Transitioning a Search to a Recruiting Firm

Bringing in an executive recruitment firm after a search has already been initiated is not uncommon and usually makes good sense. Melissa Fincher, of Witt/ Kieffer, provides answers to some of the key questions that arise with any such shift.

May 1, 2019 – It is fairly common for an organization to undertake a leadership recruitment on its own, and later in the process seek the services of an executive search firm. This can happen for many reasons. It may be that the search committee wants to take a fresh approach, to reach out to a broader segment of candidates or enlist the expertise of experienced search consultants.

“As a former university talent acquisition and organizational development consultant and current executive recruiter, I have experienced this transition from both sides,” Melissa Fincher, a senior associate in Witt/Kieffer’s education practice, said in a new report. “When an outside firm is brought in mid-search, there are important questions that arise among the institution, its leaders and search committee.”

The following are some of those questions, with suggestions from Ms. Fincher for addressing them:

Will the search firm start from scratch or pick up where we left off? “One aspect of hiring a search firm at this point is to assess the successes and challenges of the recruitment so far,” Ms. Fincher said. “Have top candidates shown interest? Are there issues with the compensation, title or reporting structure? Has a preferred candidate dropped out?”

“It may also be that, as an institution is progressing through the search (even at the very end), it has an a ha moment and realizes it needs something different than what it had initially envisioned,” she said. “A good search firm will gauge the status of the current search and build off what has already been done. It will meet with the committee and key stakeholders and determine the best course forward.”

Ms. Fincher said that in some cases, it may be best to start fresh, to re-energize the process and allow the search firm to do what it does best – explore the market for, and solicit interest from, an array of exceptional candidates. “This approach adds credibility to the ultimate outcome, with all constituents appreciating that a comprehensive search was undertaken,” she said. In other cases, especially when the firm has worked previously with a particular institution and understands its culture and needs, the process can pick up mid-course and not skip a beat.

Who should meet first with the search consultants? It is critical that the search consultant(s) meet with the hiring manager, search chair and human resources leader to fully understand the history of the search. “A debriefing should occur after the exploratory meetings for the consulting team to recommend a path forward and to work with the institution to determine what additional resources, if any, will be necessary to successfully execute on the search,” said Ms. Fincher.

With particular expertise in advancement and arts leadership, Melissa Fincher has developed trusting relationships through years of higher education, non-profit and academic medicine collaborations. Her varied experiences in enrollment, advancement, and talent & organizational development make her uniquely qualified to support clients in attracting high-caliber leaders well-suited for today’s dynamic and demanding higher education environment. Immediately prior to joining Witt/Kieffer, she was a talent and organizational development consultant at Ohio State University.

Does the position profile need to be reconsidered? In many cases, yes. “The first consideration should be to assess whether the leadership profile that was developed at the outset of a search is still aligned with the type of person the institution seeks to hire,” Ms. Fincher said. “Sometimes the underlying conditions may have changed since the search was begun (e.g., a tweaking of the core responsibilities, further clarifying of the expectations for leadership or a strategic change in the reporting structure).”

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

In addition, it is important to consider whether the initial profile failed to resonate with the right candidates and needs to be revised – perhaps focused or further fleshed out. “Whatever the reason, a search consultant will help to craft or revise the profile to cover the broad leadership priorities, expectations and qualifications for a successful, highly competitive candidate,” said Ms. Fincher. “The search firm will be skilled at developing marketing messages that are attractive to top-tier candidates while also addressing real challenges in an honest and transparent manner. This will develop a pool of candidates who resonate with the institution’s mission and agenda.”

“Is this everyone?” Can we find more candidates? Yes. Often a search will be transitioned to a firm when the institution feels that the strength of the talent pool was not equal to the challenges and expectations set for the position. “Additional strong candidates are available, especially given that a search firm will have its own database and network of contacts, and can identify leaders who are not looking,” Ms. Fincher said. “These passive candidates require extra stewardship but are often the most compelling.”

Related: 10 Things to Consider When Selecting a Search Firm

The report also asked what concerns candidates will have about a search that has been transferred to a search firm? Mainly, they will want honesty. “It is always best to be transparent with candidates about the circumstances leading to a refreshed or revamped search,” said Ms. Fincher. “It helps to inform their thinking about whether this is the right opportunity to pursue personally and professionally, the qualities and qualifications that are most critical, and what challenges may lie ahead. Most of all, it gives them confidence that the institution values transparency and is a place where they would like to work.”

What additional benefits can the search firm provide? Experienced search consultants understand the environment for a given type of search. The firm will provide ongoing feedback about how the market is positioned, how candidates are responding and whether the strategy needs to be adjusted, said Ms. Fincher. They expertly represent the institution in the marketplace. Search consultants will also guide a search chair, committee and hiring official in executing a complex, multifaceted hiring process from start to finish.

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Ms. Fincher provided a perspective from the type of work she specializes in, the education sector. “Many colleges and universities (even the largest) may not have the resources or expertise to provide that level of specialized support for every necessary search,” she said. “A consulting team has the backing of a dedicated administrative and research team, conducts thorough referencing, will provide a full formal presentation of candidates and will oversee other elements that are essential to a good hire. It will expect to earn its fee and confidently guarantee its placement.”

What is there to know for next time? “So often, searches are disrupted toward the end of the process due to candidate issues that could have been avoided at the very beginning,” Ms. Fincher said. “In any search (whether using a search firm or not), the importance of candid, robust conversations with candidates early on about key issues cannot be overstated.” These issues include: their desired compensation (base salary, bonus structure, benefits, etc.), relocation issues or geographical fit, family needs (dual-relocation career support, dependent schooling, personal resources, etc.) and institutional fit.

“Institutions can and will conduct many of their leadership searches themselves, successfully,” Ms. Fincher said. “In situations in which a search needs a new approach, a search firm can step in to move it forward and support the institution in making a great hire.”

Related: Recruiters Find New Ways to Add Value for Clients

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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