Interviewing for Your First HR Leader

7 mins

As a specialist Global HR Recruitment business, Elliott Scott HR have been privileged enough...

As a specialist Global HR Recruitment business, Elliott Scott HR have been privileged enough to work with some of the most influential HR leaders.  

In the ten years we have been in business, we have seen market demands change considerably. By embodying our ethos of ‘Personal HR Recruitment’, our Consultants and Directors are actively talking to HR Professionals across the world daily. Ensuring that our knowledge of the discipline, hiring processes and networks are at the forefront of the HR Industry.

In the first part of this interview, we asked two of our team members; Tom Dover Associate Director UK & Europe and Lucy Bielby, Global Recruitment Director for their views on organisations looking to hire their first HR leader; focusing on how the role of a HR leader has changed and how to go about starting this hiring journey. 

In this second part of the interview, Lucy and Tom focus on where to go next;

Once the client has identified their potential search partners, what are the next steps?

Lucy: Most search partners would work to a traditional retained approach. Very few providers who understand the extensive work behind the scenes of mapping and identification, would agree to a different approach for such a key hire.

As Tom said in the first part of the interview, treating this process as a project is key. I understand that some may hear the word retained and their initial thoughts are of extensive cost and lengthy time periods however it doesn’t always need to be that way.

The identification and approach period is key, it needs to be thorough and often busy HR leaders who are in post aren’t sat on LinkedIn all day waiting for an approach. Therefore, it may take multiple touch points before a candidate even engages with a search provider, even one that they may have been connected with for many years. Remember, not only are you paying your partner to find the successful candidate but there is also their knowledge, insight, and experience of successfully enticing this individual that comes into play here.

Post identification of a search partner

Tom: When a successful partner has been secured, it’s imperative to consider that the HR market is very active and increasingly competitive, with good HR talent being retained. A good search partner should form a close partnership with the client to ensure they are getting behind the brand, and EVP (Employer Value Proposition). Essentially, they must act as an extension of the client’s team, as we do at Elliott Scott HR.   


A proactive approach is needed to reach both the active and passive candidates. This requires a dedicated amount of time to map the market and longlist accordingly.

Your search partner will then screen these candidates. There should be an expectation of a longlist being discussed with the client alongside a shortlist of candidates that have all been thoroughly assessed. At Elliott Scott HR we also share calibration candidates, early on in process, to solidify alignment on search parameters, also to provide options when there may be a broad salary range.

The market is moving at pace so, it’s key to run a fluid, robust interview process. We ensure we have first stage conversation dates pencilled in with clients at briefing stage. As I mentioned previously, one thing to keep note of is that delays in a process can cause concern to the candidates.

What should the interview process look like?

Lucy: It is crucial to agree the interview process with the search partner upfront. They will manage candidate expectations and ensure they are nurtured through the journey. If a candidate does not feel they have received an excellent candidate experience, there is a risk of them not wishing to progress further.

In a competitive market, word of mouth is key – regardless of whether an individual is progressed through a process, they should receive a positive experience. Reputation is crucial for attracting new talent especially if the organisation is on a fast growth trajectory. I’ve had many a candidate refer to Glassdoor reviews when going through the process of a client hiring their first HR leader. For some, it’s an opportunity to change the external employer brand and for others, it just rings alarm bells.

Tom: To get the most value from the interview process it needs to be thorough but also shouldn’t drag on. If passive candidates are in the mix, they also have a day job to deliver. Some processes could take time and energy, preparing business plans, presentations etc, so the candidate will need to feel like there is buy in, and urgency, from the other side. 

If testing is a key part of the organisation’s current hiring strategy, it needs to be understood where this fits within with your process. Too early and the passive candidate can become disengaged before they’ve started, too late and both parties could have wasted valuable time.

Having a cultural/informal meeting. 

Tom: In my opinion, the first stage should be centred around the relationship with the candidate. This is a great opportunity for you to figure out whether the candidate is a great culture fit for the business and gives the candidate the opportunity to decide whether the business provides a culture they want to be a part of. Keep the discussion top line.

Your search partner will have no doubt given a thorough overview of the candidate’s suitability to the position; however, this is a time for some high-level discussions. There is no benefit to multiple rounds of a process, before realising the substance isn’t there at the final hurdle. Not only is this a time to decide whether they are a suitable fit, but it’s also the moment to ‘sell’ the business to the candidate. 

Formal on-site interviews with key stakeholders 

Lucy: Ensuring candidates meet key stakeholders is a great way to get ‘buy- in’ from the team.  Ultimately, the HR leader needs to connect with the rest of the business and be seen as a valuable asset. With people often the differentiator, involving the leadership team is invaluable. These will not only be key working relationships but will also be enablers of this hire’s success.

Remember, this is also about ‘enticing’ the HR leader to be part of the business.

There may be multiple stages at this point, we would suggest face to face, where possible, to give the HR leader the ‘look and feel’ of the organisation, however, if the business operates across multiple sites or international locations, this isn’t always viable.

Tom: There is always some debate as whether to involve members of the current HR team, if any, in this process. But I think this is depends on the type of organisation - For instance, if it’s an organisation with long standing stakeholders, bringing a new leader in to meet the team may well cause complications with those that are hesitant to change. Be that as it may, I’m of the view that bringing a potential leader in to meet the team should be all part of the sell and breaks up some of the more mundane formalities of the process. 

Final stage

Tom: At this point, there will likely be a preferred candidate in mind. There may be, however, a few details, niggling feelings, or areas for consideration that need to be ironed out. 

Inviting the potential HR leader back for one more informal meeting or ‘closer’, not only provides the opportunity to address any concerns but can also alleviate theirs. This will also give the candidate a chance to formulate any further questions about the role, get the relevant answers and allow them to, in essence, see the business in action.

This is the final opportunity to create buy in on the candidate side and allow them to see the businesses future plans in detail. It’s a chance to generate excitement about what’s to come. Hopefully there should be no stone unturned by this point.  

Lucy: It is typical that the search partner will make the offer to the successful individual and the potential ROI of a best-in-class candidate should never be underestimated. Trying to get a ‘bargain’ at this point, and cut costs on the hire, will only impact the business in the future; a low offer can be detrimental. 

Why spend time and resources to only loose the preferred candidate at this late stage? It could mean the difference between getting that unicorn or starting the entire search again! If this candidate is the right person for the business, the ROI quickly becomes apparent.

With many businesses, the hiring process stops once the candidate has been placed and is in role. Through our experience, we understand the importance of ensuring a thorough process both before and after the placement has been made. It’s not been a successful placement until the candidate is through the door on Day 1. A good partner will support through offer, resignation, and onboarding stages.

Final tip

Tom: Final point I would make is; Avoid cutting corners when making such an essential hire. The right amount of time and resources dedicated to the onboarding process will ensure a stronger HR function and overall, a better business. After all, this is the individual within the business tasked to make sure your people become your biggest asset, and your strongest unique selling point.

What would be your biggest hiring tip? Let us know by sharing your thoughts below.

If you are about to make a crucial HR hire, and would like to receive some further advice, please get in contact directly at