Executive Search 101: Back to Basics

Knowing basic steps of the executive search process is the best way to making smart choices about what recruiter is best for your company’s needs. It all points to developing a strategy that will yield the best candidates.

February 4, 2020 – The executive search process varies little from search firm to search firm. Every time they conduct a senior-level executive assignment, executive recruiters follow the same basic search process.

“Of course, since the retained search process and the pricing look pretty much the same at most traditional recruiting firms, it can be challenging for executive search buyers to figure out which firm to select,” said Krista Bradford, founder and CEO of The Good Search, in a newly-released report. But before we get into the nuances, you first must learn some basic steps.

“Retained executives search firms work by retainer and by exclusive contract,” Ms. Bradford said. “The standard search contract stipulates that the firm serves as the exclusive representative for external and internal candidates. It also defines engagement timing, off-limits agreements and other issues relevant to the particular assignment.”

The executive search firm sets out by meeting with the hiring executive and relevant stakeholders to discuss the requirements for the role. The meetings often include board members, members of the senior executive team, peers and subordinates. “These meetings enable the search firm to gather important information about the requirements of the role,” said Ms. Bradford. “More importantly, the search partner witnesses first-hand the management style and corporate culture, which are essential to understanding what makes someone successful at the company.”

Creating Position and Candidate Specification

The search firm then drafts a description of the position, detailing its reporting relationships, responsibilities and objectives. The candidate specification details core competencies, preferred experience and soft skills — the personal qualities that are sought in the ideal candidate.

Krista Bradford is founder and CEO of The Good Search in the Greater New York City area. Ms. Bradford has recruited board, senior executive and technology luminaries to clients that range from startups backed by top-tier venture capital firms to Fortune 100 corporations counted among the most powerful and successful media and technology companies in the world. She also leads the firm’s recruiting research practice Intellerati.

“The document serves as a touchstone, defining all the requirements of the role, preventing searches from veering off course,” Ms. Bradford said. “Once the client approves the document, it is used as a marketing tool with candidates.”

Setting Research Strategy

The search team develops a strategy targeting companies most likely to yield a successful candidate, including the initial list of target companies. “The strategy considers the level and scope of comparable roles as well as other key data points: office location, corporate culture and each company’s ranking,” said Ms. Bradford. “Companies that are off-limits are also delineated — companies out of which the firm will not recruit due to sensitive client relationships or because the firm has client blockage.”

Related: 7 Reasons Why Companies Hire Search Firms

She also said that using the strategy as a blueprint, the search team conducts original research to identify and profile idea candidates, mapping the reporting relationships and often building out org charts of target teams. “Traditional search firms usually do most of the research online,” Ms. Bradford said. “The search firm will also query its own candidate database, proprietary information services and social networks such as LinkedIn to yield prospective candidates.”

Querying Sources & Qualifying Prospects

Search firms sound their network of sources for candidate referrals and calibrations. Sources include journalists, professional associations and other relevant groups. Prospects that meet the requirements of the role are added to the initial list of prospects.

“The search team contacts prospective candidates to determine whether they meet the primary requirements of the role and gathers details on the candidate’s motivations — what it would take for that candidate to make a move to a new company,” said Ms. Bradford. “The search team reviews the list of qualified, interested prospects to determine whether more research is necessary or whether it is time to schedule in-depth interviews.”

Writing Candidate Profile & Interviewing Prospects

The search consultant interviews and evaluates top prospective candidates in a deep-dive interview that steps through the career history. “The executive search partner evaluates the candidate against the candidate specification through in-depth, in-person or video-conference interviews,” Ms. Bradford said. “Taking great care not to jeopardize candidate confidentiality, search firms pre-reference candidates whenever possible to verify past performance and essential soft skills. Those who are not a fit are closed out.”

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

“For those candidates the search firm presents to the client, they prepare a written candidate profile, a report that details the candidate’s education, career history, honors and awards as well as an analysis and appraisal of the candidate strengths and weaknesses and appropriateness for the position,” she said. “The report also highlights any key motivators, issues, and deal-making details essential to closing the candidate.”

Presenting Candidates & Scheduling Client Interviews

The search firm presents candidates at regular progress meetings. “Working closely with the client, the list is refined to a slate of three to six strong contenders for the client to meet,” Ms. Bradford said. “Client-candidate meetings are then scheduled. Client interviews of the candidates scheduled to winnow selection down the two or three finalists. Those that are eliminated are closed out.”

When to Turn to an Executive Search Firm
Employers typically use an executive search firm when a top job opening is important enough, senior enough and when discretion is at a premium. There are times when your gut simply says that a C-level executive opening will be tough to fill. Sometimes a start-up has hit the hockey-stick inflection point in its growth and needs more experienced leadership to scale. All of those are good reasons to turn to a trusted retained executive search firm. But how do you know if you’re really ready? Read on.

Checking References

The search team checks the candidate’s references, contacting the contacts provided by the candidate as well as other sources available to the firm. “The team makes every effort to ensure discretion and confidentiality,” said Ms. Bradford. “Verification of employment and academic credentials is often performed by third-party services. It is the consultant’s responsibility to ensure that such checks have been conducted.”

Extending the Offer & Closing the Search

When a final candidate is selected, the search consultant works closely with the client and candidate to position the offer with the candidate, and to negotiate a package that is agreeable to both parties. “The search team closes the candidate when the executive accepts the offer, agreeing to join the company,” Ms. Bradford said. “The search firm then closes out the engagement by thanking those involved for a successful outcome.”

Related: How Recruiters ‘Close the Deal’ With Job Candidates

The retained executive search process deserves an upgrade, The Good Search suggested. Given the many steps involved in the retained search process, the recruitment of CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, CTOs, and CIOs requires an investment of time to do it well.

However, some feel that senior-level executive search process can be a time consuming if it is to be performed properly. “That is a point with which we respectfully disagree,” Ms. Bradford said. “Tick tock. What executive search buyers object to is an executive search that takes too long for no apparent reason.”

“As a national retained search firm that specializes in technology executive search for some of the most powerful and successful companies, we understand that their businesses move at the speed of light,” said Ms. Bradford. “We get deadlines. The executive recruiting process does not need to move at a snail’s pace. Over the years, we have innovated ways to close searches more rapidly for searches in artificial intelligence, cloud, data science, E-commerce, internet of things (IoT and IIoT), machine learning and software. With few exceptions, making search smarter yields faster and better hires,” she said.

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

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