How to secure your top-choice candidate

March 22, 2023

Securing your top-choice candidate as your next executive means pitching the offer strategically. Here’s how.

The moment a job offer is presented to the chosen candidate is a critical one, but the importance of this moment is often overlooked. It’s strange that it should be; after all, this is the moment to which the entire hiring process has been leading. It’s also understandable. The other steps in the process – dissecting resumes, conducting rigorous interviews, making difficult decisions to proceed with one candidate over another – are given a great deal of time and attention. The final step is the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, and it’s natural to assume that everyone will be happy, even relieved, at the successful outcome: an offer excitedly accepted, and a critical gap in the organizational structure filled. And that is often the outcome.

Except when it’s not. If you’ve been involved in hiring people for any length of time, you know the feeling when an offer is declined. The disappointment of everyone involved, and – worst case – the prospect of starting from square one all over again.

Bottom line: the presentation isn’t an administrative afterthought. It is the culmination of a process that begins when a candidate first enters the pipeline. That process is a strategic one. When it is viewed and treated that way, you significantly increase the odds that your candidate will be ready, willing, and able to accept the offer when it’s presented. Let’s look at that process from beginning to end.

Application and Screening

In a perfect world, everyone who applied for another job would be ready and committed to making a change. This world is far from perfect, however. There are a wide range of reasons that people apply for new positions. Some people apply offhandedly, because they’ve had a bad day or a rough week. Some are just ‘testing the waters’, to see what’s out there and how it compares to their current position. Some take that one step further, planning to leverage an outside offer to improve their current position. Of course, the majority of candidates for any given position are likely quite serious about making a move. The key is identifying those who aren’t, so you can minimize the risk of a declined offer.

At the initial intake stages, those responsible for screening should ask a number of questions designed to elicit the candidate’s reasons, and readiness, for change. “Can you tell me why this opportunity caught your eye?”, and “Why would you be considering a change after only 2 years in your current position?” are good open-ended questions to begin with. Probing follow-up questions like, “How do you think your decision to move on would be received by your team? What about your boss?”, and “What are some things you’d hoped to do, but wouldn’t be able to, if you made a move right now?” are helpful to test and verify the initial answers.

For some people, asking pointed questions like these in the early stages can feel uncomfortable, as if by asking, you risk turning a candidate away. Far from it. If a candidate is truly ready to make a change, questions like these won’t intimidate them at all, and you’ll learn a great deal more about their motivations through their answer. Make note and flag these motivations; you’ll want to refer back to them later.

Interviews and Selection

In sales, there’s a well-founded understanding that people buy for emotional reasons, then justify that reason intellectually. If we apply that thinking to changing jobs, we can uncover the candidate’s ‘pain’. What unpleasant emotions are they hoping to reduce by making a change, and how do they believe that the position you’re discussing will increase their pleasant emotions? Once again, this may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but interview questions that target these emotions can help a candidate better understand their motivations. A candidate may say they’re moving along because they’re not being given opportunities to grow and move ahead. That’s an intellectual rationale. In response, an interviewer might ask, “How does that affect how you feel about your own career track?” Once again, these responses should be noted and flagged for reference later on.

A candidate’s answers can also surface ‘buying signals’ (to once again borrow sales terminology). Answering hypothetical questions about how certain situations in the position might be handled, a candidate could say, “The new VP could ...”, or they might say, “I would ...”. While subtle nuances like these aren’t deal-breakers or deal-makers, it is cause for concern if a candidate doesn’t actively see themselves in the role. Their answers can be a clue.


The question of compensation is clearly the one that most directly relates to an offer. It’s not a stretch to say that this point of discussion comes up at some point in every hiring process. But how often do you scratch the surface, and how deeply? There are two steps to doing this.

First, there are many elements of a compensation package – other than base salary alone – that play into whether a candidate accepts or declines an offer. For most organizations, this will begin with salary and any performance-based bonuses, benefits, and vacation time. Depending on the complexity of your organization, there may be additional offerings like stock options, paid memberships, professional development funding, and more. Every one of these aspects should be discussed openly with candidates before an offer is presented, giving them the opportunity to state what their expectations for each would be.

The second step – the one most often overlooked – is testing these numbers. Once there’s a compensation package on the table that appears to be mutually acceptable, it’s helpful to restate this clearly, assigning a monetary value to each element, and reconfirming: “So, with a compensation package that includes [A, B, and C], you’d be prepared to accept?” Again, follow-up questions here can produce helpful insights about a candidate’s relative priorities: “What if the salary started a little lower, say ... [X], but the stock options were increased to [Y]? How would that affect your decision?”

The compensation discussion shouldn’t just be a box to check in the hiring process. A conversation that scratches well below the surface is the only way to gain a comprehensive understanding of what a candidate is ready and willing to accept. It also creates agreement and accountability on the part of the candidate to do just that. You’ll find out below just how important that can be.

Gut Check: Business Considerations

Making the decision to move from one company and position to another is a big deal. Once again, we tend to assume that when a candidate applies to a position, they’ve thought through the consequences of that change. Sometimes, we’re mistaken. Probing questions through the process – particularly with candidates that are highly likely to make your shortlist of finalists – can help surface issues and concerns before they become reasons to decline an offer. Here are some examples.

It’s difficult for many people to leave professional commitments – like major projects – behind. Not only is there potential for the feeling of abandoning their team and company, a candidate may also miss out on the recognition of bringing an initiative across the finish line. Questions like, “You’ve got a lot of different projects on the go, but this one is a really big deal. It’s a lot to leave part way through. How will you prepare for the hand-off? How do you feel about someone else getting the credit?” would help the candidate think through and articulate concerns they may not have considered.

In every role, we develop relationships that are a blend of professional and personal. Leaving a job fundamentally changes those relationships. Asking, “You’ve told us so much about your relationship with your boss. She sounds like a great mentor. How do you think your relationship will change if you make this move?” can surface worries the candidate may have about these important relationships.

Then, of course, there are counter-offers. Even if the candidate isn’t intentionally leveraging your offer against their current position, companies can be quite generous when trying to avoid losing top talent. Anticipating and testing for this is a key preliminary step to presenting an offer. “You’re clearly a valued member of the executive team, I’m sure they won’t want to lose you. If they countered at [X%] more than your current salary, how would you respond?” A candidate’s answers to questions like these not only help surface the risk of a counter-offer acceptance, they also highlight other aspects of an offer that are more important than salary alone.

Gut Check: Personal and Family Considerations

In addition to these professional considerations, changing jobs is a decision that has significant effects on the lives of the people close to a candidate. A partner may be entirely supportive of a change, perhaps even involved in the decision to begin with. On the other hand, they may be anxious about any change at all, preferring the stability and security of the status quo. Depending on the style of communication in the relationship, these concerns may come up only at the very end of the process, when it’s time for the candidate to make a decision. If the new job is in the same city as the candidate’s current job, the level of change may be relatively small. If, however, the job is in a different city – perhaps even a different country – the significance of this change increases exponentially. If the partner has a job and career, will they be able to continue that career in their new home? If there are children, how ready is the family to uproot from school, friends, and extended family, and replant in a new place?

Questions like these are big ones. They deserve careful consideration on the part of the candidate and everyone else whose lives may be affected by their decision. In a hiring position, it’s risky to underestimate or gloss over their importance. So it’s imperative that we ask direct, pointed questions of the candidates considering such a change. “How does your partner feel about the change?” “What are the prospects like for them to continue in their career after the move?” “When you talked to the kids about maybe leaving their school and friends behind, how did they react?” “What are some of the aspects of the new home that your partner and your kids are most excited about?”

Making the Offer

We’ve now – only now – reached the point at which an offer is to be extended to a candidate. And unfortunately, this is the point at which far too many recruiters and hiring managers begin thinking about how the offer should be presented, and worrying about whether the candidate will accept. If you’ve managed the process well, covering each of the bases outlined above, the presentation of an offer is far less stressful, and the outcome more predictable. It’s not a roll of the dice, but rather the inevitable conclusion of a conversation where both parties have openly discussed and agreed upon the elements that would lead to a ‘yes’.

We’d like to present a way of delivering an offer that may differ from what you’ve done in the past. It relies on using the information you’ve gathered through the selection process. It also means putting sales techniques to work, closing this most important of deals.

First, the conversation should start out on a positive note. “I’m really excited to let you know that we’ve decided to move ahead with an offer. Congratulations, we’re all very happy about this, and I hope you are, too.

”This is where the person extending the offer sometimes jumps to the end – the compensation and start date. Instead, let’s start by reminding the candidate about the reasons they wanted to make a change, and how the position answers that motivation:

“Thinking back on our conversations during the interview process, I got a really clear sense that progression and development was the most important factor to you in changing jobs. I heard that in considering a move, you’d have to see a clear path into a more senior level of leadership, managing multiple teams in a larger organization. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of showing how this position makes that track possible within the next two years. Do you have any remaining questions about that?”

This can be repeated for perhaps two or three aspects, depending on the circumstances. Focus here on the most important reasons the person expressed for making the change, preferably ones other than compensation. That will come later. Next, it’s time to proactively cover the personal and professional reasons that someone might hesitate to move on:

“I remember that because your partner has the ability to work remotely, with only occasional trips back to their head office, and the fact that your oldest is just starting school, now would be a better time to relocate than, say, a few years down the road. I’m really happy that our timing worked out in that way. Have any questions or other considerations come up with respect to the move?”

“I also know that you weren’t looking forward to letting your immediate boss know you were moving on. When we did the reference check, it was clear he was going to miss working with you, but didn’t want to hold you back. Have you spoken with him since then?”

At every step, we’re giving the candidate the floor, engaging them in this conversation, but also giving them the opportunity to bring forward any lingering doubts. Finally, the compensation:

“From a dollars and cents perspective, you said that a salary of [X], with an achievable bonus of [Y], and [Z] weeks of vacation was what you were hoping for. You also mentioned that a relocation allowance of [R] would cover your costs. Has anything changed there?”

The candidate has created accountability through the process by agreeing to these elements. Now, when you present an offer that addresses each of those points, there should be no reason to decline. If there are concerns, a simple question is the best response:

“Earlier, you had said that [A] was what you were looking for. We’ve got that for you. Can you help me understand what changed?”

The candidate knows what they’ve agreed to, so this sincere inquisitive approach, rather than an adversarial stance, can sometimes surface surprisingly small issues that are easy to fix with a little negotiation and flexibility on each side.

In Closing ...

Presenting an offer to the executive you’ve selected is an important moment, and one that shouldn’t be left to chance ... or to the last minute. As you’re assessing candidates, use the hiring process to gather the pieces of information you’ll need at this pivotal moment. ‘Close the deal’ by putting together a package that responds to their needs, and packaging and pitching it well. The result? More accepted offers, more first-choice candidates hired ... and fewer sleepless nights.

Reach out to our consultants to get support for your recruitment, and close your dream candidates!