Why Candidate Assessments Are Broken

Melissa Henderson January 2, 2019

There is a scene from the animated film, Ratatouille, that has one of my favorite “take you back moments”. The persnickety food critic, Anton Ego, requests a dish to critique with the belief that he already will be disappointed. The dish he tastes, ratatouille, ultimately takes him back to his childhood and he writes a phenomenal review. Well, just last week I had my own “take me back moments” to my prior career in retained executive search.

A successful candidate from fourteen years ago shared a candidate letter and candidate assessment, which I had written to present him for what ultimately became a very successful fourteen year run for him and the organization he joined. With great curiosity, I read the candidate letter. I was captivated by the expressiveness, substantive detail and passion put into that letter back then.

I know how we vet, extract, validate and document the value proposition of our executive clients we represent here at Summit. But reading that candidate letter from many years passed led me to question how today’s candidates are assessed, appraised and referenced by retained search firms, hiring companies and private equity portfolios. I wondered if candidate letters were really written any longer and if references drilled to the level of detail they should.

Why It’s Broken

I have found more recently a disturbing realization that more and more candidates are essentially writing their own candidate letters. With our own clients entering an executive search sanctioned process, the retained search consultant is providing the candidate with a questionnaire to complete. It is the candidate’s detailed, personal assessment of how they fit the position. In turn, the candidate is doing the retained search consultant’s own work of producing the candidate letter.

Candidate letters seems like a task you could delegate back to the candidate. After all, who knows them better than themselves? The search consultant thinks that by removing the task from their list of things to do, they are saving time and money, when the fact of the matter is that they are actually costing themselves time and money. This is a “false economy”.

Why Candidates Don’t Write the Best Candidate Letters

It is simple – they don’t have any practice writing a candidate letter. At best, the candidate might have written a few cover letters on resumes in their career. When is the last time a hiring executive read a good cover letter? A member of the team that knows the candidate, knows the position and writes countless candidate letters every year is going to write a much better letter.

Furthermore, the candidate will not write it in your style. Good writers and good teams pride themselves on presenting things in the most effective style. The search consultant is not just selling the candidate to the client, they are selling themselves for the next search as well.

Candidates don’t actually know themselves better. In writing the candidate letter, the search consultant should thoughtfully interview the candidate, thoroughly and substantively speak with their references and yes, re-examine their career. As an outside observer the search consultant should be unbiased and be able to professionally assess the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in ways most executives will not or cannot do for themselves.

The Cost of Mediocre Candidate Letters

If the “right” candidate has a poor candidate letter, the search consultant will end up having to find a second “right” candidate. If the candidate letter does not reflect the candidate accurately and they are not a fit, any interview wastes the hiring executive’s time and makes the search consultant look bad. The lack of accuracy could doom the staying power of the candidate in their new role, they do not even make it a year, and in turn the search consultant has to re-do the search – for free.

When the clients get the candidate letter, they do not just see it as a reflection of the candidate, but of the search consultant as well. With the search consultant doing their job of all of the above, it helps them effectively prepare the candidate, as they have taken the time to assess and know the true value proposition of the candidate. Strategizing like this might seem painfully obvious, but there are countless candidates who are woefully unprepared to interview. An interview that does not result in a successful candidate is a waste of time and money.

Repeat business and referrals require excellent performance. To maximize your efforts in filling a position, you want to find the right candidate, right away with the least effort. Unfortunately, these are not tasks you can economize away, because having someone else do them is, in fact, a false economy.


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