Executive recruiters like Spencer Stuart see leadership trends across multiple companies and industries. According to Philip Murphy, consultant at Spencer Stuart’s financial officer practice, “it’s common for the majority of our efforts to be focused on assessing the leadership and management competencies of the candidate as opposed to concentrating on his or her technical skills.” Murphy believes treasurer candidates can differentiate themselves as effective leaders in a number of ways:
- A history of developing talent and grooming successors. Can the treasurer point to executives who have progressed through the organization under his or her leadership, or have thrived following their time together in other parts of the organization or in senior positions at other organizations? “We and our clients are drawn to candidates who have developed executives who have achieved similar levels of success,” Murphy said.
- Thinking strategically. Most clients are looking for a treasurer with strong business acumen who can “demonstrate the ability to think much more broadly beyond their technical area of expertise,” Murphy said. Top candidates are those who can point to examples of integrating treasury with various parts of the organization in a way that truly demonstrates an understanding of the business.
- Effectiveness of building relationships across the organization. “As one ascends into more senior roles, success is largely driven by an ability to collaborate with executives across functional areas,” Murphy said. “That’s a high predictor of success.”
- Self-awareness. This is a critical leadership quality, according to Murphy. “It enables people to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and surround themselves with the right talent, without feeling threatened by high performers. Humility and self-awareness are increasingly desirable attributes in a top leader.”
To sort out the best candidates, Murphy asks candidates to provide concrete examples of situations where they’ve been able to manage a team of people with varying skills, experiences and communication styles. “We look for how leaders bring those people together and create an environment where everyone can contribute and add value,” Murphy said.
Another important trait is how the candidate is able to influence while gathering the ideas and input of others, without feeling threatened or shutting down the discussion. To this challenge, Spencer Stuart asks candidates for examples of when their point of view was challenged and how they adapted their approach based on that input. What’s important is “one’s willingness to listen and change course if necessary. That’s very empowering to the team,” Murphy said.
As leaders ascend to more senior roles, “they’re going to need to rely on others to make smart decisions,” Murphy continued. “They have to be able to operate in an environment with some ambiguity, with less information readily available, and without as much time to deliberate and concentrate on an issue.”
Learning from mistakes
Another key indicator of success is whether candidates are able to learn from their mistakes. “We’ll ask: ‘What’s the biggest mistake you made and what did you learn from it?’ If someone can’t come up with a credible example, it’s a little troubling, because everyone makes mistakes,” he said.
When interviewing candidates, one red flag is a manager who excessively uses the word “I” in the interview. Most successes are the result of team work, and executives who take credit for every success are unlikely to be effective and empowering leaders. On the flip side, “we love to hear from candidates about people that they have mentored and developed and stayed in touch with who have moved to enjoy great success elsewhere,” Murphy said. “It suggests that the candidate is more focused on team success than individual success, and that he or she has been proactive in developing his or her team members.”
Whatever the leadership position, checking references is critical. Murphy tries to obtain a 360-degree view talking to past direct reports, as well as peers and managers. “When we’re interviewing candidates and talking to references, we like to feel confident that the person is capable of being demanding and holding people accountable for results, while also earning respect and loyalty from their team,” Murphy said. “That’s a strong indication of success.” To this end, the firm may look to see if past employees followed their manager as he or she has taken up new roles or moved to new companies.
Finally, Murphy said, it’s also a good sign to point to somebody internally who got promoted to take over the role the candidate has vacated. That generally means they developed a good successor. Indeed, developing effective succession plans is one of the most common accomplishments chief financial officers expect when they assess their line of direct reports. An individual’s ability to move up in an organization is highly influenced by the talent he or she has recruited and groomed underneath.