10 Things to Consider When Selecting a Search Firm

Executive search firms are ubiquitous . . . and that’s creating this conundrum for hiring executives: How to choose among them? Brussels-based Hightech Partners offers up 10 things to ask when selecting a search firm.

April 19, 2018 – Choosing an executive recruitment firm is nothing to take lightly. Recruiters, and the search firms they represent, are not all created equal. And whatever choice a company makes can have big consequences in terms of a proper working relationship between clients, recruiters, the candidates they provide and the ultimate choice for the job opening.

In other words, the stakes are high. So think ahead, and choose carefully. In a recent report, Hightech Partners, a Brussels-based search firm, offered 10 key points to consider when deciding what firm to engage. The suggestions range from looking hard at a search firm’s qualifications to making sure the firm of choice will provide an acceptable slate of candidates that, among other things, meet its ethical standards.

Managing director Raffaele Jacovelli, the author of the report, has facilitated hundreds of top-level international recruitments. His areas of expertise include: software, hardware and services, ranging from artificial intelligence and advanced analytics to real-time and high-performance computing to cybersecurity, IoT, mobile, cloud, SaaS and PaaS.

Hightech Partners suggested that all talent management and recruiting executives keep the following tips in mind when selecting a supplier of executive search services.

1. Competence, Coverage and Track Record: Is the firm truly global and international in reach, does it have a credible track record and do its principals have sufficient subject matter competence in your company’s business? Specialization nowadays represents a key added value in both understanding the client’s business as well as effectively assessing candidates’ relevant competence.


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“Specialization is becoming an increasingly important success factor,” said Mr. Jacovelli. “Companies already face big challenges in embracing digital transformation, so a trusted advisor with relevant experience in the domain can be a major asset. Such an advisor is able to understand the implications from both the technology and talents perspective and, as such, can bring a unique added value of effectively supporting clients in this journey.”

Related: Boutique Search Firms Step In Where Big Recruiters Falter

2. Critical Mass: Does the search firm have sufficient in-house expertise to handle your business or is it so thinly spread that it can only handle one search at a time, making it therefore open to being overwhelmed by one client?

“Capacity is a huge factor for a search firm’s ability to deliver best in class talent acquisition services,” said William Hawkins, founder, president and CEO of the Hawkins Company, a San Ramon, CA-headquartered search firm. “At our firm, we will not allow our staff to work on more than three assignments at any one time.  This ensures that our clients receive the best, most responsive service possible.”

Also, he noted, “each assignment has a team: a lead recruiter and project manager.” That combination, he said, ensures that clients always have someone to respond to their needs. “This affords a search consultant the ability to ensure that a high level of quality service is being met.”

3. Research Support System: Doesthe recruitment firm have internal systems that are connected to all relevant social media and is their database of candidates kept up to the minute? Does it use the latest search engines leveraging AI-based tools and is it able to give you a real-time, on demand report on the progress of your searches? Does it demonstrably use the technologies that you use – cloud services, on-demand computing, video conferencing etc. – in its daily business?

“The availability of an enabling, state-of-the-art platform is key to ensuring a successful execution of the search in a timely and compelling manner,” said Mr. Jacovelli. “AI based tools can facilitate the analysis of the job description and leverage semantic search to help match candidates to an available position. Thanks to this, we normally we have a long-list compiled in 48/72 hours.”


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4. Responsiveness and Accuracy: Will the search firm give quantifiable commitments to deliver a three- to five-candidate shortlist in a short specified period of time, with a commitment that these candidates will be found worthy of interview by your company?

Related: This Recruiter’s Top Five Secrets for Landing Candidates

“One of the main issues is pursuing relevant candidates rather than focusing on low hanging fruit,” said Mr. Jacovelli. “A great deal of perseverance combined with a multi-channel approach is essential to reaching top candidates. Next, the partner’s selling skills become important – the job of our research team is only to schedule the call with the prospective candidate. Only a partner can make the actual approach. This is the only way to improve effectiveness and accuracy.”

5. Quality of deliverables: Will the search firm deliver reports – prior to your interviews – that include a concise written assessment of each presented candidate based on face-to-face meetings which verify (a) the candidate’s abilities against your stated requirement and (b) the credibility of the candidate’s CV? Or do they merely pass on CVs downloaded from the Internet? Will the deliverables lay out the essential facts and concise opinion about a candidate in a way that can be quickly appreciated by a reviewing executive, or will they be verbatim copies of candidate provided material dressed up to look objective?

Related: 12 Reasons Why Companies Hire Executive Search Firms

“Clients hire executive search firms because they do not have time to interview the number of candidates often necessary to be successful,” said Mr. Jacovelli. “At the same time, they want a thorough scan of the market. We thus strive for the highest standards when it comes to the quality of deliverables.”

This includes an evaluation that is easy to read, brief, and comprehensive. “To ensure quality consistency, the base report is automatically generated using AI tools, but the key element is the partner’s evaluation, which for us represents the business case that highlights the suitability of a given candidate for the position,” said Mr. Jacovelli.

6. Client Account Management: Will it undertake to manage all communications with your company in an orderly way and provide a “one port of call” for all queries from your organization?

Related: 7 Ways to Evaluate Your Executive Search Firm

“Client account management is the cornerstone of a search firm’s quality control,” said Mr. Hawkins, who has been involved in over 1,000 executive searches during his career of more than 30 years. “Our team uses a project management approach that couples a project manager with a lead recruiter on every assignment. We do not provide a port of call for all of our searches. This approach doesn’t provide the quality control necessary to execute good project management and doesn’t lead to good client consultant relations, team building and collaboration. We always want to reduce obstacles to strong client communications.”

7. Fees and expenses: Are the search firm’s fees demonstrably competitive for the service it commits to provide? Is it flexible enough to meet your company’s demands with respect to cash flow, volume procurement, rebates and discounts? Does it undertake to charge expenses at cost and to limit expenses in an auditable way?

“While our fees are standard, we do offer multi-search discounts and provide some non-profit pro bono search fees,” said Mr. Hawkins. “With on-line technology, we have drastically reduced our candidate travel and interview expenses. This saves money and time which are becoming more important to clients now more than ever before. This is still a relationship business so you have to spend time with candidates to build trust and understand who they are on behalf of your client, while being considerate of cost.”

Related: Select the Right Search Firm

8. Value Added Services: Is the search firm capable of providing additional relevant services on request such as access to its research system so that hiring managers can monitor its search work, psychometric and digital readiness assessment of candidates, candidate coaching-on-induction or benchmarking compensation for given searches?


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“For a true executive search consultant, the task is not completed when you present a client with a group of qualified candidates,” said Mr. Jacovelli. “Along with the assessment of skills, a cultural fit is important for a search to be successful. For this, we use two different tools to complete psychometric assessments, with each tool serving a different purpose. The digital readiness assessment is also an important complement.”

In addition, reference checking remains extremely important. “For this, we are studying a block-chain based system,” said Mr. Jacovelli. “We also see that accompanying our clients through the onboarding phase is a value-added service that can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful search.”

9. Sustainability: To what extent is the firm committed to and practicing a code of reducing physical travel, energy and all other costs in all its activities?

“Fifty percent of our interviews are now being conducted through video conferencing platforms,” Mr. Hawkins said. “We expect this to increase as technology improves. We anticipate the need for face-to-face client meetings to also benefit from new technology. We also practice splitting some expenses between multiple clients to reduce cost.”

Related: How to Avoid Hiring the Wrong People

10. Ethics: Has the firm signed up to any accepted code of ethics or professional practice guidelines? Does it demonstrably adhere to such ethics and can it provide appropriate references? Is it willing to conform to your company’s guidelines on ethical business conduct?

“In a hyper-connected world, ethics have become even more important,” said Mr. Jacovelli. “Especially in the executive search industry, a sensitive domain where we work with confidential information on both the client and candidate side.”

In addition, with the enactment of the new General Data Privacy Regulation in Europe this May, firms must be extra cautious. “At Hightech Partners, we began adapting ours guidelines over a year in advance,” said Mr. Jacovelli. “Following recent incidents at Facebook, we see that manipulating user data is tricky, especially in an economy where the reputation of a network can affect the ability to approach and deal both with relevant clients and candidates.”

Related: 13 Rules for Getting the Most Out of Your Executive Search Firm

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Will Schatz, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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