Should You Consider Hiring an Outside-the-Box Candidate?

Sometimes the best-qualified person for a role may not be so apparent.
By: | August 8, 2017 • 5 min read

Can someone change their opinion on an issue without sacrificing principles and reputation? I used to answer “no” to such a preposterous question. But times change and I am altering my perspective on a topic near and dear to me, relative to selection continuums for senior executives.

In the past, I’ve repeatedly commented about and supported executive search firms and corporations’ tendencies to rely upon hiring “inside-the-box candidates” as a best practice to fill C-suite vacancies. Many candidates were frustrated by me and perhaps other colleagues in the search industry who dismissed, in kind, individuals who did not check all, or the vast majority of, the boxes a hiring entity sought in candidates for particular positions.


Well, my opinion has changed. Over the last two years, our executive search firm started to present outside-the-box talents alongside a traditional slate of candidates for search assignments. Why? Our firm evolved its opinion that core attributes associated with leadership, innovation, emotional intelligence (EQ), trust, authenticity and situational experience may mean more than industry knowledge, rigid educational or certification designations, and tried-and-true credentials.

Granted, there are certain qualifications and skills that are absolute in any senior executive recruitment project, but organizations owe it to themselves to not be so insular. Today’s pool of talented executives is more agile, welcoming of intellectual challenge, are quick learners and offer the potential to be more effective and successful than a same-old, same-old slate of prospective candidates.

Let’s take a look at an example. One of our search assignments involved the hiring of a chief operating officer for a prestigious, privately-held real estate development company. The incumbent had been with the organization for 20 years and was being asked to assume a strategic role within the company. After profiling the position with the ownership group and other senior executives in the firm, we embarked upon a textbook search strategy to seek a well-experienced real estate professional possessing all the typical bells and whistles one would expect.

What we uncovered was a pool of prospects who seemed mired in old-school thinking, whose ideas of innovation and new ways of doing things just did not fit the progressive, baseline need that was fundamentally articulated by the client—credentials aside.

Fortunately, we submitted a slate of candidates categorized as tier I, tier II and tier III prospects. Tier I consisted of highly experienced real estate executives who checked off virtually all the boxes. Tier II was more of the same, but these individuals lacked a few credentials deemed at the outset to be less critical for success. Finally, a handful of people were offered in tier III. These individuals lacked traditional real estate development backgrounds, but had individually helped organizations bridge across industry practices that appeared antiquated at best—debunking the “We’ve always done it this way” attitude. Tier III individuals consisted of former consultants, entrepreneurs and operational experts from industries who had to change to survive the recent economic downturn.

Surprisingly, our client not only paid attention to individuals in tier III, but the majority of candidates who were chosen for interviews came from this segment, as did the candidate who was ultimately hired for the role.

Such an outcome relies upon a great deal of trust between client and vendor and, to some degree, an ounce or two of courage to counteract the obvious skepticism from internal constituencies.


A happy ending resulted one year after the candidate joined the company. The executive tackled sacrosanct issues that had long been ignored, created a new environment of trust and transparency and improved employee engagement and accountability—all leading to the most successful performance the company had experienced in its history.

The ownership teamed credited this outcome to a fresh set of eyes and a new leadership style that employed the installation of social and emotional intelligence.

Granted, the above example should not be viewed as an empirically proven and fail-safe strategy when recruiting C-Suite executives. Instead, it should challenge each of us—hiring entities, search firms and internal talent management professionals—to ask questions upfront when launching into a recruiting project. Here are a few examples:

  1. How open is the organization to considering “outside-the-box” candidates?
  2. If open, what are the qualities that would trump tried-and-true credentials?
  3. Fundamentally, what risks would need to be mitigated regarding the optics in hiring an outside-the-box candidate?
  4. What is the likelihood that the organization can embrace such a decision?
  5. What measures and onboarding techniques would the organization need to take to quickly assimilate an outside-the-box candidate into the enterprise, the industry, or a unique corporate setting?

Yes, I am changing my own thinking about talent. Interestingly, I perceive that our clients are also evolving their opinions about such matters. Consider removing the lexicon of the “box” and start thinking more broadly about what candidates may be best-suited for the position.

Jay Meschke, president of CBIZ Talent and Compensation Solutions, has more than 20 years of experience in the field of executive search. He oversees a business unit that provides retained executive search, compensation consulting, HR consulting and career transition services and is a subject-matter expert on issues related to executive search and talent management.