How to use the ‘Rule of 3’ to make better hiring decisions

Striving for three final candidates allows hiring committees to keep an open mind, test for fit and plan for imperfection

Rebecca SchalmIn The Secrets of Great CEO Selection, Ram Charan advises hiring committees to keep an open mind, test for fit and plan for imperfection.

One of the organizations I’m involved with just concluded a chief executive officer selection process so this topic is fresh in my mind. A key lesson I learned is how important it is to enter the final stretch with at least three viable candidates. Too often, a selection process ends with one or maybe two candidates. Striving for three final candidates is a practical way to execute on Charan’s advice, whether you’re hiring a CEO or an entry-level manager.

  • Planning for three final candidates forces you to keep an open mind. If you’ve ever hired someone to fill a unique, important role, you will appreciate how daunting it can be to come up with one, let alone three, winning candidates. Having a goal of multiple final choices forces you to dig wider and deeper for potential candidates. It also helps you stay focused on the most important key capabilities you need in the person who fills the role. It’s interesting that once you hone in on these, less important qualities and more subtle aspects of style start to fall off the table. Because, in reality, there are a lot of ways to be successful; striving to find a needle in the haystack will only lead to disappointment. Insisting on more candidates forces the selection committee to set aside the idea of ‘perfect’ and talk early on about trade-offs.
  • Taking three candidates into the final round forces questions of fit. In my most recent experience, we brought forward three candidates who were wildly different in every possible way. None started on the top of anyone’s list, often because we made assumptions about who they were and how they would fit. Because we were committed to bringing forward three, it forced us to interview many more candidates than we would have otherwise. We discovered that those who looked good on paper were not always the right fit; those who were a less perfect fit on paper were sometimes a better fit in person. Herein lies one of the challenges with this strategy – it forces the selection committee to do more hands-on work than people often want to commit to. We would rather outsource the screening task to the recruitment firm and make paper decisions than sit through endless rounds of interviews.
  • Having three final candidates forces you to plan for imperfection. No candidate is perfect. When we insisted on presenting three final candidates to our board, it forced us to talk about what accommodations would be needed if any were successful. It helped us understand where our organization had flexibility, how internal and external stakeholders might be impacted, what support would be required, and what role the board would need to play during and after the transition. We engaged in proactive scenario planning and had the beginnings of a strategy whatever the outcome. I won’t say it all went smoothly but we were able to anticipate 90 per cent of the immediate issues that needed to be managed.
  • Planning on three final candidates protects you from the inevitable: things happen. It’s rare that an organization’s first hiring choice is actually appointed. People get better offers. You can’t come to terms. People decide they can’t move. Life events toss others a curve ball. Background checks come back with a surprise. More often than not, I have seen this happen. If you have all your chips on one candidate and something happens, you’re forced to start over or try to woo back some of the potential candidates you took a pass on initially. Aiming for a three-horse race is just good strategy.

Making a good hiring decision is mostly about good process. Setting a target for more final candidates can help the process.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.


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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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