The Importance of A-Level Talent

Attracting and retaining top performing executives is the true lifeblood of successful organizations, yet identifying and attracting them can be a challenging endeavor.

Top performers, in leadership roles, will deliver about 50% more than the average and will improve their organization’s competitive position. Yet, according to McKinsey, 82% of Fortune 500 executives don’t believe that their companies recruit highly talented people.

There are many reasons organizations do not target A-Level talent: lack of resources, concern about internal pay inequities, lack of managerial confidence, chemistry/fit, etc.  However, organizations of all types, must strive to both attract and retain talent that will improve their competitive position

Specifically, organizations must develop and embrace a strategy that supports the hiring of talented executives.  They must live the concept that a rising tide floats all boats…that to win in the market they must accept new ideas, concepts, and recruit and retain top talent.

So how do you find and recruit “A” Talent? 

Speaking from experience as a member of a global executive search group, identifying “A” talent is best accomplished using a disciplined process that must include four tangible measurements.

When incorporated into the executive search process, the following will facilitate an organization’s ability to identify and attract best-in-market talent:

1. Determine Current Organizational Position/Potential

Often, the assumption is made that because candidates have worked for top performing competitors (or academy companies such as GE or P&G), that they are automatically a top talent.

With the cost of a mis-hire being more than 4x annual cash compensation, this can be a costly assumption. Once you have identified potential candidates, but before you contact them, recruiters should speak with knowledgeable sources such as alumni of their company and competitors.

These pre-references will ensure a consistently higher level of candidate quality and help determine fit to the new organization.

2. Ensure a Progressive Career Track

Ensure that the candidate has had progressively more responsibility throughout their career.  Has he/she made the appropriate decisions including agreeing to take on risky and more autonomous roles within their current or prior organizations?   Has he/she stayed in roles long enough to deliver consistent and high-level results?

Have job/company changes been made to further the career in terms of scope and responsibility, or just for more money? Is the candidate a job hopper, never staying with the same company for more than 2-3 years? 

3. Assume that Compensation and Talent are Linked

Compensation levels often reflect the quality of the candidate. This is a basic and irrefutable law of our open market economy. Top talent commands top dollar, and quality candidates are typically compensated at a higher level than their peers.

While there are obvious exceptions, this is true over 80% of the time. For example, a General Manager making $200,000 is more than likely a stronger candidate than a comparably experienced one making $125,000.

Keep in mind that “A” players are well compensated and their respective organizations will fight hard to keep them with rich, comprehensive, and long-term packages. It will typically require a premium to pry them away.

4. Senior Level References

After the initial references mentioned above, subsequent references must be conducted with senior line management highly familiar with the candidate. Most senior level executives will readily agree to be a reference for an “A” talent executive. Because of their rank and experience, they are the most candid and useful references.  

In closing, identifying, attracting, and retaining “A” talent is not an easy task, yet is paramount to the success of almost any organization.  While using these measurements will result in improved talent levels, they are not the only components of an overall recruitment plan.

For ultimate success in the market, management must commit to identify and hire individuals who will challenge them to take the business to the next level. 

Organizations must commit to a strategy of hiring the best person for the job, not the best person looking for a job.

About the Author:

Walter is a Managing Director with Cornerstone International Group, a leading Global Executive Search Firm.  He is a former member of the Americas Council of the AESC. Based in Atlanta and Washington, DC, Walter has over 25 years of retained search experience. He can be reached at

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