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Candidate Calibration in Executive Search Research

Candidate Calibration in Executive Search

Candidate calibration is a key ingredient in executive recruiting. It is the best way to tell whether an executive is a dream candidate or your worst nightmare. Calibrating a candidate helps you determine whether a potential hire is as amazing as she seems to be in her resume or LinkedIn profile. The key to candidate calibration is paying close attention to identify possible red flags and inconsistencies.

Candidate Calibration Starts with Sourcing

Candidate calibration in executive search research starts with passive candidate sourcing — the potential list of candidates you will pursue. First, executive recruiters, candidate sourcers, and executive search research associates make sure the position description is accurate and the requirements are reasonable. Next, executive search researchers determine whether a prospective candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) line up with what the job requires. You look for candidates with must-have and nice-to-have KSAs. While must-haves are the bare minimum, the nice-to-haves are usually the sweet spot. A candidate who checks those nice-to-have boxes increases the likelihood of making a good hire.


Knowledge is the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject, which executives usually acquire at college. When you calibrate candidates, you check their education. The position description should indicate what college degree is required or preferred. Most companies that require a “bachelor’s degree or equivalent” are open to candidates who do not have a formal degree but have the requisite knowledge. Including candidates with equivalent knowledge boosts diversity. College is incredibly expensive. So, too, is supporting a family. Sometimes life happens. However, some candidates without college degrees who persist despite hardship can be resilient and inspirational leaders.

Skills and Abilities

Effective leadership takes practice. At the senior executive level, companies want leaders who can understand and mentor people. They seek leaders who can think on their feet, learn from their experience, take on new challenges, and make decisions despite ambiguity. According to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, C-suite communication and presentation; change management; subject matter expertise, strategic thinking and foresight; decision-making; emotional intelligence; employee development; and delegation are essential skills for most senior leadership positions. Ideal candidates should check all those boxes.

Pre-Reference for Candidate Calibration

Checking references given to you by the candidate usually comes late in the interview process, right before an offer is extended. That’s a little late in the game to find out a candidate is not someone you should hire. Conversely, discreet pre-referencing provides rapid candidate calibration and is common practice in senior executive search. Through back channels, the recruiter or hiring executive speaks with executives who have worked with the candidate. The outreach is done in such a way as to protect the candidate. You are seeking referrals (ideally of the person you want to find out about) and want to know what it was like to work with the people who are recommended — their strengths and weaknesses. You must never indicate the person is being interviewed for a new job.

Candidate Calibration Saves Precious Time

Pre-referencing keeps you and the senior executive team from wasting time on candidates who should not be hired. No one wants to discover that a candidate that you’ve screened, interviewed, and were on the verge of hiring was not what they appear to be. We detail how to conduct pre-references early on in our post, Calibrate Candidates Early Before Reference Checks. You must be extremely careful to protect the potential candidate. Moreover, you must always consider the source. Sometimes, the person giving the reference is an “unreliable narrator”. But, for candidate calibration, pre-references provide rapid insight into whether you’ve discovered your next hire.

Start Candidate Calibration Early

Your recruiting research team should develop qualitative information about passive candidates early on to reduce the risk of candidate implosion. Quite simply, you must insert a step in your sourcing process to calibrate or pre-reference candidates to determine whose references indicate they are top performers. Top performers usually make better hires.

Candidate Calibration for Imperfect Executives

Of course, as Harvard Business Review reports in When to Take a Chance on an Imperfect Job Candidate, no candidate is perfect. While makes sense to consider imperfect candidates, there are still qualities to look for: social skills, signs of self-awareness, as well as the desire and the ability to learn. The one thing you should never compromise on is character. Toxic people are a non-starter.

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Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford

Founder and CEO of Intellerati | The Good Search. Retained executive search headhunter. Former investigative journalist. Wife of saxman. Mama of MD. Co-worker of Hamlet the Corgi. TikTok addict.View Author posts

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