Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
February 6, 2017

Internal Candidate: Blessed or Cursed?

Being an internal candidate can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, internal candidates have unique insights into the organization, allowing them to provide a distinct point of view on what the strategies and top priorities should be. On the other hand, they can make biased assumptions about the organization and the business, and jump too quickly to conclusions as to what can, or cannot, be done.

Given these factors, what is the best way for an internal candidate in an executive search to approach the opportunity?

In our work, we’ve witnessed the best and worst responses.

A couple of years ago, we conducted a search for a country CEO where the internal candidate felt that he was the obvious successor. The client had requested we take candidates through a business case for part of the interview. The internal candidate scoffed at the idea, got frustrated during the process as he “did not see the point of this” and almost gave up halfway through the exercise, revealing his poor level of general business understanding and low learning agility. He did not get the job. In fact, he ended up leaving the organization a few months later.

It did not have to turn out this way.

Take this counterexample: For a CEO successor role with a large listed company in Singapore, the internal candidate came dressed in full business attire, had done his research on the Spencer Stuart process and team, and had prepared a 10-point plan of what he would do if he got the job. He also showed self-awareness and humility, correctly pointing out both his strengths and weaknesses. He ended up meeting the board as a finalist along with one of the external candidates. While he was ultimately not selected by the board for the role, his high potential was discussed and the company is investing further in his professional development. He will very likely be better off for it in the long run.

Based on divergent examples, here is a list of best practices to keep in mind if you are the internal candidate for a senior role within your company:

Understand how the process will work. Know who the decision-makers are, the likely timeline and the role of the search firm. Learning more about the process, including how the selection criteria will be developed and who the influencers are, will help you prepare and strengthen your candidacy.

If a search firm is driving the process, be knowledgeable about its role. The search professional works on the client’s behalf to help select the very best candidate possible, regardless of whether the successful candidate is external or internal. Cultivate a relationship with the recruiter, who you should assume will be an influencer to the search committee or hiring manager. Do not hesitate to ask for advice or provide your insights into the organization’s most important issues.

Prepare and communicate balanced views. You can help the search firm and the search committee by sharing your personal experiences, insights and vision for the company. Be open about any of your current gaps for the role and have a plan for how you would address them if appointed.

In addition, we typically ask internal candidates: “What would your first two weeks in the job look like and how would you articulate your 100-day plan?” This allows candidates to demonstrate that they have the self-awareness, analytical skills and learning agility to project themselves into new situations and to a higher-level role.

Conduct yourself professionally and with maturity. Internal candidates can increase their stature — and often improve their chances of ultimately being selected for the job — when they maintain professionalism and a positive attitude throughout the search process.

Embrace the process. While it can be nerve-wracking to be one of many candidates, understand that, should you win the job, you will have been validated by a rigorous search process. This will ultimately provide further support for your selection. You should also get some useful development feedback along the way, so seek it proactively.

Tell your story. Do not assume that the search committee or even your superior knows all of your strengths and how you fit to the position. Help the committee understand who you are, what you believe, the major drivers in your life and the path you traveled to arrive where you are currently.

Respect the need for confidentiality. Under no circumstances should you lobby for the position with the board, search committee members or your fellow employees. This sort of effort can be perceived by the search committee as disruptive or an attempt to manipulate the process.

By adopting some of these time-tested best practices, internal candidates can turn the opportunity into a success.

Jim Citrin leads Spencer Stuart’s North American CEO Practice and is a core member of the firm’s Board Practice. During his 23 years with the firm, he has worked with clients on more than 600 CEO, board director, and other top management searches and succession assignments. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn.