A few years ago, a national sports league player’s association entered the final stages in its search for a successor to the union’s executive director.  A frenzy of U.S and international media attention surrounded the closely-watched selection and voting process by player representatives from each of the teams – particularly in the weeks before formal election.

Six months before the drama began to build, however, the association’s leadership team and its executive recruiting firm asked Hillard Heintze to conduct strategic background reviews as a of vetting candidates in line for what many consider to be the world’s most important position in sports labor.

Vetting Candidates: A Sensitive Investigative Process

Over the period of several months – as the extensive nationwide search unfolded – Hillard Heintze undertook a thorough and detailed investigation into the backgrounds of an elite “short list” of candidates identified by the formal search team. In the days leading up to the election, the association’s leadership team and player representatives gathered to hear from each of the finalists in person, to evaluate all of the information gathered, and to cast their vote.  As part of this process – far from the barricades that kept the bank of reporters and cameras at a distance – Hillard Heintze co-founders Terry Hillard and Arnette Heintze presented the key findings of the strategic background investigations to the voting player representatives.

A Deeply Informed Decision-Making Process

This election wasn’t a mere formality and the casting of votes wasn’t just an ex officio duty required of each member.  Instead, the players’ representatives listened attentively to the information on each candidate carefully laid out by Hillard, Heintze and others. Then they deliberated among themselves.  Hours later – well informed of their options – the association’s voting members elected a new executive director by an overwhelming majority.

Unplugged: The Project Manager’s Perspective

“Two factors were crucial to this assignment.  One was discretion, which is always at the core of our work.  The other was independence. Take discretion first.  Each one of these candidates was a very successful, highly visible public figure, for the most part, with decades of accomplishments.  Yes, that’s a lot of material to review.  But just as importantly, it was vital – as it always is – that the integrity of our findings be matched with respect for the privacy, relationships and interests of both the client and the candidates. Now take the second factor.  If you read up on the press covering this event, you’d find that it was a contentious process with many third-party observers – from the media to player fan clubs – taking sides.  Engaging a neutral, nonaligned party to conduct these background investigations was essential.”

The ACTION WEDNESDAY Tool Box: Two Key Take-Aways

  • Don’t underestimate the value of this exercise for any critical or sensitive position.  Across sectors, industries and organizational models, the most successful organizations win awards, meet their mission and are regarded as leaders in their respective communities of influence in great measure because of one major driving consideration: their people.  And that commitment on the part of the employer is often an enormous one.  When it matters most, that commitment should start with a strategic background investigation.
  • Rather than approach strategic background investigations as a “check the box” task, place the emphasis on three priorities: experience, independence and discretion.

(What’s it like on the front line supporting the firm’s clients?  What are the challenges the firm’s experts help senior business executives, general counsel, board members and other decision-makers address?  Welcome to ACTION WEDNESDAY.  Every Wednesday, the Front Line Blog publishes a new case study.)