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Candidate Calibration in Executive Search Research

Candidate Calibration in Executive Search

Candidate calibration in executive search research should start with passive candidate sourcing. First, executive recruiters, candidate sourcers, and executive search research associates must make sure the position description is accurate and the requirements are reasonable. Next, executive search researchers must evaluate whether a prospective candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) line up with the job description. 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 that checks those nice-to-have boxes increases the likelihood of a 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. But some candidates without college degrees who persisted despite hardship can be resilient and inspirational leaders.


Skills are the proficiencies developed through training or experience. One translates what one knows into skill with experience. The position description should detail what skills are required for the role.


Abilities are personal or social attributes that tend to be innate or acquired without formal instruction. Abilities include attention to detail, effective communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, quant financial talent, and general managerial abilities of oneself and others.

Pre-Reference for Candidate Calibration

Pre-referencing provides rapid candidate calibration and is common practice in senior executive search. Through back channels, you speak with executives who’ve worked alongside the potential candidate.

Add Candidate Calibration to Your Sourcing Process

When was the last time you included a candidate calibration step in your candidate sourcing process? I’m not talking about candidate assessments or reference checks. They come too late in the game, often after the interview process, and can result in a lot of unhappy people should the assessment or references not check out. 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.

Conduct 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.

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.

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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