How to Work Effectively With an Executive Search Firm


Don’t Waste Your Time and Money on an Executive Search Firm
Mention the words “executive search” at a cocktail party and it’s likely someone will tell you about a friend of a friend, a hotshot headhunter that easily made seven figures placing just a few executives last year.  But for the all the envious eye-rolling and misinformation of how recruiters make hundreds of thousands of dollars just for making a few phone calls, there is the other side of that anecdote.  That is the story of a company reaping the benefits of a top-caliber executive proving that he’s easily worth more than it cost to recruit him.
Whether you’re looking to fill a C-suite vacancy, replace a key manager or staff a new division, you’ve taken the wise step of engaging a high-quality search firm.  It’s not like you have time on your hands to look for that proverbial needle in a haystack, that “A” player who’s not even looking for a job because he’s having fun taking his current company to the next level.  You have a company to run (or a department to manage).  You have projections to analyze, customers to win and a presentation to your board of directors on Monday.  You know your strengths, and you’ve set your priorities.  You brought in the experts, willing and able to solve your problems as successfully as you solve problems for your customers and partners.
What can you do to make sure you’re not wasting your time and money with your executive search firm?  How can you work effectively with your new partner?  Similar to effectiveness in other areas of work or life, you can most effectively work with an executive search firm by focusing on three key areas: setting clear expectations, communicating thoroughly and openly and building long-term relationships.
Setting Clear Expectations with Your Search Firm Will Reduce Disappointment.  Frustration and poor results are oftentimes caused by surprises that increase the costs of an assignment or decrease the value of the efforts already spent.  You can reduce such disappointment with a bit of preparation.  Do some pre-contact research on the search firm you are interested in engaging.  Make sure you understand the type of firm it is.  Is it an agency paid by the candidates it places?  If so, its obligations are to find the best possible job for the candidate.
This is a subtle difference from the goals of a recruiter who is paid by, and works for, you.  These recruiters charge fees on a contingency or retained basis.  Contingency firms are paid only when their candidate is hired (reducing your out-of-pocket expenses, but possibly limiting the amount of time the firm can devote to your assignment).  Retained firms are paid in installments during the recruiting process and earn their fee regardless of who introduced the recruited employee (you are paying for their expertise as they guide you through the process of finding and recruiting the best “fitting” candidate).
Make sure you understand the firm’s capabilities.  Does it have in-depth knowledge of particular industries?  Does it specialize in certain levels of candidate seniority?  Does it have a developed network with access to desired candidate types?  Does it have the trust of its candidates that enable it to ascertain key concerns and motivations, thus helping you craft a compelling message to successfully bring the best candidate on board?
Make sure you understand the firm’s search process.  They should outline a process honed by their expertise into an exacting and results-driven methodology, customized to the unique needs of your company.  This outline should include realistic timeframes.  Note that a typical senior level executive search can take three to four months to complete.  It may possibly extend to over a year to find the candidate that truly fits the role.  Also note that your search firm’s focus on the market can provide you with the latest and most accurate intel on available talent.
Be sure to clearly voice your expectations in order to reduce your surprises.  Be sure your firm explains its expectations as well.  This is a partnership with the same goal: the positive impact of your next team member upon your future success.  Have the proper discussions to understand what can and cannot be accomplished within the assignment’s limitations.  This leads to the next point, communication.
Communicate Thoroughly, Frequently and Openly with Your Search Firm to Reach the Best Possible Candidates.  Provide comprehensive details about the particular position: the job duties, responsibilities, qualifications, background requirements, etc.  Your search firm can only present candidates that meet known criteria.  Respond to your search firm as quickly as possible when candidates are presented.  This feedback is new and important information that will further guide your search firm to meet your specific needs and better understand your priorities.  Also, the faster you respond, the faster your search firm can present more qualified candidates.
Besides the particular job requirements, be open and candid about your corporate personality, your organizational structure and your company values.  This will increase the likelihood of a finer “fit” between your company and the recruited employee.  It will also improve your search firm’s understanding of your company as a whole.  It is this understanding that builds your relationship.
Build Your Relationship with Your Search Firm For Short- and Long-term Success.  For the short-term success of hiring the best candidate, chemistry between your company and the candidate, and between your hiring manager and the candidate, is vitally important.  As your search firm can accurately identify the different work personalities and management styles at your company, it can help build a successful relationship right from the recruited employee’s first day on the job.  You should carefully weigh the balance between the candidate who meets all of the job specifications vs. another that doesn’t quite meet all of the specs, but has better chemistry.  Job skills are usually learned faster than chemistry is created.
Long-term success can be achieved as the relationship between your company and your search firm is strengthened.  As you work to develop rapport with your search firm, the better your search firm will understand you.  As your search firm better understands you, the better it can represent you in the marketplace and the more effectively it can handle future assignments.  It can also be more proactive in contributing to your success (e.g. it would be better able to inform you about relevant talent trends, in general, and talented professionals, in particular, that should be on your radar screen).
Keep these points in mind as you discuss a project with your executive search firm.  Having clear expectations, open communication and seeking to build a long-term relationship will prevent lost opportunities and go a long way toward effectively working together. They will increase the likelihood of improving your team with an “A” player and create an environment where that player can quickly contribute in meaningful ways.  They will also enable your search firm to effectively work with your company, even without a formal assignment, thus giving you even more value for your investment.

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