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How (And Why) Executive Recruiters Consider Humble Leaders First

By Nad Elias, Managing Partner, HT Staffing

Executive recruiters will tell you that a healthy leadership style can trump even technical know-how when it comes to staffing executives across all industries. In fact, executive search firms these days often consider leadership style the most important indicator of top C-level talent. For instance, will the job candidate be able to lead, empower and inspire? More and more, experts are finding that humble leaders do it best. In this post, we’ll take a look at why that’s true and how to spot humbleness during your executive search.

Executive leadership—or the role of the “boss”—has changed over the years. The era of order-barking bosses who lead through intimidation is over. Instead, organizations look for executives who are high-fiving, fist-pumping team players. In fact, researchers at the University at Buffalo School of Management found that bosses who are humble team players are most effective. The study showed that companies with managers who lead by example, admit mistakes, and recognize the strengths of their staff are better poised for growth. In a larger follow up study as The Atlantic reports, “leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees, and lower voluntary employee turnover.”

Jim Collins, author of the iconic business book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, calls this type of executive a Level 5 leader. According to Collins, every good-to-great company he studied had at least one Level 5 leader who directs ego away from him or herself to the larger goal of leading the company to greatness.  “These leaders are a complex, paradoxical mix of intense professional will and extreme personal humility,” Collins writes in the Harvard Business Review.

In addition to inspiring others, a Baylor University study found an “honesty-humility personality trait” was a unique predictor of job performance. The study indicates that individuals who exhibit high levels of fairness, greed-avoidance, sincerity and modesty (traits the researchers link to honesty and humility) were scored significantly higher by their supervisors for their job performances.

So if a humble leader is desirable, how can the trait be screened for in the interview process?  Executive recruiters can play a critical role. By prescreening and narrowing the candidate pool to the top three or so individuals, executive search firms allows an organization to focus more intensively on qualitative interviews. What’s more, involving a staffing firm help can also help identify another necessary trait for all humble leaders: respectfulness. Even at the executive level, some job candidates handle meeting with a professional staffing firm too lightly. Some dress inappropriately while others conduct themselves unprofessionally, not understanding that a first impression with an executive recruiter is critically important. If a candidate doesn’t impress the recruiter, the recruiter won’t recommend that individual for an interview. How the job candidate treats professional recruiters can be a great indicator of how respectful the individual will be toward colleagues at all levels of business.

During the interview itself, humility can be gauged by asking behavioral-based interview questions.  Seek out scenarios offering insight into how the job candidate has handled, or is likely to handle, situations in which he or she motivated a team, met an important deadline, or overcame a significant financial obstacle.  Answers to these questions can reveal some important red flags, including one related to an old adage: There is no “I” in “teamwork.” When outlining successes, too many references of “I” and “me” instead of more inclusive pronouns like “us” and “we” are dead giveaways that humble leadership and a true team spirit is lacking.

Have you seen humility play a role in great executive leadership? In what ways have you been able to screen for the “humble gene” during your own executive search interview process?


Photo Credit: Mitchell Hasseth/NBC