The limits of recruiting executives through your personal network

Every week I talk to dozens of media business leaders about how they recruit senior executives. I ask them what the changing nature of business means for their hiring policies, what their recruitment challenges and pain points tend to be, and I also ask about the measures they take when they’re recruiting executives – the advertising they use, the contingency agencies taken on, and the headhunters they engage.

When I ask these questions I frequently hear the same answer repeated back to me:

‘Oh,’ the business leader will say. ‘I just recruit through my own network’.

The remark is usually qualified with: ‘we know everyone in the market anyway’.

I take a massive pinch of salt with remarks of this kind. I ask myself: but do they really know everyone?

Even if you’re running a media business and know a lot of very well-qualified people, can you be sure you know the exact person your business needs at this point in its development? Even if you are Sir Martin Sorrell or Rupert Murdoch, you aren’t going to know everyone.

By only recruiting known people a firm is potentially cutting itself off from new perspectives and innovative ideas. There are executives I could name who only ever hire people they’ve worked with before, regardless of whether they fit with a new business. Often this leads to Diminishing Gene Pool Syndrome, where the same people and ideas cycle around the same businesses.

Why willingly restrict yourself like that?

It should come as no surprise to hear that most of the business leaders I know who recruit largely through their own networks are those struggling with the adoption of digital and mobile technologies.

If we take the broadsheet newspaper business as an example, the chances were that a decade ago recruitment would be from one of four or five rivals within the sector. In today’s world, the best talent for these businesses is likely to be hidden away somewhere within Google, Facebook, an e-commerce business or an innovative start-up.

For every candidate assumed by a business leader as the ideal person to fill a vacancy, there could be twenty better people out in the market. These are the individuals who can make a real difference to a business, the only limitation is that they don’t yet know the hiring firm.

If you run the hiring business do you really only want to recruit people you know? What if your competitor hires the better people who lie outside your network? Can you afford to take that risk?