Client Services

How to select a search firm

The primary concern of CEOs, CFOs and HR executives today is hiring, developing and retaining a highly talented workforce. Companies are continuing to compete for the most talented executives, and forming an effective partnership with an executive search firm is crucial to winning the war for talent.

Having decided to engage an executive search firm, you will want to evaluate your options carefully and thoroughly. You will need to ask searching questions:

  • Do you have the appropriate functional expertise?
  • How many searches have you done in this sector?
  • How well do you know the universe of candidates?
  • Who will actually do the work — including the interviewing and referencing?
  • How many searches are you currently handling and at what stage are they?
  • What resources will be devoted to this search?
  • What is your placement rate? How do you define a successful outcome?

Watch out for…

  • Consultants who don’t come prepared to talk about realistic solutions
  • Functional or industry experts, who are there only to close the deal, not work on the assignment.
  • Consultants handling numerous assignments still in their early stages.
  • Unrealistic timelines that seem geared only to winning the work.
  • A search firm that wants to be all things to all clients.
  • Fees that seem too good to be true.

After engaging the executive search firm, ensure everyone agrees with what is needed in the role and the parameters of the assignment. The following steps can help avoid problems later.

What will your role be in the process? Ensure that key executives helping to make the hiring decisions are involved from the beginning. Their support can be critical to the success of the search process. One important factor for a successful outcome is the need to invest time with your consultant(s) at the beginning of the search process. Get to know them as well as they get to know you, your company, your organization’s strategic direction… your cultural needs.

Do they know your expectations? It is vital that your search firm understands your priorities and ask questions such as:

  • Do you prefer regular telephone updates or written reports?
  • What specific information are you looking for in a progress report?
  • How many candidates do you expect to meet?
  • How important is speed, and why?
  • Do you wish to see benchmark candidates? Would you rather meet good candidates as they are discovered or have the search firm present a comprehensive slate of candidates at agreed upon intervals?

By stating what is most important to you and acknowledging any challenges that might appear; you are giving your consultants a better guide as to how to manage the assignment.

What can you expect when? Your search firm should discuss in detail what you can expect and when. Your consultant should lead…but speak up if they are out of step. Your search firm is your strategic adviser and should lead the search, but your insights are critical. Ask yourself if your search consultants have done the following:

  • Advised you on the state of the marketplace — compensation, candidate availability, etc — and how that could affect the search?
  • Created a position specification including competencies required for success based on the needs of your organization and their knowledge of the market?
  • Looked for potential candidates in organizations requiring similar competencies?
  • Presented only candidates who fit the position specification?
  • Provided strategic guidance and objectivity during candidate review?
  • Assisted in negotiations to help eliminate surprises and reach agreement?

When it comes to daily management of the assignment, your search firm should shoulder the burden. If they are not providing you with the fundamentals, or if you are unhappy with how the search is progressing, say so.

First impressions matter. Convincing top performers — especially those happy in their current environment — to join a new company is not easy. During the interview process, be sensitive to candidates’ needs and remember that they are assessing you as much as you’re assessing them. Be punctual and use time wisely. Ask questions related to critical skills and behaviors required of the position but also answer candidly any questions the candidates may have.

Avoid the common pitfalls

Having witnessed many clients make the same mistakes, we believe these common pitfalls are avoidable:

The search loses its importance. If the position is critical to your organization, treat the search process as such. Ensure that key decision-makers are available and involved. If they are not, the candidate will question the importance of the position.

Early candidates are overlooked. The best candidates can be the ones you meet early on. Have confidence in your judgment (and the search firm) if you favor a candidate you met early in the process.

Candid and regular communication between you and your search firm is critical. Problems arise when communication is lacking. Your search consultant should challenge you in a professional manner, offering perspective and guidance based on his or her experience and industry intelligence. Beware of people who always agree with you — this should be a consultative relationship based on reaching the right solution.

Search consultants go silent. Make sure your search firm delivers on the stated objective and priorities. Stress that they are responsible for flagging potential problems early and bringing them to your attention.

Ending on a sour note. Never feel pressured to complete a search if you are not comfortable with the finalist candidate. Your search firm should never push you into placing a candidate if he or she is not suitable. The end of the search process is, in reality, only the beginning. Do not overlook the importance of integrating the new executive into your company.

A final word of advice

Your search consultants are critical in recruiting the best talent for your organization and are your ambassadors in the marketplace — how they interact with potential candidates and referrals reflects on your organization too. By selecting the right search consultants for your needs, establishing realistic expectations and maintaining communication, you will increase your chances of hiring the right candidate and doing so in a manner that complements your organization’s reputation.

Recruiting the best talent through your search firm is not simply about getting to a shortlist of candidates. It is about being a partner in a process where the participants play equal and complementary roles. The best results are achieved through mutual understanding, proper motivation, and effective communication.