Identifying and assessing candidate motivation

By Tim Hills and Philip Emms | 11 March 2020

One of the most frequently asked questions by elected members or recruiting managers/directors is: ‘What’s the candidate motivation?’ The topic will almost certainly be explored at a long-list or short-list meeting. But how important is motivation and to what extent should it influence the decision of who should get the job, over and above their technical competence?

As headhunters, our role is to find the best person to fill the vacancy. We scour the market to source, spot and engage talent, keeping in touch with candidates beyond each process. When the right opportunity arises, we encourage their interest where we perceive there to be a great fit – in terms of skills, behavioural make up and experience – for our client. It is during this early process that understanding a candidate’s motivation is so important. We cannot always assume that the fact someone has applied for a given role means they have done so for the right reasons.

As recruiters, we spend time considering a candidate’s current role, evidence-based achievements, their background and career history, their personal circumstances, increasingly their lived experience, their salary and future aspirations. In evaluating candidates’ previous and current career, we can better understand what is more likely to be the stimulus for a certain move at a particular time. For some, professional ambition may be the primary driver having worked their way through the ranks to aim for an executive director role as a pinnacle of career fulfilment in that professional discipline. Elsewhere, the impetus may be more about taking on a change-led role that can have a more transformative impact upon communities, and this increasingly becomes the catalyst for a career or role switch.

It is only when we start to get under the skin of an individual’s motivation that we get the best out of them as a candidate. Crucially, we must also test whether the role, recruiting organisation and team they will join supports these aspirations. If this synergy does not exist, there is an inherent risk in the appointment.

Candidates may well find that the role neither meets their expectations, nor stimulates their engagement to drive performance. Employee churn is likely to be a costly result, for both parties, of this mismatch. However, get it right and candidates are not only inspired to fulfil their own ambitions, but likely to drive others around them and find better solutions to the problems facing the organisation.

Furthermore, the individual is likely to remain in post for longer, as engagement and satisfaction increases along with increased commitment to the organisation.

How far should motivation influence the appointment process, if at all? In most recruitment exercises, a number of candidates are likely to meet the required criteria. At interview stage, we have the opportunity to explore experience and suitability in more detail – but how do you test for motivation? What are officers and members looking for? How do you differentiate between genuine passion for the role and an ability to perform for the panel? We need to explore beyond the performance, asking probing questions to discern how the energy and passion have translated into tangible results elsewhere; what have they done and achieved to quantify that passion, do they have a personal experience linked to what they have done, did they feel fulfilled and rewarded.

Candidate profiling can also better support candidate evaluation and ensure the right fit, first time. It provides an objective, defensible measure of candidates’ preferred leadership style, the personal impact they will foster and their resilience, drive and motivation. Our own profiling work is underpinned by our own unique leadership model, Altitude, which assesses candidates’ leadership style across 12 core behaviours and benchmarks them against public and not-for-profit leaders. We use Altitude as a behavioural framework against which we model the results from a range of psychometrics to better identify an individual’s preferences in the workplace and potential derailers. This assists more informed decisions by those involved, by not only measuring the critical factors for the role but also providing a scientific insight and rigor into candidates’ values, motivations and behaviours.

Being mindful of the potential for unconscious bias is also critical. More charismatic applicants who exhibit confidence and energy may win their audience over more easily and these characteristics can be wrongly interpreted as a strong fit for a role. Similarly, less gregarious presenters should not be assumed to have any less passion or energy for the role.

Another area of motivation that people often find difficult to openly discuss is reward. While many who join public life do so to make a bigger contribution to society, it would be wrong to assume that a fair compensation is not uppermost in their decision making. Getting the reward package right and agreed from the outset is vital to allow candidates to move on to what really drives them; get it wrong and they will not be able to see past it.

Unlike more tangible skills and experience, motivation is a far harder quality to pin down and more nuanced. Drawing out, decoding and assessing is central to a positive recruitment process. If we can gain a grasp of what motivates and drives applicants, then we can make good choices in who we recommend for appointment and ensure the values of our client organisation are aligned with those of the individual.

Philip Emms is lead research consultant for local government and Tim Hills is senior researcher, specialising in housing and local government at Gatenby Sanderson

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