What to Really Consider When Hiring a Search Firm

Mitch Oakley, founder and CEO of search firm Charles Aris, has developed some helpful questions to ask when your organization is considering bringing in the firepower of an executive recruitment firm. Let’s take a closer look at his advice and then have other top recruiters weigh in. It’s another Hunt Scanlon exclusive!
Hiring Search Firm

May 17, 2018 – 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.

Various studies have underscored the true cost of a bad hire. “So it’s hardly surprising when any given company’s seemingly simple decision to hire the right talent for mission-critical roles influences and drives that organization’s ensuing success,” said Mr. Oakley. “And in the vast majority of searches conducted by retained search firms, both the quality and leadership of the firm significantly influence the quality of talent the client organization interviews and ultimately has the option to hire.”

Yet it’s more complicated than that. “While the best search firms have tested and proven recruitment systems and processes in place, the individual search professional who works directly with the client – and the ability of that professional to effectively utilize her firm’s talent identification/selection/attraction systems and processes – will truly determine the success of each search,” he said.

Mr. Oakley said that if given the responsibility of selecting a search firm on behalf of an organization, he would first seek answers to the following questions:

  • What are the search firm’s recruitment systems and processes?
  • Will I deal directly with an experienced search professional?
  • Am I personally comfortable working with this search professional? Am I comfortable with this person’s knowledge and communication style? Is this a person whom I would look forward to speaking with frequently? Does the search professional create legitimacy and demonstrate competence and confidence in his/her ability to deliver? Can he/she effectively describe the search firm’s systems and processes?
  • Does the search firm have a successful track record of working with organizations like mine?
  • What sets it apart from other search firms? Ultimately, why should I retain this firm when there are so many other options?

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Over the course of his career, Mr. Oakley has recruited in many industries, with a functional focus on C-suite leaders such as CEOs, COOs and CFOs. Charles Aris is focused on senior-level assignments within the strategy & business development, private equity, consumer/ retail, finance & accounting, sales & marketing, education, executive leadership, engineering & operations, chemicals and agribusiness sectors.

Mr. Oakley said that answers to these additional questions will provide insight and could help considerably in a company’s selection process:

  • How long does the recruiting firm’s typical search take? How does the search firm find talent? What does its team actually do?
  • How many candidates will I need to interview before I can make a hiring decision?
  • Who will perform the heavy lifting on my search project? Will it be the search professional who secures the search or someone else who is then assigned to the project?
  • How many similar searches has the search firm completed? If it hasn’t done many, how will its team find talent in a marketplace where it has limited experience? At which levels does the search firm normally recruit? Does the search firm’s team have capacity for this search?
  • Does the search firm interview candidates face to face? Or via application software? If neither, how does the search firm accurately assess candidates’ skill sets?
  • What are the search firm’s fees? Where is the value? How does the search firm find talent in distant locations?
  • Does the search firm conduct reference checks? How do the firm’s team members get people to give them a reference when so many companies prohibit such calls?

Other Top Recruiters Weigh In

Here is what a selection of some of the best recruiters across the nation believe to be the top issues to consider when hiring an executive search firm:

Fred LoewenFred Loewen, chief operating officer of Waterford Global Inc., said there are numerous issues to think about. “But the key criteria I would focus on would include: 1) the strategic value the search firm would be bringing to the organization, and 2) the search firm’s track record of consistently recruiting candidates who generate demonstrable business impact and performance.” The manner in which the search firm works towards these key client-centric deliverables is also important, he noted. “I would look for a consultative approach; a genuine interest in the client organization and its ecosystems; and the search firm’s ability to act as a confidential sounding board for a wide range of matters related to business strategy and talent.”

A search firm that is able to add strategic value across a broad range of talent challenges, said Mr. Loewen, helps to build a long-term, trusted advisor relationship and helps accelerate a candidate’s contribution to organizational success. “This is also how the search firm demonstrates its ability to connect with and relate to the client’s agenda of critical priorities,” he said. “A search firm that is able to conduct a search for talent while also remaining focused on the client’s most important goals is a search firm that adds value, is strategic to the business and impactful to its growth, and helps the organization to remain current and relevant.”

Robert CrowderRobert Crowder, managing director at Chapman Farrell Group, said that clearly many criteria need consideration when selecting a search partner. “But if you are looking for uncommon insight, I would prioritize evaluating alignment of purpose and values,” he said. “When you consider the hundreds of micro-decisions and candidate touches search firms make on your behalf, a lack of harmony in purpose and values translates into dissonance regarding the ends and the means.”

It is, he added, “quite possible to desire the same outcome (a hire) for very different reasons. That is why alignment between a company’s values and the search firm’s values bring harmony to finding alignment between a company’s needs and a candidate’s needs.” In the end, he said, “It is not a transaction, it is about establishing an enduring relationship; it is about putting the right people in the right seats for the right reasons and standing behind that with an uncommon guarantee.”

David ChanDavid Chan, head of the executive search business and Greater China CEO at Bo Le Associates, said that his primary market, China, is so variable. “We have a saying that, ‘If you are away from Beijing/Shanghai for a day, you will lose the game of a project.’ The market is very fast and dynamic here, therefore speed is paramount,” he said. “Speed, speed, speed are the three most important factors in determining the desirability of a search firm in China.”

Select the Right Search Firm
Discover why CHROs and talent acquisition leaders turn to Hunt Scanlon’s Industry Media Center for the latest news and updates on executive search firms around the globe. If you’re a CHRO or talent acquisition leader, come search our complete digital guide to all the top recruiters. If you’re a search firm, join today.

Scott WhipkeyScott Whipkey, CEO of Ascend Executive Search, said if he were selecting a search firm, “I’d look for a team that is deeply passionate about its craft – one that truly loves finding that elusive candidate for a key role in an organization. They measure success by helping companies grow and building winning teams. You can hear it in their voice and see it in their eyes because it’s in their blood.”

And, he said he’d steer clear of ‘agencies’ that utilize job boards and postings. “A true executive search firm uses ‘outbound’ recruiting to engage ‘passive’ candidates,” he said. “I’d also look for someone with experience in the business world. The best recruiters I’ve known have a keen sense of how organizations work. They’re also master communicators, with a strong command of the English language. They feel like an ambassador for your company, and often work crazy hours because their biggest passion is to help their clients succeed.”

Bill VlaadBill Vlaad, who heads up Vlaad and Company, said the most critical criteria in completing a successful search is understanding the organization’s culture. “It might sound wishy-washy but cultural ‘misfits’ are the No.1 pitfall impeding good deals,” he said. “Look for an executive search firm with whom you will be comfortable showing all your layers to. That requires trust – but with that trust you will get much better candidates and greater retention of employees.”

Marian CarringtonMarian Carrington, a principal with search firm Carrington and Carrington, said that when hiring an executive search firm, “it is important to consider several key characteristics for the prospective firms. The seven characteristics are: 1) Commitment to diversity & inclusion in the candidate pool; 2) Competency and demonstrated successful experience in a national search environment; 3) Credibility in the executive search space with the ability to provide references from past clients; 4) Collaboration and communication in working with clients to fully understand their business and needs; 5) Client/candidate orientation and focus throughout the search process; 6) Confidentiality of all client proprietary information; and 7) Comprehensive search methodology and articulated timelines.

13 Rules for Getting the Most Out of Your Executive Search Firm
In many organizations, recruitment for top echelon positions is time-consuming, expensive and often even contentious when decision-makers aren’t on the same page. For most businesses, retained search firms offer the best answer to filling senior-level positions.

Tory ClarkeTory Clarke, partner and co-founder of Bridge Partners, said that having worked in a major global search firm prior to co-founding a boutique, “I believe one of the most important criteria in search firm selection is partner-level engagement at all times and in all aspects of the search.”

Too often, she noted, partners will pitch for a search and then hand it to other team members to execute once their firm has been engaged. “We strongly believe that the person who is pitching should be intrinsically involved in contacting the candidates and promoting the opportunity from the outset, as well as in assessing talent.”

In addition to a high-level of client satisfaction in the end-result, said Ms. Clarke, “this approach ensures increased client-search firm trust, and an opportunity to communicate nuance more effectively. In fact, to that end, we actually guarantee the involvement of two partners on every search we undertake.”

Patricia LenkovPatricia Lenkov, founder of Agility Executive Search, also said it is very important to understand who at the search firm will actually conduct the search, “as often the senior partner sells and junior analysts and researchers conduct the assignment.” So he suggested asking about how many searches this person will work on at the same time and how long will it take.

“It is very important to understand what happens if the search ends up taking a long time for some reason. Will resources be limited after a while?” It is key to also understand off-limits, she added. “That is, where and whom can the firm not recruit because of existing client relationships. Oftentimes in large firms this can seriously limit the search and companies do not always understand this.”

Lizette IbarraLizette Ibarra, CEO of Bleumind Executive Search, said the impact of their placed candidates, short and long term, is extremely important to know. “Very few search firms take the time to measure the success of their placements, even after the placement guarantee period has expired. Placing could be relatively easy, but placing candidates that fit, stay and deliver, is a different story.”

A search firm that closely tracks these metrics and performs well will be likely to deliver superior results and be vested and committed in the long term, she said. “At the end of the day, companies want strong candidates that stay in place and succeed: plain and simple. How does your prospective firm measure these aspects and what are their results? Take a good dive into these metrics before engaging an executive search firm!”

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

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