires time and a thoughtful approach.

To propel your organization, you need to achieve critical alignment between a leader’s responsibilities and the organization’s overall vision and strategy. What skills and achievements are required to get you there? The more specifically you can answer that question, the more direction and clarity you gain (and the more compelling the mission you create for the right candidate).

Occhio would love to help you answer these questions to bring clarity and focus to your search journey. Experience has taught us that crystalizing your hiring requirements will also help to structure an objective and transparent interview process. While replicating the sauce may be tempting, taking time to identify how it needs to evolve will undoubtedly yield greater success.

As for my sauce-making journey, I’m pretty sure Me-Me would want her sauce to evolve into something even more as well.

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