How to Work Effectively with an Executive Search Firm

‘How to Work Effectively with an Executive Search Firm’ – Ottawa Human Resources Professional Association magazine, November 2007

By David Perry ( this article originally appeared in HR Professional Magazine – November 2007)

Partnering  with   an executive search firm has become increasingly common  over the past ten years.  Many  companies are  finding that  the critical  task of securing high quality   executive  talent    to   build their   Leadership  Equity™   is  often best  accomplished by  calling  in  an outside expert.  This is especially true where there is the need to ensure that the marketplace has been thoroughly covered and  as many  people as possible  have   been   approached  — often more  than  once.

There are 3 keys to maximize your results.

Managing the  Search for  Success

The  active  involvement of  a  Search Committee Chair  throughout the entire process can spell the difference between an acceptable versus an exceptional result.   The  Chair  keeps everyone and everything moving forward by championing the process internally.  Make   certain   you   select a  Chair   who   can  develop personal relationships  with   your   candidates; this will become  increasingly critical in the closing  process.

The  number one  rule  for  success  as Chair;  be  interested – stay  involved. Actively manage and participate in the search.  Make sure that your  stamp of approval goes on the search  and  that you  communicate the  importance of the  search  to your  subordinate team so that  they  understand the  value  of its  success  too.  Seek  their  opinions and  confirm  buy  in. Then,  make  the search   a  priority  on  your   agenda. Aim high.  Stay on point.

Expect     that     your     search     will produce  high    quality  candidates.

Be   realistic    in   your    expectations about  the  time  required to  find  and screen  appropriate candidates and  to determine compensation. (In turn,  the search  consultant should be  realistic with   you.  If  their   promises are  too glowing,   be    wary.     “Chemistry”, for example, is the leading reason candidates are  rejected.  You are  well advised  to   insist   your    consultant do a benchmark interview with  a candidate they  deem  to be “close”  to your  requirements. Even if you  never interview that  individual again,   the bench-marking exercise will give both you and the consultant the critical insight necessary to be more  precise about  the “chemistry” being  sought.

Be inquisitive. Question the search consultant on their methodology, search  strategy, status, problems, market feedback, and  other  elements of the search. Constantly monitor progress. Require that  the search consultant report status every  week to ten days so you know what is happening.

Take  a  serious  look  at  a  variety of candidates.  Do   not   jump   at   what seems  to  be  an  attractive candidate without a basis  of comparison. (That doesn’t mean  you should put them off either – just don’t short-cut the process needlessly.)

Thoroughly check out the finalist before  an  offer  is  extended. Contact some  (or  all)  of the  references yourself. (There  is no harm  in having two   people call  the  same   reference especially if something is not  clear.) As   Andy   Groove, CEO of Intel said,   “Only   the paranoid survive”.

Make  your  schedule available to  the search  consultant and  candidates.

Your Relationship with the Executive Search Consultant

Let   the    search    consultant   know how you like to operate, and your expectations. View  them  as  an adjunct to your  staff. Make the search effort   a  partnership.  Communicate an  attitude of trust  and  “we  are  all in  this  together.” The  best  ones  are flexible  and  will  work  to conform to your  style.

Listen to your  search  consultant with an open mind. You may disagree with their  advice,  but  their  experience can save you a lot of time and trouble. (Remember this is more  an art then  a science so if your consultant has a gut level  feeling  about  an  issue  you’d be wise to listen carefully.)

Openly discuss your  selection biases, and  the  qualities, which  just  do  not work   in  your   company  AND  there will   be  some.   Ask   the   Consultant what theirs are too. (I relate to decisive leaders for example.)

Question  the   search   consultant  on the “whys” behind their  conclusions. Why are the people presented as final candidates? How  closely does each candidate meet  the  most   important criteria?   What   has   each   candidate really  accomplished? What  does  the search  consultant see as potential problem areas  with  each  candidate? What  has  the  search  consultant learned from references?

Let the consultant evaluate candidates identified through internal sources and  internal candidates just  as  they would evaluate the candidates found through  their   own   sources.  Confer at  predetermined  intervals to  see  if the  job specification has  changed, or priorities have  been re-ordered.

If you  sense  problems during the search,  be open  and  candid with  the search  consultant. Create  a problem- solving environment.

Your Relationship with Candidates

Be prepared for candidate interviews. Read and discuss with  the search consultant the resume and background information provided. Discuss    your    interview  approach with   the  search   consultant prior   to meeting candidates. Good  interview skills don’t just happen, they are acquired.  Take   the   opportunity  to learn   about   technique  and   process. Ask  for  a list  of potential interview questions whether you  use  them  or not.

Put  your  best foot forward when you meet  candidates. Welcome  them  like they’re your  BEST customer. This  is after   all,  a  business  meeting  about your   company  with   someone who could   turn   out  to  be  a  real  impact player on your  team  – it makes  sense to  make  them  want  to  join.  This  all starts   with   planning how  they  will be treated starting from  the  moment they  arrive  until  they  leave.  It should be per-orchestrated.

Be decisive and  timely  in moving forward  with   candidates  and   the search   process.  When   you   develop an interest in a candidate, work  out a strategy with  the  consultant to make it happen, and  who  should play  what role in bringing about  closure.
Final thoughts

In the final analysis the search chair is the one who  convinces the candidate there  is a fit, articulates why the backgrounds/sk ills/opportunities/ challenges align,  and   explains why there   is  wealth  to   be  made.   This last  point   is  critical  – especially for funded ventures. Cap  structures are often complex and it’s hard  for a newcomer to anticipate how  much additional funding will  be  required and   in  how   many   tranches.  The search   consultant can  tell  the  story but the Chair  must  verify  the details.