When you've got an important position to fill, an executive
search firm is the right answer. But finding a good
search firm can be a difficult task. Here's are tips
for finding the right search firm and maximizing your
chances of success.
Which search firm should you choose?
There's an overwhelming number of search firms out
there, everything from big international agencies
to small, local boutique firms. Before you engage
a search firm, it's important to understand whether
they are up to the job.
Are they just “talking the talk” or can
they “walk the walk” and help you find
the right talent? Do they operate ethically and with
high service levels?
Here are some tips for picking a good firm:
Credibility is Key
Pick a firm that has credible
people. The firm's reputation is important but the
people within the firm are the ones who will either
succeed or fail in finding you the best candidate
for the job.
Pick a firm that has the passion
and the energy to find exceptional talent. If your
search firm isn't enthusiastic when talking to prospective
candidates, you can bet the candidates won't be interested.
Go For Knowledge
Pick a firm that knows your industry
and your functional area intimately. Past search records
are important but even more important is the firm's
ability to navigate the landscape that is specific
to your company and its needs.
Is Big Better?
Not necessarily. The large brand-name search firms
have strong reputations but they also tend to conduct
a lot of searches simultaneously, which can lead to
less attention given to each individual search. True,
they have more resources on staff, but you want to
evaluate whether the person who is conducting your
search is experienced and competent. Be wary of the
“bait and switch” in which high-level
experienced search professionals meet with you initially
and then move on to similar pitch meetings with other
companies and leave inexperienced newbies with the
task of actually conducting your search.
Another key factor is how many hands-off agreements
they've signed. Search firms typically agree to not
recruit employess away from a company they previously
worked for for a specific period of time. Over time,
they accumulate a lot of so-called “off limits”
companies. Needless to say, this can greatly reduce
the universe of talented candidates that they can
recruit on your behalf.
At the same time, once the hands-off period ends, the
larger firms are more aggressive in recruiting from
their prior clients. That means they will recruit
executives away from you after the hands-off period
ends. Smaller firms, more eager for your business,
tend to define their off-limits terms more broadly
(e.g. “I won't recruit any employee of yours”,
not “I won't recruit the employee I just placed
with you”) and have longer hands-off periods
(e.g. three years rather than one year).
Still, it sounds good to use a large firm. Many HR
executives engage large “household name”
firms because they believe nobody will accuse them
of not picking a good search firm. But large firms
are expensive and lead to large invoices, without
necessarily delivering better results than smaller
firms. Increasingly, human resources are expected
to help in the hunt to maximize positive cash flow,
and thus the trend is toward using smaller boutique
firms, where they get more attention and the search
firms handle each search on a “do or die”
basis. After all, most of them want to grow up to
be bigger firms one day, so they have more at stake
because they need to establish and maintain a reputation
for producing stellar results for their clients in
order to grow.
But smaller firms aren't necessarily a cure-all. If
their recruiting executives can't impress a candidate,
they may not be able to reach top-level candidates.
Hence, in addition to functional and industry expertise,
it's important that the recruitiers have individual
backgrounds, knowledge, and communication skills that
will immediately establish their credibility with
Getting Started With the Search for the Search
As you prepare to select a search firm, build your
short list of search firms by thinking about companies
you admire. Who has great executive talent? Then find
out who represents them. Try not to do this with your
competitors because many executive search firms won't
serve two competing companies at the same time. That's
a conflict of interest. Another approach is to ask
your friends and business colleagues who they think
Once you've got the short list (or maybe you've narrowed
it down to one firm that you absolute know will do
a great job for you), pick up the phone and call them.
The service you get in that initial solicitation can
be quite telling. If they call you back promptly,
they probably call candidates back promptly and that
can translate into good results for you. If they come
in and give a solid, polished presentation, that's
a good sign.
Evaluating Your First Meeting with a Search
First impressions in your initial meeting are invaluable.
The key question is whether they tailor their presentation
specifically for you. Did they do their homework on
your company? Do they understand your industry and
have a passion for it? Do they know the questions
that potential prospects are likely to ask about your
organization and the position? Do they discuss the
position and search strategy options at a low level
If a recruiter comes in with a boilerplate presentation
that simply gives you an overview of his firm, touting
their prior search results, global reach, and a research
group that will get up to speed on your industry and
find good candidates for you once you give them the
assignment, move on. They don't have what it takes
to get the job done for you.
Inteviewing the Search Firm
Communication is a two-way street so be sure you know
the right questions to ask the search firm during
that initial meeting. Here are some questions to ask:
Questions that Assess Whether They
Will Represent You Well
How would you describe our needs
to a prospective client? How would you describe our
culture and business? What benefits do you see a candidate
gaining by accepting this position?
Questions that Determine if They
Are Competent Recruiters
What are the challenges in the
search assignment and how can will you address them?
How will you identify candidates and what do you think
is the right profile for a good candidate? What questions
do you have for me about the company and this position?
What search assignments have you completed? How long
did these searches take? Have any executives you place
left prior to being with the new company for one year?
Questions as to How the Search
Firm Conducts Its Work
What is your process for conducting
a search? What are the component steps and when do
they occur? How long will each step take? How extensive
is your network of potential candidates? When will
we see information on potential candidates? When will
we conduct interviews with prospective candidates?
Are you willing to adapt your firm's process based
on our specific needs?
Questions About Who Will Do the
What parts of the search will
you personally handle (or will you hand this search
off to somebody else)? Who calls prospective candidates
to qualify their abilities and interest? Who interviews
them face-to-face? Who analyzes the candidate and
writes the briefing documents we will review? How
many search assignments are you currently conducting?
How many searches is your support staff handling?
Questions About the Fee
What is the fee structure? When
do I pay you and why? If I agree to give you more
than one search, will you give me a better rate? What
else can I do to lower the fees?
Questions About Terms of the Contract
Can I see a contract as soon
as possible so I can better understand your terms?
What is your hands-off policy? Are you going to recruit
this employee, or any of my other employees, over
to another client? How long are you willing to promise
that you won't recruit my employees?
Questions About Customer Satisfaction
Do you guarantee our satisfaction
in some way? What happens if the search is not filled
within a given time? Do we have to pay the full search
fee if the assignment is not completed?
Questions About Biling and Expenses
What expenses will we need to
reimburse you for? Based on your experience how much
can we expect in the way of expenses? Will you agree
to only incur travel expenses when we have pre-authorized
them in order to keep our costs down? What documentation
will you provide?
Follow the recommendations outlined above and you'll
find a great retained search firm. You'll know what
to look for and the right questions to ask. You'll
soon find you have mastered the art of recruiting
a recruiter and the results will show in your improved
ability to find, attract, and retain exceptional talent.