6 Proven Ways to Select the Right Search Firm to Win Top Talent

To find the best talent, you need a dependable search partner, says a new report by recruiting firm Kinsley|Sarn Executive Search. Here are some tips for making that a reality. Top search consultants also weigh in on this Hunt Scanlon Media exclusive!

September 20, 2019 –  The right candidate can have a measurable impact on your bottom line. So how can you ensure that you are identifying, interviewing and selecting the absolute best candidates?

The goal is to identify a search firm that focuses on being your recruiting partner rather than just fitting you into their process, according to a new report by Kinsley|Sarn Executive Search. The study provides six distinguishing factors to evaluate potential executive search partners:

1. Owner/ Senior Partner Involvement

Too often there is a type of “bait and switch” that occurs with executive search firms, said the report. The senior partner comes in to sell you on their capabilities and accomplishments but once the deal is signed, they move on to the next opportunity. “Unless you are a high-revenue client, you most likely will not see them again until the final candidate is hired. It is critical that the partner selling the search be intimately involved in each step of the process because the experience is critical when identifying the perfect candidate for your position.”

When the most critical search process steps are left to be handled by associates and analysts, finding the right talent and filling your critical opening suffers. Kinsley|Sarn said that these individuals most likely have not been to your company, do not know you or your culture, and without being involved in developing the search profile, will have a tougher time identifying the perfect candidate. Ask to meet who will be doing the search work – interviewing and assessing candidates, conducting reference checks, evaluating psychometric testing results, etc. Unless the search partner has the requisite experience to know what top talent looks like, it’s unlikely you’ll be pleased with the candidates they choose to present for your consideration.

2. Going Deep – The Critical Success Profile

“Avoid the high failure rate of placed executives by partnering with a search firm who makes an investment in your company,” said Kinsley|Sarn. “You want to hire a firm that makes it their priority to ask you about your company’s values, culture and goals, interview key stakeholders and high potential/high performing employees and takes the time to identify the critical success factors and key deliverables.” Other key factors may include key inter-relationships, resource limitations, budget issues and strategic goals.

“By going beyond the list of job responsibilities for the open position to gain an understanding of the critical success factors that determine a potential new hire’s success or failure, the search firm will be able to present fully qualified candidates,” the report said. “Ask prospective search firms to share samples of recent search profiles, how much time was invested in developing the profile and who had input. The answers to these questions can be very revealing.”

3. Tailored Services Vs. a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Larger search firms tend to chase volume and follow a specific process to get the assignment closed as quickly as possible so they can move to the next search, said Kinsley|Sarn. “Because of this one-size-fits-all approach, they do not have the flexibility to give the client exactly what they want and need without an additional charge. This includes items such as total cash compensation reporting, psychometric assessments, up-front key stakeholder/key employee interviews and meetings on-site, etc.”


What to Really Consider When Hiring a Search Firm
Organizations justifiably take many criteria into account when considering partnering with an executive search firm. But which ones are the most important? A new report by Mitch Oakley, founder and CEO of search firm Charles Aris, lays out the questions to ask when selecting a recruiting firm for your next big assignment.


This is a critical differentiating factor because most organizations and most positions where a retained search is appropriate are unique or at least have unique aspects to the search. Selecting a firm that can adapt its process to better ensure a successful search without charging an extra administrative fee or other charges is vital.

4. Off-Limits Restrictions

The larger the firm the more clients they need and therefore more passive candidates are “off-limits” as reputable retained search firms will not recruit from their client’s employee base. “Before you engage a firm on your critical position, take the time to understand who their other clients are and write down some of the key competitors/targets for your next employee to see where there may be a conflict,” said the report. “Too many conflicts will limit their ability to get you access to the very best talent. If they claim to not have any client restrictions– beware… they are likely unethical in which case you could be their next fishing pond.”

5. Access to Active and Passive Candidates

“In addition to making sure your partner is not overly restricted in identifying key talent, you also need to ensure your prospective firm isn’t just shuffling the resumes they have on file to get a quick fit with your needs,” Kinsley|Sarn said. “Evaluating active as well as passive candidates is critical to a successful search. Often the best candidates are not active in the market. Knowing what the ideal candidate is likely doing today, who they may be working for, and how to gain access is the work of a good search partner.”

6. Ensuring Success After Hire

The Kinsley|Sarn report also pointed to executive failure rates bumping along at about 40 percent over the last eight years, suggesting that more needs to be done to help ensure the new hire makes a successful transition from candidate to a fully integrated member of his/her team and the company. “A more supportive, proactive approach by a search partner can dramatically increase the probability of a successful transition,” the search firm said. “It also strengthens the relationship between the company and the search firm, and it maximizes the ROI for both parties.”

Suggestions include providing assimilation and transition support to the successful candidate. “The best search firms don’t see the end of the engagement as offer acceptance, but instead when the new hire is fully assimilated and performing at a high rate,” the Kinsley|Sarn report said. “Whether you prefer to manage the on-boarding process internally or are open to external support, leveraging the best practices of a search firm with a proven track record of successful placements and transitions is another critically important factor in selecting the right search firm.”

Top Search Consultants Weigh In

“I completely agree with the ‘bait and switch” scenario,” said Carina Whitham, president of Whitham Group Executive Search. “The larger firms have their senior partners as the closers, so when it is time to launch the search assignment, the junior staff is tasked with the recruitment of most likely a very high level search and are not equipped to do so. Being the owner of a small boutique firm allows me to be on the front lines and be involved in each assignment. As I may not recruit directly on every single one, but I know exactly what is happening at all times with each Recruiter’s status daily. This gives me key insights for forecasting revenues and also our capacity for new searches. As our staff is small but mighty, we also do not take on an excessive number of job openings. We take on less and focus more on the candidate experience and collaboration with the client,” she said.

“Some larger firms have stringent quotas that can affect service and speed is key,” said Ms. Whitham. “The larger the firm, the larger the overhead, so closing an assignment at light speed would make sense. Some of us, including myself, love the search process and take on fewer assignments to spend more time with our candidates and clients. We can take the time needed to perform our due diligence, travel to the client, talk to their team in person, see the atmosphere of their organization and get a feel of their culture by spending a few days in their office.”

“With my niche being in renewable energy, each assignment is very unique and the drivers behind each role are different,” she added. “So taking the time out to really understand the hiring managers objectives and aligning that with the right culture is something that cannot be rushed but should be an enjoyable process for all involved.”

“First, I prefer not to use the word ‘perfect’, as there is no perfect candidate,” said Jonathan Plourde, managing partner, North America at Alexander Hughes. “We seek the most qualified and best fitted for the organization, the team and the culture. Also, we at Alexander Hughes value candidate experience more than anything.”

“We hear too often by candidates, ‘The headhunter called me, I got an interview with him and then…silence!’” said Mr. Plourde. Or a candidate that hears about a position connects with the headhunter and gets no response. “Part of the selection process of a headhunter should be to speak with candidates who did not get the job or interviewed…and see how they were treated. Respect is the number one value. How can you prove that you treat all candidates with respect and offer them proper feedback/closer? That should be an important factor in choosing the right head hunter.”

“Asking who will actually undertake the search is key – when our Partners pitch for a search, we often joke, ‘we hope you like us because you’ll be seeing a lot of us!’ – but it’s true,” said Tory Clarke, partner at Bridge Partners. “All the partners at Bridge Partners came from major search firms and found the ‘bait and switch’ model deeply unsatisfying, so we deliberately upended that large firm model when we founded the Bridge Partners in 2003, by guaranteeing TWO Partners on every search.”

“The two Partners are responsible for spending time with the client and key stakeholders at the outset of the search, making the initial contact with candidates, and managing the search throughout the entire process – from introduction of an opportunity, through assessment, to offer negotiation,” said Ms. Clarke

“At Herbert Mines Associates, we believe that the right search partner will invest in becoming a true brand ambassador for your company,” said Adelle Kirk, managing director at the firm. “This means both investing the time getting to get to know your business, values and future strategy, as well as conducting a thorough and efficient search process that cultivates an engaged slate of qualified and interested candidates.”

“The most successful searches are forward-looking, process-driven and led by senior recruiters who have years of experience in competency-based assessments and a network of trusted executives to thoroughly reference each candidate,” she said.

“At Buffkin / Baker, our partners lead our searches,” said Roland Lundy, operating partner. “They may have associate help, but our partners are interviewing the candidates and meeting with the client for the duration of the search. You have to have that commitment to your clients. We believe that is one reason we have a 99 percent completion rate over the last 20 years.”

“Spending extra time with the client on the front end of a search is a real key to success,” Mr. Lundy added. “Understanding the client’s needs, their culture, and interviewing the key executives about the role they are giving us to fill, helps the search firm narrow the candidate field quicker, thus getting the conclusion of the search in a timely manner. We don’t rush a search, we are thorough, and that is the difference.”

“For more than three decades we have been systematically following up on the effectiveness of our selection work around the world,” said Roger Hagafors, chairman of the board at Mercuri Urval. “We have experienced that achieving industry leading performance, which should be less than a quarter of the failure rate outlined in this article, requires three elements. Firstly, a proven assessment method, and secondly, a very well executed assignment by an expert consultant and thirdly, the reassurance of a thorough compliance process for quality control.”

“What has become clear to us in our follow-up work is that not only the skill of the consultant, but also the quality of their methodology and intellectual property, are key determinants of the right selection decision,” said Mr. Hagafors. In the future, he added, “as roles change ever faster, selecting leaders that succeed will most likely be based even more on this convergence between the expert consultant, the data and insight contained within a proven assessment method and a sound compliance process.”

“As we read the thoughts and suggestions from most retained executive search consultancies, we wonder where the consulting really starts,” said Steve Schrenzel, COO of Taplow Group and managing partner at Taplow USA. “We believe that a model which is inherently a consulting model starts with the first call/meeting with our prospective client and extends until the prospective candidate becomes the executive leader our client truly needs. We don’t ask, ‘What job do you need us to fill?’ We ask, ‘What is your business trying to accomplish, how have you progressed getting there and how does this potential search impact your strategy?’ We approach each potential search assignment as an opportunity to integrate all of the issues that a thoughtful and integrated solution should bring to the client.”

Aligning to Client Needs

Recently, Mr. Schrenzel added, one of the firm’s clients was convinced they needed a ‘big personality’ from outside their company to shake things up. They engaged with two search firms who failed to find that right external leader. “We interviewed internally and externally and while perhaps not a perfect solution, as they had to backfill a very successful business unit leader, the ultimate recommendation was a well-respected and well trusted internal leader with virtually no learning curve taking on the challenges and driving progress in an artful, non-intrusive or disruptive manner.”

What virtually no one in the search industry speaks of today, he said, is aligning their business model with the client’s need, “as most often we really don’t know what that need is until we truly begin an in-depth analysis, which can lead to a true plan vs. another hire.”

“Kinsley|Sarn’s article provides excellent, practical advice about partnering with search firms in 2019,” said Andrew Golden, partner at Atlantic Group. “Clients can access information today such that the research aspect to legacy retained search is almost obsolete. Clients need search partners that will be a natural extension of themselves in terms of culture and pace and differentiation. Clients want control, pace and results. Kinsley Sarns captures this sentiment well.”

“We view the world in a similar fashion as our peers at Kinsley|Sarn,” said Todd Bennett, chief executive officer at R. Todd Bennett Retained Executive Search. “From our perspective, an ideal search partner must bring expertise, not just in search, but in business leadership. Having been an operator and majority owner in businesses prior to joining search helps our firm partner with clients with a CEO’s mindset. So, we view our starting point to success in having a CEO minded approach.”

Successful long term hires, Mr. Bennett added, result not just because we have a CEO point of view, but also, we have decades of experience being exposed to every kind of culture. “That exposure allows us to expeditiously query our clients’ strategy, gaps and success factors in a way that few firms can replicate. Our value proposition continues as we create a client specific plan for candidate research, the candidate pitch and ultimately our rigorous evaluation. Rarely does a search begin with a readymade previously known candidate, a winning approach will almost always center around fresh candidates that are largely passive.”

“A successful search results when the firm tailors each search with a plan that is unique to its client and does so with a nimble, experienced partner lead team,” said Mr. Bennett. “Only then can they provide maximum value.”

“While it is important to get a search partner who truly understands your business, we are getting a lot more requests that involve strength in functional areas rather than industry expertise,” said Ted Pryor, managing director at Greenwich Harbor Partners. “To get game changing candidates, sometimes you have to go outside your industry, and your search partner should be able to help you find candidates with deep functional skills who could be successful in a new industry. Clients often want to see our ‘list,’ meaning our record of searches which are like the search they have. However, this criteria favors big firms, but you don’t know if the presenting professionals were involved. Sometimes the searches on the list are a decade old and the search professionals are no longer at the firm.”

“Another thing we notice is that the big firms have big off-limits issues. A smaller firm is likely to have much more freedom to approach all of the potential candidates,” said Mr. Pryor. “The discussion about the search approach should be given much more weight. The more time we spend with clients on what they are looking for and discussing where we might look, the better the search will go. A high-quality strategy will help the search dramatically.”

“A strong executive search partner understands nuance,” said Renato Amador, partner at OverNorth. “The evaluation of candidates needs to go beyond simply ‘ticking the boxes’ of the technical and functional requirements outlined in the position specification. A true partner will incorporate into their recruitment efforts a holistic understanding of the culture factors, business needs and historical context that impact the search.”

The Inherent Value of Boutiques

“That is where the value of a boutique search firm comes in,” Mr. Amador added. “Unlike the big firms push for revenue, many boutique firms prioritize search execution, knowing clients will reward them for their good partnership and commitment.”

“At our firm, we find a search is most effective when it is customized for the particular client company, hiring manager and relevant stakeholders,” said Drew Desky, managing partner at Rand Thompson Consultants. “As a collaborative search partner, we engage in a highly customized interactive process, understanding what the client really wants in terms of experience, skills and personality. Occasionally, we will uncover a lack of alignment at our clients in terms of these characteristics, and in the most diplomatic way possible, we work to resolve any internal disagreements about the search.”

Of course, he added, “we are most effective at solving these types of issues when we really know how our clients like to work and adapt to each search situation. That’s the investment we make with our clients that has the biggest payoff for all involved, including the candidates.”

“In addition to the obvious question of ‘is this search in the firm’s area of expertise,’ as there is no substitution for knowing the space, it is important to evaluate other considerations,” said Heidi Rustin, managing partner of Bryant Park Search Partners. “For one, ascertain whether the firm has other closely related searches ongoing at the time. You want them to have relevant experience, but be certain you are not going to be in competition with their other clients for mindshare and candidates. Also, capacity matters! Be sure the firm has the bandwidth to fulfill their promise.”

And, Ms. Rustin continued, carefully evaluate the firm’s off limits. Finally, do not underestimate the importance of good chemistry. “Just like when you are hiring a team member, you want to trust your instincts on how well you can work with this person. A good search partner will communicate in ways you can track with them. You will be talking frequently—do you enjoy your interaction with this partner? And, is it the partner or a more junior associate that will be driving the process?  The most important thing is to go into a search with real trust,” she said.

“I completely agree with the six distinguishing factors,” said Dave Westberry, managing director at BridgeStreet Partners. “However, I would add a seventh factor regarding the individual that will be conducting the search assignment. I believe is it critical for the consultant to have search experience in the client’s industry and/ or the function on which the search will focus. Understanding the nuisances of a particular sector and/ or function is critical in evaluating the best talent.”

Long-Term Partnership

“Selecting the right search partner is indeed critical to the success of your search,” said David Hunt, CEO & founder of Hyperion Executive Search. “That may sound obvious, but there are key factor here highlighted that go beyond the best sales pitch and a shiny brochure. You need a search partner that is just that, a partner. One that does dig deep into your company culture, mission, values and future objectives. One that is flexible and tailors their services to your company and role.”

“I’d also add to choose one that has a deep understanding of your market sector, and the growth stage of your company,” said Mr. Hunt. “Recruiting for a start-up, scale-up or corporate are very different remits which require candidates with different experiences, aspirations and motivations. Ask to speak to executives at previous clients for a true insight of the search firm’s processes, capabilities and successes.”

“Working with an executive search firm is a long-term partnership and it is important to choose the right one which will be able to provide insightful advisory to you through the various phases of your business growth,” said Hiroki Nakashige CEO, RGF International Recruitment. “Some important criteria that you should consider is first, having both regional and local reach. A firm with a regional reach gives you access to talents from another country which can best suit your business needs. This is also important when you start to expand your business overseas. At the same time, having a regional presence is not enough because the ultimate goal is to deliver the successful growth in a specific local market, which is supported by right senior talents who know the local market best,” he said.

“The right recruitment partner can partner you to find the right talent for you to build up your business quickly,” said Mr. Nakashige. With that being said, he added, the network and access to passive and active candidates that the search firm has is also important. “Search firms that have full industrial specializations such as RGF Executive Search is critical as this familiarity with the industry is how a search firm can value-add with intel and also access to passive and active talents within the industry. Lastly, the level of personalization that the search firm is able to give you is also important as search is not just a volume game and your search partner should invest their time to truly understand your business and your company culture. With such information, we will be able to find the right talents with not just the relevant skills but also the right cultural fit,” said Mr. Nakashige.

“I believe that people are the cornerstone of any organization and that a brand is truly an amalgam of the people that bring it to life with their ingenuity, their willingness to believe in a broader shared experience and their hard work,” said Steve Morrissey, CEO and founder at Perpetual. “Which is why I set out to create a different kind of recruitment solution with Perpetual.”

“As trusted partners in building consumer brands, we at Perpetual: pride ourselves on our commitment to delivering long-term, comprehensive value to our clients,” said Mr. Morrissey.

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

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