The Case for the Step-Up Candidate:

Our clients typically come to us for low-risk, proven executives who can readily assimilate into their executive teams with minimal learning curves. In simple terms, the best way to limit hiring risk is to find candidates who have been there, done that, and want to do it again. While over 70% of our placements match this description, what happens if that ideal candidate is not available, affordable, or a positive cultural add? While there are several strategies to broaden a search, one often overlooked option is to look for step-up candidates.

The following questions can help clarify if step-up candidates should be incorporated into your search strategy:

  • Is your organization in the early stages of growth? Step-up candidates may be more willing to flex between strategy formulation and hands-on execution when resources are scarce. Whereas veteran leaders may be too accustomed to delegating to more established teams.
  • What is the makeup of your existing executive team and support network? Do you have a roster of experienced leaders who can afford to support a burgeoning executive? Are there Board members and/or operational advisors that can help to mentor a step-up candidate?
  • Does the external step-up candidate represent a significant upgrade compared to your existing team members? Will a step-up hire allow for the continued development of your high-potential leaders or cause friction and potential resignations?
  • Do you need to diversify your leadership team? Is your existing leadership team too homogenous? If so, opening your search to include step-up candidates will improve your chances of landing a diverse leader.
  • Can you afford a seasoned veteran? While we often encourage our clients to pay up for an A-player, sometimes the gap between a veteran leader and a first-time executive is too much to bear. A comprehensive analysis of candidate compensation and the associated trade-offs will confirm if a step-up candidate is the appropriate choice.

If your business case matches one or more of the points above, a step-up candidate may be the best solution for your organization. However, not all deputies are created equal. In addition to our typical assessments, here are some thoughts specific to evaluating step-up candidates:

  • Clarify the Org Structure: Titles can be misleading. Look for deputies that have the full breadth of functional responsibility, instead. For example, in the case of a CFO search, has the existing Chief Financial Officer been elevated into a Chief Administrative or Operating role and left the traditional finance responsibilities to their second-in-command? Confirm this by understanding reporting lines at the direct, peer, and superior levels.
  • Prioritize the role’s qualifications? Do the unique characteristics of your industry make direct sector experience essential? Do you need someone who has worked with a specific ownership type, and/or been through a specific event (IPO, exit, M&A, etc.)? A step-up candidate that has all of the above experiences and played a significant role in those processes may be more relevant than a C-level leader with gaps in their CV.
  • Seek examples of original thought: Assess for instances when the step-up candidate provided and drove solutions for solving problems or seizing opportunities. Have they been successful leading up to multiple leaders or relied on the direction of one or two primary sponsors?
  • Reference early and often: Ask for references early in the process, if possible, and look for back-channel connections that won’t jeopardize the candidate’s current employment. Invested leaders want to see their proteges succeed. If you paint an accurate picture of the role’s expectations, past/current mentors will overtly or covertly signal if the candidate is ready.
  • Identify the gaps: Whether directly from the candidate’s self-description, your evaluation, assessments, and/or reference checks, it is essential to highlight the candidate’s primary gaps. Are these mission critical shortfalls or learning opportunities that can be addressed?

While step-up candidates are rarely coveted at the onset of a search, a careful assessment of the situation and a diligent evaluation process may reveal that step-up candidates should be incorporated into your search, if not targeted exclusively.

We’d love to hear your reactions below! What else do you consider when hiring a step-up candidate?