This article was co-written with Ben Dattner, an executive coach and organizational development consultant, and the founder of New York City–based Dattner Consulting, LLC. (You can follow him on Twitter at @bendattner.) Elizabeth Wood, the other co-author, is Chief Human Resources Officer for Levi Strauss & Co.

Setting the stage

In the war for talent, successful companies think long and hard about their employer brand and the value proposition that they offer current and prospective employees. By regularly surveying employees, conducting exit interviews, and interviewing candidates who receive but do not accept offers, companies can evaluate and improve their overall competitiveness as an employer of choice on an ongoing basis. These “macro” methods can help attract, recruit and retain a talented employee population, but in order to attract a unique and talented individual, it’s also crucial to develop a “micro” focus on that particular candidate’s unique motivations and priorities. And for an individual candidate, a role is likely to be appealing if the opportunity presents them with a compelling “story” that fits well with the arc of their life and career.  

Some candidates jump at the opportunity to take a leadership or managerial job. Other qualified candidates will only accept a role with certain attributes or associated rewards. But what about potential candidates who are open to being or becoming organizational leaders in general, but who are undecided about a specific opportunity? For board members, investors, company managers, and/or headhunters, coming up with an appealing offer can involve two general strategies:  first, endeavoring to configure a role that meets the criteria that the candidate is seeking, that is to say changing the substance of the offer and opportunity. If an individual is sufficiently talented or uniquely qualified, the company might even create a new role or reconfigure an existing role in order to woo him or her to join the organization. However, it’s not always possible to reconfigure a role, so it’s helpful to know how to sell an existing role to a potential leader, involving first understanding his or her career mission and motivation, and then framing the role in a way that makes it appear more appealing. To do this, it’s important to get to know the candidate as a person, to develop an understanding of their own unique “heroic narrative” which needs to be considered along with their personality, and to carefully consider the criteria that they will use to make their decision.

How do they view the “story” of their career?

Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us are cast as the hero or heroine of our own career heroic narrative and psychodrama and have mental and emotional scripts that, while irrational at times, can help explain and predict what kinds of opportunities will be alluring and which won’t be. For example, some leaders seek situations where they are tasked with turning around a dysfunctional or underperforming team, department or company. Other leaders might have no interest in turnaround situations, but instead will seek roles where they are cast as the innovative disrupter, challenging the status quo and taking on more powerful rivals.  In both of these examples, there are likely psychological reasons why one context might be appealing and the other aversive or uninteresting, often rooted in one’s childhood and early family experience. Sometimes, the company, headhunter or board member might directly know enough about the life and career history of a candidate to understand the roots of these deep motivations, while at other times such motivations might need to be indirectly imputed based on how the leader talks about his or her potential interest in taking on a new role, and what the attributes of an appealing new role would need to be.

How do they find meaning in their work?

It is often the case that the most talented and accomplished leaders are those who are motivated by a sense of meaning in their life and work, and who endeavor to serve and assist others. Leaders vary, however, in the constituencies they are most motivated to serve. Some candidates will find a role appealing if it affords them an opportunity to better serve customers or clients of the organization. Other candidates will care more about employees and will be most motivated by the chance to improve the workplace experience of the organization’s rank and file or frontline staff. Asking a candidate to provide examples and tell stories about his or her most meaningful past career experiences and accomplishments can provide a helpful window into what future opportunities might be most interesting to them.

What are their most favorite (and least favorite) “ing’s”?

Careers in general and roles in particular can helpfully be thought of as being a “portfolio” of “activities” e.g. “ing’s.” Every candidate has “ing’s” that he or she enjoys most and least. Some leaders might enjoy “fixing” dysfunction or “re-energizing” employees, while others may prefer “disrupting” an industry or “competing” with established players. In terms of least preferred “ing’s,” some leaders might bristle at “budgeting” or “long term planning” while others will try to avoid “reassuring” disgruntled customers and “lobbying” for stakeholder support. Developing an understanding of, and a common language around, the individual’s most and least favorite “ing’s” can be very helpful in framing the appeal of the potential leadership opportunity and comparing and contrasting it with either the candidate’s current role or various other possible roles or career moves.

Who do they enjoy working with?

In addition to pitching the candidate on the “what” of the prospective role, it’s also a good idea to emphasize “who” they will have the opportunity to work with, both in terms of individuals that they would work closely with as well as the culture and climate of the broader team, department or organization. Some prospective leaders like to join more established teams and organizations where there are experienced executive already in place, while other leaders like to join startups where there is an opportunity to be the “adult in the room” for talented but inexperienced founders or managers. Giving the candidate the opportunity to meet a selected but broad sample of current members of the organization can be invaluable in terms of giving them a sense of how well they are likely to connect with, and be able to effectively lead, their potential new team.

In conclusion, to effectively compete for talent, companies are gathering and analyzing more and more data about their candidates, employees, and voluntary and involuntary “alumni.” However, individual candidates have their own unique set of motivations, priorities and systems of meaning and selling jobs to individuals is more of an “art” than a “science.” It is said that “the plural of anecdote is data” which, if true, implies that the singular of data is anecdote. Anecdotes are stories and developing an understanding of the stories of candidates, including what kind of challenges they gravitate towards, what accomplishments they find meaningful, and their preferred activities and coworkers is the best way to have them become part of your company’s story and to have your company become part of their story.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. He is the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and How to Fix It), upon which his TEDx talk was based. Find him on Twitter: @drtcp or at