September 2019, by Philip Ferguson
4-minute read

When smaller, more entrepreneurial companies are looking to shore up gaps within their organization, executives from larger corporations may be able to provide valuable expertise and experience. But some big fish can’t make the transition to a small pond. Here are four tips on picking the right candidate for the role.

1. Select candidates who can handle more accountability

In a leaner organization, the level of accountability is much higher. There’s less passing off or delegating of responsibility. Leadership is therefore much more accountable and candidates need to be ready for that. 

For some executives used to a larger, more layered organization with a matrix-style reporting structure, that adjustment can be difficult.

To get a sense of whether they can handle it, I’ll ask candidates to give me examples of different project or program launches they were a part of and describe their involvement in them from start to finish. If they provide me with the overall strategy along with key measures to support it, it’s my job to investigate more – to find out whether those measures came from the candidate or a more senior level. I’ll then challenge the candidate to demonstrate his or her accountability and ownership of processes by talking about them in concrete terms. 

Here’s an example: I recently interviewed one candidate about a leadership role at a more entrepreneurial company. When prompted to give specific numbers about how he had implemented changes with his previous employers and discuss path development, his focus was too top level, providing me with general corporate responses. That usually flags a candidate as being less entrepreneurial, relying more on the resources around them to execute and follow through on a project. Those candidates are better suited to staying within the framework of a larger, more structured work environment.

2. Look for flexibility and cross-functional experience

Another key to thriving within a smaller, leaner organization is having the ability to identify when you’re on the wrong track and the flexibility to do something about it. Compared with a larger, more structured organization, you need to be more nimble and flexible to make changes within a smaller and leaner organization.

That’s why sometimes I’ll even suggest that candidates tell me about a failure they experienced and how they either fixed it or closed the gap. That kind of scenario is highly relevant to being a leader at a smaller company.

Executives at smaller companies also have less defined job descriptions and tend to wear multiple hats. You may therefore want to look for someone who has been with the same organization for some time and experienced the organization’s growth transition from a smaller to a larger corporation.

Compared to someone who’s been with a big firm from the get-go, these individuals will have more awareness of working within an environment that requires a cross-functional approach. 

The better understanding candidates have of the different functions across an organization, the broader their business acumen will be.

3. Conduct personality profile assessments

I also strongly recommend administering assessments to confirm a candidate’s fit with your company. There are various personality profile assessments out there that will help you identify people with the right attributes. Some things to look for include:

  • Leadership ability
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Industry knowledge
  • Adaptability
  • Curiosity

These algorithm-based tools have come a long way in recent years. They range from simple to very complex, depending on how in-depth you want to go, but as long as candidates answer them honestly, they’re helpful in identifying the right executive.

4. Consider giving the candidate a consulting role

Usually, when a small or medium-sized company comes to me about filling a leadership position, they’ll say they’re leery of bringing someone in who doesn’t have an entrepreneurial background or isn’t battle-tested in a leaner organization.

In that case, it may make sense to first bring the candidate on board as a consultant or contractor, in order to prove himself or herself before joining the company full-time. 

It’s a bit like dating someone before committing to a serious relationship: it gives both parties the chance to get to know each other, see if the chemistry is good and decide whether they both want to pursue matters further.

Whichever approach you take, you need to make sure the person you choose is given the leeway to use their expertise. Sometimes companies bring in someone with all the right tools to make changes, but then ownership gets cold feet about making those changes, often for cost reasons. 

Once you’ve made the commitment to close gaps in your organization by hiring an executive from a larger corporation, put your trust in them and empower them to accomplish their mandate.


About the Author

Philip Ferguson is the Vice-President, Executive Search, for the Strato Toronto office. After a successful career in the consumer packaged goods industry, including regional and national leadership positions, he joined Hubble in 2005, where he became a managing partner, providing oversight for the company’s Toronto offices for 12 years. Drawing on his business experience, strong network and understanding of client expectations, he has placed current and future business leaders in Ontario-based organizations of all sizes.


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