Leadership by Example - Four Strategies for Internal Job Candidates

Jim Citrin

Your boss has just announced his retirement, or he's been ushered from the job for performance reasons.

The press release and news reports for the occasion contain the code words, "We will be considering internal and external candidates," meaning that the company will conduct an executive search.

This is the job you've been working toward to for years. What have all those late nights, stress-filled weeks, missed birthday parties, 24/7 communications, and other sacrifices been for but to earn the brass ring when the opportunity presents itself?

First Considerations

Welcome to the performance culture of 2006. Over the past several years, it's become standard practice among most organizations -- and certainly a best practice among high-performing companies -- to look for the very best candidate to fill an essential position.

Today, it's not a question of who's readily available, or even who inside the company represents a good fit for the position. Senior executive openings are rightfully considered strategic opportunities to attract a new caliber of leader who can have an outsized impact on a company's results.

That's all well and good, but where does that leave you if you're the one inside the company who's in line for the job? How should you feel and act if you believe you should get the promotion?

Should you be proactive and throw your hat into the ring, or wait to be invited to stand as a candidate? How should you conduct yourself in the process? If an executive search firm is involved, what is their role vis-à-vis you as an internal candidate? How should you prepare for the interviews? How can you strike the right balance between representing continuity and positioning yourself as an agent of change?

These are just some of the many questions that arise in the high-stakes dynamics of executive appointments.

To guide you in your quest, this first installment of my two-part "manifesto for internal candidates" addresses four points on how to think about and prepare for the process:

1. Embrace the process.

Recognize that in today's unforgiving environment of global competition, technological change, and shareholder activism, it's a genuine responsibility of boards and management teams to find the very best candidate possible for key positions.

Project the attitude that it's important and indeed good for the company to go through a rigorous and comprehensive search process. Realize that it's good for you, too, in that if you win the appointment, you'll come into the new role with a mandate and the credibility of having been through an exacting process. In addition, the more effort you expend in the process, the more you'll grow as an executive.

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was the sole internal candidate among five finalists in the August 2006 selection meeting, he started his interview with the 32 team owners by saying, "Let me begin by thanking you. I understand the importance of this decision and commend you on the rigorous process that the committee has undertaken to get us to this point. I am honored and appreciate your consideration of me as candidate for commissioner."

2. Declare your candidacy.

Upon the announcement of the opening, wait a little while to see if your boss or the board approaches you. Be prepared to answer the question, "Are you interested in being a candidate?" If it's clear cut in your mind, say, "Absolutely; thank you for asking." If you're unsure, it's wise to consider the question carefully.

Even if you're not certain that you want the job or if you're yet qualified, declining to accept an invitation to become a candidate will likely be interpreted as a clear signal about you having limited ambitions and or self-confidence. If you're on the fence about whether or not you want to be considered, you should go for it, as long as you handle yourself with professionalism and maturity (more on this below).

If you're not invited to be a candidate, you need to consider whether or not to proactively declare your candidacy. If you're certain that you want to be a candidate, ask to be a part of the process. But by initiating, you may be told that you're not welcome as a candidate, which obviously raises questions about your long-term viability within the company.

If you're on the fence and aren't asked, you may want to see how the process plays out before coming to any definitive conclusions.

3. Determine how the process will work, who the decision-makers are, and the role of any search firms.

Now that you're a candidate, go to school on the process, people, and timing of the selection. How will the selection criteria be developed? Who will be making the decision? Who are the advisers and influencers?

When you learn who you'll be meeting with along the way, research their backgrounds. Who do you know who knows them? What have they written and what's been written about them? What are their professional interests and hot buttons? How do they ask questions and make decisions?

If a search firm is conducting the process, be knowledgeable about its role and use that knowledge to your advantage. Assuming it's a well-regarded retained search firm, appreciate that they'll be compensated for performing the search without regard to where the ultimate candidate is found.

While it may be counterintuitive that the search firm is paid the same amount whether the company appoints an insider or they've identified and recruited a candidate from the outside, this is usually the case. The rationale is that the search professional should be expected to work on his or her client's behalf to help it 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 have influence with the board or hiring manager; don't be shy about asking for advice, providing your insights into the organization's most important needs, and soliciting feedback along the way.

Nonetheless, recognize that recruiters (and their clients) occasionally make their reputations through headline-grabbing external placements. So it's a natural desire for a recruiter to want to discover or land the big fish. However, the best search consultants will resist this temptation. You can help by having them understand your experience, insights, impact, and vision for the company.

4. Conduct yourself professionally and with maturity.

As an internal candidate in the midst of a search process, how you conduct yourself, what you do and say, may well have a magnified impact on your candidacy. When Bob Iger was president and COO of the Walt Disney Company and the internal candidate in one of the most closely watched CEO searches in history, he operated as if he was in a glass house.

He had to keep on an even keel and concentrate on his responsibilities running the company's day-to-day operations. Despite enormous pressure, his stature, by all accounts, rose during the search process as a result of the calmness with which he carried himself, his positive attitude, and his willingness to let his work and the company's results speak for themselves.

By contrast, in another CEO search process, the internal candidate was asked to a meeting with the chairman of the company's board. In talking about his interest in the job, the internal candidate asked for a large sum of money as a retention bonus and an enormous compensation package to become CEO. This understandably turned off the chairman, who dubbed him immature and greedy. In the space of 10 minutes, a company veteran with years of service was no longer a candidate.

Finally, resist any urge to lobby the decision-makers for the job; usually, this will only serve to rub them the wrong way and backfire. Let the process unfold in its natural rhythm.

In my next column, I'll provide guidance on how to conduct interviews as an internal candidate, and how to answer the tough questions.

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