How to Partner With an Executive Search Firm

Given the investment of time and resources, enlisting an executive search firm is not a decision to take lightly. What is the proper way to partner with an executive search firm? A just released report from SPMB’s Mike Doonan offers four principles that are foundational in constructing a successful partnership with a search firm.

June 17, 2024 – In today’s dynamic talent market, aligning with the right executive search firm can be the difference between merely filling a position and truly transforming your leadership landscape. However, the efficacy of this partnership hinges not only on the capabilities of the search firm but also on the behaviors and actions of the clients themselves, according to a new report from SPMB Executive Search’s Mike Doonan. As a managing partner at SPMB, one of the longest-tenured search firms serving the technology ecosystem, Mr. Doonan witnessed first-hand over 20 years how a client’s approach can make or break the success of these critical projects.

Below, Mr. Doonan offers four principles that are foundational in constructing a successful partnership with an executive search firm.

1. Communication: The Cornerstone of Success.

At the heart of every fruitful partnership lies effective communication, according to Mr. Doonan. “From articulating desired business outcomes to providing candid, constructive feedback on candidates, transparency and responsiveness pave the way for a successful search process,” he said. “On the other hand, delayed or overly filtered feedback can hinder progress. To ensure an efficient search process, clients must prioritize open channels of communication, enabling timely decision-making and alignment within the search team.”

Mr. Doonan says that establishing standing status calls, held once a week, is central to driving open communication. These calls provide a structured forum for updates, collaboration, debate, and feedback. “They also serve as a touchpoint for clients and the search firm to align on progress, address any challenges, and refine search strategies,” he said.

“However, the most effective search projects do not rigidly adhere to these calls as the only opportunity to share information,” Mr. Doonan said. “While status calls offer a foundation for ongoing dialogue, urgent matters must be communicated directly, encouraging swift action from both sides. Striking a balance between regular check-ins and more fluid communication channels helps develop a culture of thoughtfulness and urgency, enabling the client and search firm to navigate the search process with dexterity.”

2. Strategy and Execution: Finding the Right Balance.

Successful executive search projects require a delicate balance between strategy and execution. While having clear profile criteria is important, clients who maintain an open-minded approach, with room for flexibility, tend to have a better outcome, Mr. Doonan explained. “This way you can maintain a focused strategy, but also listen to the signals coming from the market which may guide you 10 percent to the right or to the left,” he said. “Aligning expectations from the outset enables both parties to navigate the search process collaboratively. Building an environment where feedback is welcomed and encouraged promotes a partnership grounded in mutual respect and shared goals.”

Mike Doonan leads SPMB’s digital transformation and data practices and has executed over 400 C-level and VP searches across all market verticals. He enables innovative pure-play technology companies such as Google/Cloud and Amazon/AWS to achieve scale by recruiting senior leaders that have been through large, complex growth scenarios. Mr. Doonan also works closely with large incumbents such as Disney, AT&T, Comcast, Capital One, and Under Armour to evolve their technology, IT, product, data, security, and digital capabilities.

Mr. Doonan says that by leveraging industry expertise and networks, search firms continuously gather insights on emerging trends, competitor movements, and talent dynamics. The executive search firm you partner with should be sharing market insights on an ongoing basis, equipping you with an understanding of the ever-changing landscape so you can make informed decisions.

3. Empathy and Engagement: Elevating the Candidate Experience

“A positive candidate experience is crucial to attracting top talent,” Mr. Doonan. “Clients play a critical role in shaping this experience by treating each candidate with professionalism and engagement. Timely feedback, personalized communication, and respect for candidates’ time are key components of a positive candidate experience. Candidates are not merely passive participants but active evaluators of the client company’s business, culture and values. Just as the client assesses candidates for fit, candidates evaluate the organization as a potential employer. Treating candidates with respect and care both aligns with ethical standards and safeguards the company’s reputation in the talent market.”

Related: Why Selecting a Search Firm is ‘Mission Critical’ During Challenging Times

This also directly influences a company’s ability to attract a more diverse pool of candidates. As Velosio CHRO Liz Corey stated in a recent Forbes article: “Candidates from diverse backgrounds are more likely to apply to organizations that have a reputation for being inclusive and respectful.” Mr. Doonan notes that you could be missing out on a large and more diverse cohort of qualified candidates if your company doesn’t actively prioritize a positive candidate experience.

4. Speed and Commitment: Accelerating the Search Process.

In today’s talent landscape, speed is key. Clients must balance a sense of urgency while maintaining a commitment to quality, according to Mr. Doonan. “You should assume every candidate you are interviewing is also engaging with several other companies, so prioritizing and communicating a clear search process with specific timelines, feedback, and active engagement with both interviewers and candidates is critical,” he said. One step to maximize the efficiency of the interview process is to block off times on interviewers’ calendars weeks ahead of time. For example, CEOs will often have their calendar booked weeks in advance. It can be easier to block a few future times at the beginning of a search, and give those times back if it’s not needed rather than scrambling to adjust calendars throughout a search.”

After all, some of the biggest tech companies are championing CEO involvement in important hires. Mark Zuckerberg has been known to personally write to candidates about critical roles, and if he has time to send personal notes to recruit, so do you.

“Beyond the expertise and industry insights SPMB brings to client engagements, we also serve as advisors in navigating the complexities of the talent acquisition landscape,” Mr. Doonan said. “By leveraging our extensive networks, developed over decades, our proprietary first party data assets, and continually developed and updated market research, clients gain access to a diverse pool of high-caliber candidates across industries and functions. Additionally, the collaborative nature of our partnerships fosters an environment of innovation and continuous improvement, where we work hand-in-hand with clients to refine search strategies and optimize outcomes.”

Related: 12 Reasons Why Companies Hire Executive Search Firms

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief and Dale M. Zupsansky, Executive Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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