You’ve decided to put a key position or group of positions out for search. Perhaps you’ve advertised, posted and networked the position on your own…with little success…and somewhat reluctantly face the task of choosing an executive search firm or employment agency to work with. But who?
Your choice is simplified, of course, if you have an existing relationship with a firm that knows your company, its people, and its hiring practices and has delivered in the past on positions comparable to the new position(s). If not, the next best step is to seek referrals from people you trust who have worked with a variety of recruitment firms.
Whether you talk to one firm or several, these few basic considerations will guide you toward the right search partner:
How urgent is your hiring need?
How senior is the position within your organization?
How broad geographically do you want the search to be?
How do you want your company and the position to be represented to Candidates?
How involved in the hiring process do you expect your recruiter(s) to be?
How much can you afford to pay and how and when do you want to pay for it?
As well, there are other questions you should take into consideration:
Is the firm a member of the National Association of Personnel Services (NAPS)? This trade association is the largest governing body on ethical search practices.
Is the specific recruiter conducting your search a Certified Personnel Consultant (CPC)? The Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine both state that this is the sign of a truly professional recruiter.
How long has the recruiter been in the “profession”? Like real estate agents, recruiters tend to turn over quite a bit. Is your recruiter a professional or someone that does this as a stop gap until they find work back in corporate America?
In general, low to middle-level positions that must be filled quickly with local Candidates and minimal recruiter involvement beyond sourcing of Candidates call for contingency search. Here speed, cost and especially an immediate flow of resumes are probably the deciding variables. Using multiple firms is one way to achieve this. However, even with contingency firms the individual recruiter will work harder on searches from Clients who are using them exclusively.
Critical middle-level and most senior-level positions that require careful evaluation of Candidates drawn from competitors nationally, and with the opportunity presented by one firm exclusively, are generally best handled under a retained search arrangement. Here professionalism, thoroughness, and close Candidate contact throughout the process up through offer and counteroffer are usually vital.
Once you’ve decided what factors apply to your position and you begin the process of contacting firms, you should plan to test each potential search partner with some or all the following questions. Which of these questions are most important to you will say a great deal about the type of firm—and the type of relationship—you are likely to be comfortable with.
Do you work on contingency or retainer?
Contingency firms get paid only if you make a hire through them. Retainer firms require payments prior to an actual hire (usually one-third at the outset, a second one-third at some intermediate time or step in the process, and the final one-third on hiring or after another period of time). Some firms will do a blended search often called a Container Search or a Retingency Search. These two types of searches are generally a retained payment up front to start the search with some sort of payment contingent on the successful completion of the search with a placement.
The primary advantage of contingency search, of course, is that you pay for results and not promises. Contingency search can work well when firms have a robust database of potential Candidates and a good understanding of your needs.
The primary disadvantages of contingency search are apparent in examining the advantages of retained search, generally speaking, (1) better recruiter contact and communication (a single, dedicated recruiter or firm), (2) a higher level of professionalism, especially in how your company and the opportunity are being presented to Candidates and how these Candidates respond to recruiting calls, (3) a more thorough knowledge of the Candidates through more intensive interviewing, (4) greater overall expertise on matters of interview feedback, offer negotiations, closing, and counteroffers; and (5) Candidate exclusivity (vs. presenting to other Clients).
Do you have specific expertise in our industry or do you work across the board in several industries?
If the former, do you work in all functional areas and at all levels within your industry?
If not, what are your functional specialties and at what levels do you work?
What type of Clients have you done the most work with over the past two years? On what specific positions?
How many placements of (our sort) does your firm typically make in a year?
What meetings or conferences in our industry have you attended in the last year? What journals do you subscribe to?
Many search firms focus on one or a small number of industries, for example, the oil industry, financial services or pharmaceuticals. Others cover many industries but have no particular expertise in one area or industry. If you prefer to work with someone who already knows your industry and competitors, then put search firms through their paces. Find out what industry they have worked in and on what type of positions. Are they equally adept at middle management and senior management positions? Sales, technical, marketing, finance and operational roles?
If the latter (you work in many industries), do you have a functional expertise (eg, sales positions, IT specialists, accountants, etc.) and do you work at all levels within these functional areas?
Some firms specialize not by industry but by skill area. If Candidates for your position could just as easily come from outside as inside your industry, this may be a plus.
Do you work nationally or only within your geographic region?
Restricting a CEO search to local Candidates only is not the best strategy, nor is doing a national search for tech support people. How broad geographically you want the search to be—and how well a firm knows either the local or national market, or both—may be important factors in your decision.
How long typically does it take you to complete a search at the level of (our position)?
Contingency recruiters often get “lucky” with their first wave of resumes. But keep in mind that may have worked years to develop the resume database that accounted for this “luck.” Contingency search by nature means that your recruiter is working many contingency searches at one time since they have no guarantee of payment. As such, the search process may take three weeks…or an eternity. There are no guarantees.
With retained search the process is to develop a target list of source companies and Candidates and the entire search process can run three to six months. Here is where knowledge of your industry or of a wide range of functional specialists can be critical—an experienced retainer firm who knows your industry should have as many or more potential Candidates in its database as a specialized contingency firm. Thus it too can get “lucky.”
The difference is that a specialized retained firm also has mechanisms in place for sustaining a recruitment plan beyond the initial database stage. And they should be willing to guarantee results—that’s why you pay them upfront.
How is your office organized, i.e., do you have separate recruiters or “project managers” whose only function is to fulfill searches? If so, do these recruiters have research support?
Successful search is a team process involving three or more individuals: a project manager (who manages the assignment); a fulfillment specialist, or recruiter (who presents the opportunity to Candidates then qualifies their skills, interest, money, and geographic availability); and a researcher (who identifies the individuals whom the recruiter will attempt to recruit). Sometimes the first two functions are combined. Get a sense of how the firms you talk to are organized and to what extent they utilize separate researchers and recruiters.
Who will we actually be working with, i.e., who in your office will be in charge of this search if we give it to you?
Every search needs a “point person”—an individual you can always count on for information and updates. Ideally this individual should be the person who knows you and the position best. Find out who will be in charge. Also find out who will be doing the actual recruiting, how much experience that individual has with similar searches, and how much contact you will have with that individual.
How do you get a new search underway, i.e., what should we expect from you during the first few weeks of the search?
The first few weeks of a search are spent building a “recruiting engine.” Typically this means (1) working with you to define the position, its responsibilities and compensation, the ideal Candidate, potential source companies, the hiring process, and the desired reporting/update arrangements; (2) creating or refining the job description; (3) posting the description on selected websites and possibly advertising it in newspapers; (4) benchmarking the position with test Candidates; (5) conducting research into source companies and Candidates; and (6) preparing for the start of recruitment. In some (fortunate) cases—if the firm has a solid database of Candidates—the firm may produce a few qualified Candidates almost immediately.
Brian Wright is the owner and managing Partner of Executive Leadership Solutions, a contingency search firm, as well as the owner and chief placement officer of Coleman Haley & Wright, a retained search firm. A veteran of the petroleum and convenience-store industry, Brian can be contacted at (800) 485-9726, ext. 200 or via e-mail at email@example.com.