Getting the Most Out of Your Search Firm

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It isn’t news that hiring a new executive at a company is a huge deal that doesn’t happen overnight. So why do many hiring managers struggle with the search, even when they have a retained search firm? After supporting hundreds of executive searches within the Insight portfolio, we have broken down the key best practices of running an executive search.  

1. Hire a Specialist Firm

Before finding your new dream executive candidate, there’s a candidate you need to consider first: your search firm. More often than not, executives prefer a search firm they’re comfortable with, such as a local or generalist firm. Today, however, there are a wide variety of specialist firms to find exactly the right candidate for your position. And just like you wouldn’t use a primary care physician for a specific surgery, you might want to think twice about using the firm that got you from 0 to $10MM to get you from $50MM to $100MM.

When selecting a search firm, make sure to ask about the following: 

  1. The number of searches the actual individual recruiter you will be working with has filled in this exact role or title in the last two years. 
  2. The revenue band of those searches. (i.e. $<10MM, $10MM-$50MM, $50MM-$100MM, etc.) The person who hired a head of finance for a company under $10M is likely not the same person to find you a VP of Marketing for a company over $100M.  And the vendor that hired 20 Product VPs for Facebook? They might not be the right search firm to build the candidate pool for your sub-$25M revenue startup.  
  3. References. Call the references yourself and ask how they are at each element of the search, including finding good candidates, running a tight and professional process, and closing candidates. Ask how well-networked they are, or how they respond to difficult or challenging situations. After all, some firms have great networks; some are better at building pipe or grinding through for difficult to fill searches. When given the option, we lean towards the grinder search firms vs. the ones that seem to rely too much on their existing network.
  4. Cost: Like many things in life, you get what you pay for. With tier one executive search firms, industry standard fees for an executive search is 1/3 first year base + bonus. With a busy and competitive market, the best recruiters walk away from clients who want too much of a “deal” on the fee. Keep that in mind the value that one truly exceptional executive will offer to your business when comparing search fees.

2. Create a Search Management Cadence

As the hiring manager, your engagement will drive the search. Request (and, obviously, attend) the weekly calls with your search firm. These few minutes every week can end up saving you months on your search as you hold each other accountable to progress. By staying in consistent touch, you’ll stay on track.

Week 1-3: Align Candidate Profile

In these first few weeks, you’ll establish your weekly cadence while reviewing an initial round of resumes and candidates. As you sort through this batch of resumes, you and your search firm will align on what type of candidates match your scorecard and desired profile.  Many executives get impatient with search firms at this phase, wondering why they cannot find the “right” candidate.  But this is how the search firms get you to really clarify what is important to you and land on the exact right profile.

Weeks 4-6: Initial Candidate Meetings

When it comes time to talk to your candidates, the search firm should conduct the first screening call and handle the logistics of getting candidates in front of you and your team, but with assistance from your internal administrative team. The first meeting or call should be with the hiring manager and focused on explaining the opportunity and the business first, then learning about the candidate second.

Make sure the person leading the search from your firm is the one actually doing the work—vetting candidates their team sources, managing them through the process, leading your search calls etc. If they’re delegating this to a junior person, this is the time to address it.

Weeks 7-10: Candidate site visits, and continued first rounds

As your pipeline development wanes, the lead recruiter should be staying close to all candidates, and also giving you feedback from the candidates after meeting with you and your team. When it comes to the number of interviewers, keep the slate lean and senior (we recommend under 4-7 interviewers total). 

Weeks 10-12: More site visits and final rounds

The best recruiters stay close to the finalist candidates and should be in contact with them regularly to make sure they know their interest levels, outstanding questions about the opportunity, and possible other offers.

Weeks 13-16: Final rounds & closing

In the end, it is your job to close the candidate, not the search firm.  You need to own this, but your search firm will be a strong partner. They are a great source of “back-channel” information on how the candidate actually feels about the role and what will be needed to close.

3. Have a Closing Plan

It’s easy to get excited when you think you’ve found the perfect fit, but it’s extremely important to remember not to make an offer to the candidate without consulting the search firm. An offer too far from expectations could make the entire process fall apart! Leverage your search partner for compensation data and advising. 

Once an offer has been made, make sure to coordinate approach, story, feedback and a closing plan with the search firm. While you should lean on your search firm for backchannels to the candidate, they can only do so much when closing. After all, the candidates are coming to work for you, so as the hiring manager, you’ll need to show the attention and urgency needed to close a senior candidate. They want to hear from you and know that you are committed to them joining your team.

4. Be Prepared

Executives often don’t express some of the most important questions and issues until very late in the process. Don’t be surprised when senior candidates ask to see “under the hood” of the company. We generally recommend showing this information to your finalist candidate (someone who is very close to an offer) after signing an NDA. Candidates also often want to get more time with you and/or the team—often outside the office to get a better feel for culture fit.

5. Be Patient

Lastly, don’t lose patience with candidates. Hiring leaders can get emotional as candidates take time to make decisions, and sometimes blame the search firm for not knowing that the candidate had concerns are unexpected requirements.  Accepting a job is a huge life decision for most people, and you want to hire Executives that do their diligence.

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