October 8, 2021 – As individuals reach the rarefied heights of the executive tier, more than their title changes. The way executives are hired at this level differs from non-executive roles. According to a new report by AboveBoard, even the language of hiring shifts. Instead of being “recruited,” for example, executives are “placed” by an “executive search professional.” Most importantly, job postings for executive openings are rarely publicly posted; most are shared exclusively through retained executive search. If you are unfamiliar with this industry, or unaware of how it works, you most likely are going to be unaware of the senior roles these firms are hired to fill. “Even experienced executives who have worked with executive search firms are surprised when they learn how it really works,” said AboveBoard.
“We knew when we founded AboveBoard that executive opportunities were hidden,” said Lucinda Duncalfe, founder and CEO of AboveBoard. “But we have learned that the process of executive placement is inaccessible as well. We created this guide to clearly explain how executives are really hired and help bridge the gap between you and your next opportunity.”
Hunt Scanlon’s 2021 Select Guide to
America’s Leading Executive Recruiters
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Recruiters invest their entire careers focused on helping their clients identify, attract, and hire the most qualified individuals for their unique organizational needs. Given the importance of having the right talent in place, one’s choice of talent partner is now more important than ever.
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In this inaugural guide to leading executive search firms across the nation, we give you a starting point to begin your next important search. Hunt Scanlon also talks with industry veterans to gain the latest insights on what you should be looking for as you bring in your next executive search firm!
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Many executive job opportunities involve the replacement of executives leaving the company. At a start-up or growth-stage company, however, positions are often newly created after growing to a certain size or receiving significant funding. “Once a company decides to hire a new executive, the first place to look is typically inside the organization,” said the AboveBoard report. “Larger companies likely have a succession plan in place for executive roles. Occasionally, roles are opened to the public to ensure the internal candidate is fully vetted, not to actually hire externally—virtually diminishing any opportunity for you as an external hire. If there is no succession plan or internal candidates, then the external hiring process begins.”
It’s All About Networks
AboveBoard says there are only two standard ways to fill an executive or board role: do it yourself or use an executive search firm. “Both of these methods rely on networks, either the company’s connections or the search firm’s, and are inherently exclusionary,” the firm said. “If you aren’t already connected to the company or firm, the opportunity is not accessible. Moreover, women, black, Latinx/Hispanic, and other minority groups are historically underrepresented in search firms, on boards and on executive teams. These processes perpetuate a cycle of underrepresentation in the executive ranks. Companies are limiting their reach and executives are denied opportunities.”
Hiring from within a company’s internal network is fast, relatively low-risk and low-cost, according to the AboveBoard report. But this method can come at the expense of performance, profitability and innovation if the network lacks diversity. “Retained executive search retained executive search firms are more costly and are often the go-to option for external searches by corporations and growth companies,” the report said. “To understand how executive roles are placed, it’s important to understand the primary players and the processes behind this method.”
Ins and Outs of the Executive Hiring Process
The process typically begins with selecting the search firm. Companies will meet with multiple firms to decide which is best suited for their specific search. Once one is selected, there are introductory conversations to discuss qualifications and expectations of the ideal candidates. AboveBoard offers seven common stages of the executive hiring process (Note: Process and pacing often vary based on the stage and size of the organization):
1. Long Lists. The firm spends the first week or two of a search creating a “long list” of 100-plus candidates. The search team sifts through existing professional networks, internal contact databases from prior candidates and online platforms such as LinkedIn. The team will continue to identify candidates throughout the search process, always maintaining alternatives in the pipeline.
2. Initial Outreach. Next, the team reaches out via phone, LinkedIn and email. It is recommended to executives that if they are contacted about an opportunity that is not of interest, they should still reply. This ensures placement in the recruiter’s network for future opportunities.
3. Phone Screens. In these brief calls, candidates describe their recent career experience, compensation expectations and level of interest in the role. Executive recruiters conduct 20 to 50 phone screens during the initial phase of a search; expect to wait one to two weeks, depending on when you’ve been engaged. This phase is ongoing, as candidates are continually added to the pipeline until a candidate is hired.
4. Initial Interviews. On average, 25 percent to 50 percent of screens result in formal interviews. Typically, a search firm will interview 10 to 15 executives and recommend five to 10 to meet directly with the hiring company. This stage can be confusing for candidates; they may be recommended to move forward but may also be put into a holding pattern while the candidate slate develops.
5. Short Lists. Candidates who complete the interview process successfully make it to the “short list” and interview directly with the hiring company. These are serious contenders. Typically, a search firm provides a short list of qualified candidates while keeping a few others as alternate options. This stage of a search can last weeks or even months.
6. Company Interviews. Every company has its own approach to this crucial process, which may include multiple interviews with the hiring manager, CEO and the board; dinners or social events; and other assessments.
7. Offers. When a company is ready to make an offer, they consult with the recruiter to ensure that their offer is aligned with the candidate’s expectations. Once an offer is finalized, the executive recruiter shares the compensation package directly with the candidate and remains the intermediary throughout all discussions and potential negotiation.
Why You’re Missing Out on Opportunities
While executive hiring is exclusionary, it is often unintentional. AboveBoard offers some reasons why executives often miss out on opportunities:
“We humans tend to know people who are like us, particularly in terms of race and ethnicity,” the search firm said. “Most incumbent executives are white men (radically overrepresented) who know other white men. When tapping their own networks for executive searches they often turn to who they know, unintentionally leaving out underrepresented groups. It is also important to note that, in today’s climate there is often more demand than supply of quality candidates—especially those from underrepresented groups. Qualified, underrepresented candidates can be off the market in days. So, it’s equally as important for companies to have a broader reach to executives as it is for executives to have more transparent access to opportunities.”
What Limits Your Access to Opportunities
Disconnected networks executive recruiters rely on their existing networks and industry knowledge to source candidates, according to the AboveBoard report. Candidates who are not well-publicized or who do not have a robust online presence are virtually undetectable. “Recruiter allegiance executive recruiters work for their clients, not for executive candidates,” the firm said. “There’s not much they can do for executives who are actively searching for new roles. In addition, opacity recruiters prioritize the needs of the hiring company. Very often, serving the client means keeping candidates in the dark. They may be put in a holding pattern for weeks or months, or may never hear back from a recruiter, even after more advanced stages of interviewing.”
“Executives commonly ask about how to contact recruiters and search firms,” said Courtney Sloan, client services manager at AboveBoard. “Given that the industry is client-centric, recruiters are rarely open to candidates who reach out proactively because they are laser-focused on their specific client criteria and strategy. That said, executives are most likely to be successful if they reach out to recruiters with whom they have a trusted relationship to let them know they are actively in the market,” she said. “Blind outreach to recruiters are unlikely to yield results because there is no real incentive to assist you. This is one of the many reasons why AboveBoard is so important—we shift the power dynamics so you no longer have to wait to be contacted. We put executives in the driver’s seat.”
Launched to Provide a More Inclusive Pool of Candidates
Last October, True Search along with Ms. Duncalfe launched AboveBoard with the goal of making executive search more accessible, efficient and equitable for its members and the companies who seek them. The diversity-focused start-up says it will bring an innovative, transparent solution to the need to bring more women and executives of color to leadership roles. “For years companies have pledged to increase diversity in their executive ranks and on their boards and have struggled to make any true progress,” said Ms. Duncalfe. “Companies cannot continue to use the same hiring methods and expect a different outcome.”
Haddonfield, NJ-based executive recruitment firm True Search has launched a new executive hiring platform, AboveBoard. True co-founded AboveBoard with the goal of making executive search more accessible, efficient and equitable for its members and the companies who seek them. The diversity-focused start-up says it will bring an innovative, transparent solution to the need to bring more women and executives of color to leadership roles.
“AboveBoard opens up the recruiting process and rebalances the power between candidates and hiring firms, to drive better results for executives and employers,” Ms. Duncalfe said. “Executives should get hired based on what they know, not who they know. AboveBoard makes this possible.”
“In many ways, True Search and AboveBoard are complementary businesses that each offer creative executive talent solutions,” said Joe Riggione, True co-CEO and AboveBoard board director. “AboveBoard co-founder and CEO Lucinda Duncalfe is doing an incredible job leading the business and positioning it to make a significant impact on executives’ careers and companies’ talent strategies, most importantly around diversity.”
“The executive search industry as a whole has failed to consistently deliver diverse executive talent pools to hiring companies,” said True Co-CEO Brad Stadler. “AboveBoard corrects this issue by providing inclusive candidate slates and empowering those executives to see all available opportunities. AboveBoard’s powerful sourcing solutions can complement traditional retained executive search by helping companies hire more under-represented leaders, and ultimately improve business outcomes.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media