Choosing Your Executive Search Firm

Finding the right recruitment firm for your senior-level searches requires a certain degree of thought. A reputable brand, market knowledge and a strong network are key factors to consider before making a decision, says a new report by Odgers Berndtson. Let’s take a closer look.

August 20, 2019 – It’s far from easy to find people with the right skills, experience and values to fill vital senior executive positions. Some roles are simply so important that you have to invest in identifying and recruiting the best individual.

But how do you set about choosing an executive search firm? To begin with, you need to look for a well-established recruitment provider with a reputable name, according to a new report by Odgers Berndtson. This will certainly help in opening doors to great talent.

“Leading executive search firms have a strong name and reputation that really helps in acquiring and securing candidates,” said Michaël Mellink, senior partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Amsterdam office and head of its life sciences practice. “Market knowledge and a strong network of contacts is advantageous in securing the best candidates – with an excellent network among board members [being] very valuable for the more senior positions.”

The best search firms have a strong grasp of the special qualities required to fill C-suite positions and other senior leadership roles, said Odgers Berndtson. Moreover, they employ a team of consultants, backed by specialist researchers, each of whom has carefully cultivated a wide network of senior-level contacts, providing unparalleled access to the best talent.

“Look for a firm that has the expertise and a track record in your industry,” the report said. “Ideally, the consultant who specializes in your sector will also have in-depth knowledge of the functional role you are aiming to fill.”

Providers of Insight and Advice

A select few search firms will be able to provide you with market insight and advice on relevant subjects like governance trends. They will also be able to help you define your hiring strategy.

“It’s our job to help clients think about their organization’s talent and be an objective advisor,” said Susannah Crabtree, head of the Odgers Berndtson, Ottawa, Canada office.

“So ask us for that information. Ask us what’s happening in your industry, who’s moving where and what’s driving the marketplace,” she said. “A search firm can be a bellwether and can provide a lot of insights for developing your talent strategy.”

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.

“Some roles are highly specialized and can only be filled by candidates with a rare combination of skills,” the Odgers Berndtson report said. “If that’s the case for you, check that the search firm has the know-how and track record to discover these hard-to-find individuals.”

Absolute Discretion

Discretion is a non-negotiable prerequisite. Candidate search usually involves approaching executives who are still in position elsewhere. “You may have very good commercial or strategic reasons for keeping your search quiet,” the Odgers Berndtson report said. “So make sure you opt for a seasoned firm where subtlety and sensitivity come as second nature.”

“Discretion is all the more important where the search may extend to candidates working for one of your direct competitors or for a company with which you do business – such as a key supplier or customer,” the firm said. “Clearly, it’s wise to avoid undermining an important commercial relationship.”

Driving Diversity

Diversity and inclusion has rightly become an increasingly significant factor in executive searches, in particular for board-level positions. Organizations have come to appreciate that having many different voices around the board table enhances the probability of success.

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

“A well-rounded search firm will itself champion diversity and be actively engaging with internal and external diversity networks on an ongoing basis,” said Holly Addison, head of consumer technology, digital, hospitality, events and entertainment at Odgers Berndtson, London. “If enabling diversity is a key factor in selecting a search firm, make sure it has an enduring focus and commitment to it, not just a strapline for the pitch.”

Consistently delivering diverse shortlists in practice requires a continual, proactive commitment and diligence to tracking talent – as well as a bold stance with clients.

Diversity Recruiting: Supply, Demand and the Matchmaking Process  

Hunt Scanlon Media recently released its latest issue of ESR. This time around, an in-depth look at diversity recruiting – what drives it, why it’s not a social crusade, and how it matters in every workplace. According to the newsletter, diversity starts at the top – and that oftentimes means it begins in the boardroom. Diverse boards make better decisions and lead to improved company performance. But boards are failing to reflect society as a whole. What’s the problem? Hunt Scanlon Media offers some answers.

As you might expect, building cultures that will not tolerate discrimination but instead promote diversity – and recruiting talent that reflects this – is the challenge facing every recruiter and talent acquisition leader today. The #MeToo movement is, of course, leaving its mark on recruiting – and in this issue that is examined as well. Five incoming chief diversity officers making a big difference by putting a special emphasis on diversity are also highlighted. Get the free issue now!

Odgers Berndtson said it makes a point of anonymizing profiles to enable greater objectivity. “Clients should look for firms with this degree of professionalism and thoroughness when selecting a search partner,” the recruiting firm said.

Global Reach

International capability is another key point to consider. Does the firm have a global footprint? Is there strength in depth in important international locations?

“This is important for several reasons,” Odgers Berndtson said. “It may be that the ideal candidate for your role is based in another country. Or perhaps you have a requirement in one of your international offices. Always look for a firm that takes the trouble to audit its assignments, including how candidates were treated. Gathering feedback shows they care about the service they provide and will likely carry on making improvements.”

Sound Out Other Clients

Ask to speak to a handful of the firm’s other clients, said Odgers Berndtson. Here are some useful questions you could put to them:

  • Did the search lead to the appointment of a candidate who met your requirements?
  • Was the process fast and efficient?
  • Were all the shortlisted candidates of consistently high quality?
  • Were the consultants transparent and truthful – and easy to get hold of whenever you wanted an update?
  • Were there any drawbacks to the process, and did you encounter any problems along the way?

Mark Freebairn, a partner & head of the firm’s CFO practice in London, added some further questions clients should ask clients about a search firm: “How advisory were they through pitch/briefing? Did they present difficult truths, no matter how little the client wanted to hear it? Does the firm’s reputation mean their calls will be taken and advice listened to? Have they done work in this area or can they evidence how they will connect to the candidate population?”

“Some of these are challenging questions,” the Odgers Berndtson report said. “Yet that’s very much the point. In choosing a search agency to help fill major executive roles within your organization, you must make sure you are entrusting that important task to a partner who won’t let you down.”

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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