Forging a successful relationship with an Executive Search firm

I thought long and hard about the best way to write this blog post.  My first inclination was to take a negative slant and talk about ways to make sure that the search process with an Executive Search firm didn’t succeed, but I will choose to take the high road and make some key points that I have found promote success in the search process.

Through my work as a hiring manager, a business leader, a HR executive and now as a search consultant I have worked on this process from multiple perspectives.  I have seen search process that were as smooth as can be with great success and I have watched in horror as search processes got “in the ditch” and in some cases were never completed.  Many of these unsuccessful situations had multiple culprits and my intent with this post is not to point any fingers, but to give suggestions to both sides to help them better understand how to work together and ensure a successful culmination to a search process.

Let’s get started!

  1. When beginning a search, know what you are looking for:  I have been involved with search processes where the client didn’t really know what they wanted or needed, or changed their mind during the course of the search.  In a similar manner I have also seen situations where I thought I knew what the client was looking for and then later found out that I had somehow “missed the mark” or had not fully captured what the ideal candidate would look like.  There is a remedy to this situation and it is not always simple, but usually can be.  Clients and their search consultants need to take the time to fully communicate about all levels of the role to be filled.  Too many times I have seen a client get in a hurry, or also have seen search consultants who made assumptions that were unfounded.  Take the to get the facts-you cannot find what the the client seeks if you don’t take the  time to listen, question and clarify.         I sometimes think of the Deming Wheel as a great model for running a search:  Plan, Do, Check and Act.  Too many times we scrimp on the plan and focus too much on the do.  Take the time to plan adequately.
  2. Don’t over promise:  This can take place on both sides, but the brunt of the blame is often laid at the feet of the search firm.  Many times I have seen clients who get in such a hurry that they pressure search firms to make commitments they should never agree to.  In a similar manner, some search firms get engaged in searches that they have no way of completing and they not only make themselves look bad, but they also give a black eye to the industry.  There are times I think that Search consultants are just a half step above, or below, used car salesmen. (no offense intended to either party)        The barriers to entry in the search or recruiting world are low and some people think that all you will need to be successful is a computer and a telephone.  That is far from the truth.  A savvy search firm will take the time to understand what the client truly desires.  This usually boils down to one or two of these three things:  Speed, Quality or Price.  I have found that I can focus on any two of these at any time, but obtaining all three is sometimes elusive.  I find that I can focus on Speed, Quality and Value, but never confuse Value with Price because they are not the same.
  3. No one works for free (at least not for long):  All of the search work that our firm does is retained search.  This means that we are compensated during the course of the search and that we are the sole entity working on the engagement.  In a past life as a HR manager I had the occasion to have several contingency firms engaged on the same search at the same time.  I thought, wrongfully so, that I was getting something for nothing.     What I later learned was that most contingency search firms stay with the search for a while, but many will give up and move on to another role eventually.  This is not intended as any kind of dig at contingency firms.  I know of many reputable and highly successful contingency firms, but most of them have great relationships with their clients so they know they will be treated well and not set up to compete with 3, 4 or even more firms for the same search.  Doing this only causes confusion for the candidate as they end up being contacted by multiple firms for the same role.  Our work with $100K roles and above as a retained partner ensures that we have a level of trust with our client and that our client has a high level of assurance that we will deliver what we have promised.

There are certainly a number of other factors that will ensure success in a partnership between a client and a search firm.  Understanding that both parties need to have “skin in the game”, that expectations are realistic and understood, and that there is a clear description of the objective for the search will help further the potential for success for both parties.