CxO Recruiting: Strategies for Uncovering Contenders

Today’s disrupted world finds many companies in a fevered frenzy to source C-level executives who are adept at providing transformative leadership. But locating influential talent, which will help an organization grow, is easier said than done when established enterprises and new marketplace disruptors are equally tasked with navigating economic, societal, and digital transformation challenges.

Companies need to find proactive ways to recover while preparing for future demands and new ways to operate, including sourcing the right senior leadership team members.


While the pandemic has shifted the way businesses operate, many companies have used the “downtime” to discover their strengths and start resetting priorities for a return to “normal.” A vast majority are proactively strengthening their leadership teams by searching for and hiring “nontraditional” C-suite executives (CxOs) who are flexible, nimble, and diverse.

The new CxO demand has made talent retention and recruitment a top-of-mind issue, with many viable contenders being courted and often poached. This new “war for talent” finds high-caliber candidates evaluating multiple offers. These scenarios have made the quest for quickly finding C-level candidates more urgent than it has been in the past.

Stop Searching for Mythical Creatures

Unfortunately, some say the “right” search strategy doesn’t exist because efforts are affected by location, industry, personal circumstances, and company culture. Others say that “perfect” candidates are mythical creatures who do not exist, so the focus should be on locating the best candidates. No matter what candidate definition is embraced, high-growth practices mandate methodically identifying and hiring someone who will stay for the long term while adding significant value to any organization.

Simplify Your Candidate Criteria

What if finding the right candidate could be simplified to make sourcing viable options easier? Instead of the traditional laundry list of selection criteria, ensure you source possible C-suite contenders with skill sets that manage the volatile disruptions of today, e.g., economic changes, work-from-home workforces, climate change, political polarization, social injustice, and pandemic restrictions. Consider the following three criteria for finding and recruiting the right CxO.

Seek and assess softer skills. While there are many core competencies for CxOs, it is hard to translate culture into today’s expansive work-from-home environment. Today’s leadership requires more soft skills that characterize how someone builds rapport and relationships with others. Because effective leadership during “normal” times already valued soft skills, imagine how much more vital it is today to collaborate, motivate, and persuade distributed workforces while effectively shaping an organization’s future.

While there are many ways to assess resilience and adaptability, assessment tools and targeted prescreening interviews have become more important than ever. Start by identifying the intangible traits that are important to your company culture and workforce. Be sure to include those relevant soft skill qualifications in the job description. Then read between the lines to see how a candidate showcases these competencies in his or her dossier. Ask probing questions that help a candidate demonstrate self-awareness and showcase the traits you’re seeking.

Look beyond the title to define the role. Many organizations need help determining what they are really looking for in a CxO candidate. With varying acronyms, some companies get hung up on the actual title without crafting a role description that fits their specific needs. Today, C-level roles are shifting to help companies take on new opportunities and challenges. Traditional responsibilities also include creative scopes of work for expanded executive leadership descriptions that include technical experts and generalists. A recent example found that a CMO needed to also function as a data scientist and a COO. Talk about a unique position!

The best way to uncover these unique needs is to ask probing questions that get companies to think through the scope of a role. Research is also required to position the job description correctly, so a marketplace search will uncover prospective candidates who align with the role and can achieve all the activities the position requires. In the end, it is essential for today’s C-suite role descriptions to include practical application, technical innovation, and results-focused duties that will help accomplish company growth.

Target curious thinkers. Diversity of thinking is a must for today’s agile and flexible C-suite. The natural ability to recognize differences and respond to them in different ways tends to ensure an executive’s success, especially during challenging times. Inquisitive leaders will pursue new solutions for old problems while motivating others to think and behave in new ways. Instead of having all the answers, a curious thinker will tackle the unexpected while continually learning. 

Targeted questions will help uncover this unique trait during any quest for finding the right C-level candidate. Consider asking guided, open-ended questions to reveal a contender’s level of inquisitiveness. Curiosity questions might include asking the individual to tell you about a new skill or idea he or she learned in the past 6 months and how he or she went about it. Or, you may ask the person to share with you the last thing he or she obsessed over.

Remember, if curiosity leads a company down new paths, imagine how important that characteristic is in today’s constantly morphing marketplace. Curious thinkers will cultivate innovations for a company’s future to address rapidly changing, disrupted workforces. In turn, the company will be better-positioned to prosper and thrive.

Adapting to today’s new realities requires finding needles in haystacks and gemstones in the rough that will propel companies and workforces to new heights. Instead of leaning into long-standing practices, new executive search strategies to find the right CxO leaders for today’s disruptive world are required. Is your company being proactive in its quest to transform the way you conduct business? It all starts with sourcing the right candidates creatively. 

Tracy Murdoch O’Such is the President for the Americas at Marlin Hawk, a global leadership advisory firm. She is responsible for the management of the organization’s Americas region and the development of its global digital, media, entertainment, and sports practice.