Do Internal Executive Job Candidates Have a Chance?


I have seen many discussions and articles published recently that debate whether organizations prefer to hire internal or external executive job candidates. From my reading, I have found that many senior executives believe there is an overwhelming preference for the external candidate. Although the question of preference varies across geographical, organizational and individual circumstances - to offer a generalized answer would avoid the complexity involved in every hire - I would like to offer some hope to any senior executive who feels they cannot progress internally.

Internal Hiring Happens All the Time
Firstly, I hear from many executives who work for great companies that value their product/industry knowledge and loyalty to such an extent that they make sure internal progression is a heavily monitored priority. This does not mean they will always look internally when recruiting, but that they will guide and listen to their current executives to see where their talents are best placed and developed within the organization. Attracting talent may be easy, but retaining talent is not. Bill Burris, a recent BlueSteps Guest Writer, provided an excellent example in his article ‘Internal Career Progression: Changing Executive Positions in a Tough Economy‘. Burris explained that looking internally was in fact more rewarding than externally, because we are in such hard economic times. He added that we must look horizontally as well as vertically in our quest for career development.

“So the advice to think more broadly, to cast a wider net, isn’t only searching over the horizon. In the end the fish I caught was a big one, right on the shore next to where I was standing.”

Bill Burris’ story is excellent because it provides a great example of how we can miss executive career opportunities that are right in front of us. In Bill’s case, a short conversation with his boss led to his next executive job within the same company.

We can, however, look even closer to see positive examples of career progression internally. Just look at your own career history or that of your senior executives peers; no doubt you will see at least one example of a number of job titles under one organisation. Every day on LinkedIn I see up to 5 entries for the same organization (note: this could sometimes do with condensing).

What about the very top Executive positions? A look at CEO, Senior VP and C-Suite executive candidates
The belief that external candidates are often favoured is one held by many. In a recent discussion within the AESC / BlueSteps Executive Search Network on LinkedIn, many commented that external candidates (often those with a different industry focus) were more likely to secure the top executive positions. The argument was that external candidates would bring a fresh outsider’s point of view, allowing them to quickly identify inefficiencies and implement change. In a recent article by the FT, ‘Should CEO’s Be Brought in From the Outside?’, corporate governance expert, Guy Jubb, suggested that external candidates were essential to an organisation if change was needed, and if not, internal candidates should be prioritised. His opinions were not shared by other commentators within the FT article, who believed internal candidates were more likely to be successful. The Chief Executive of Heidrick & Struggles, Kevin Kelly remarked:

“Internal candidates should be benchmarked against external ones. Research shows that the outsider must be twice as strong to get the job. Internal CEOs are the ideal solution, all other things being equal, because they care about their people and their firm.”

Heidrick & Struggles and other AESC members, constantly advise senior HR executives on best practices, and clearly this includes considering internal candidates during the search process. In addition, a recent study by Dr Marx, a Heidrick & Struggles Partner, found that 33% in the US and 66% in the UK of the fortune 100 CEO’s were hired through internal promotion. In addition, Jose Ruiz, using Dr Marx’s data, outlined that the number of internal CEO hires has increased from 38 to 54 percent in Mexico. While the figures from the US are the least encouraging, there is still a 33% chance to reach the top executive position internally. Should the trend in the US be similar to Mexico as talent management becomes a stronger component of US business strategy, the future is bright for those who like to remain loyal with one organization.

The Need for Change and How to Approach an Internal Executive Job Search
Returning to the opinion of Guy Jubb mentioned above, hiring an external or internal candidate for new senior executive positions depends on the individual situation and how much change is needed (external for change, internal for stability). However, I would argue change can also come from internal sources, and this is important to remember as you brand yourself and prepare for an internal executive job interview or selection process.

If you are looking for an executive position in a different function or department, sell yourself as the loyal internal executive who is invested in the future of the company, but also someone who will be a positive change catalyst because of the variety in your background. In this instance, the company will get the change needed and benefit from alternative experience, but without the time and expense involved with bringing in an entirely new hire.

If the position is a vertical progression in your field (from Technology Senior Director to CIO, or COO to CEO), then position yourself as an executive who has seen how things have been done historically, but also knows how processes can be improved. Do not sell the predecessor short, but instead focus on your previous executive career experiences and your strong record of loyalty and excellent company and product knowledge. This will allow you to emphasise how you can make the necessary improvements, whilst continuing the great work already achieved.

Still wonder if senior executives wishing to rise up the ranks internally have a chance?

Learn more about executive functions and industries to assist your career management strategy or executive job search.

This article was written by Christian Pielow from the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC).

BlueSteps is the exclusive service of the AESC that puts senior executives on the radar screen of over 6,000 executive search professionals in over 70 countries. Be visible, and be considered for up to 50,000 opportunities handled by AESC search firms every year. Find out more at www.BlueSteps.com.



The Ultimate Executive Career Guide: Connecting with Executive Search

As a senior-level executive, you can use this guide to:
- Learn about executive search and how it differs from other forms of recruiting
- Discover the best ways to connect with executive search professionals
- Understand how the search process works
- Implement strategies that will help you become visible to the search community
- And more!

Download Now!

About the author

BlueSteps's picture

About BlueSteps

BlueSteps empowers executives to reach their career goals with strategic career planning.


At BlueSteps, we thoughtfully create career management solutions that are designed to help leaders advance their careers, stay on track to build a long-term career playbook, and become a strong leader. Our tools and resources will help you:
  • Advance your career with tools to keep you on track. 
  • Access insider job market intelligence from the experts.
  • Identify and network with the right recruiters.
  • Discover executive jobs and board positions not found elsewhere.
  • Connect with world class career advisors for support when you need it.

Start Owning Your Career Journey >>

Other posts by this author

Share your thoughts

Stay Connected