Recruiting executive talent is not easy. If you do it on your
own, it takes your valuable time to call your contacts, conduct
the search, screen candidates, and make the right decision. If
you utilize a search firm, it takes vigilance to hire the right
firm, monitor its performance and make sure you get your money's
If you know what to look for in a search firm, you can save time
and avoid mistakes. Here are some questions to ask your search
firm before you hand over this important task:
Who will conduct the search? Ask the consultant making the initial
client presentation to explain the roles and responsibilities
of junior staff members. Too often, a senior partner will make
the pitch but then delegate the assignment to a junior staff member
who learns your business (or the business of search) at your expense.
You may not realize what is happening until a crisis develops
and the junior staff member's lack of experience causes a problem
or results in no acceptable candidates. Make sure you know who's
taking the lead and who will ride "shotgun." Ask the
partner how many individuals he or she screens in order to come
up with the final list.
How many other searches is the recruiter currently conducting?
The consultant should be candid about the number of other searches
in progress. More than one organization has hired an experienced
and well-known consultant only to learn that he or she is simultaneously
involved in a dozen or more searches. Executives and board members
know from experience that the ability to attract top management
talent is directly related to the person who manages and executes
How do you conduct reference checks? A consultant should express
willingness to ask tough questions of references and not be intimidated
by the legal climate developing around this area. A thorough search
should go beyond the list of sources provided by candidates and
include tactful contact with candidates' superiors, colleagues
and subordinates in both the current position and in past positions.
Will you get transcripts of these conversations, summaries or
paraphrased reports, or simply "I checked references and
they were terrific."
The search firm also should provide each reference
with an accurate description of your organization so the individual
providing the reference can realistically evaluate the candidates'
appropriateness for your position. This should include the culture
and personalities of the team as well as the job description.
The reference's description of the candidate's past performance
should go beyond the superficial to identify genuine weaknesses
and traits of personality and character.
How do you evaluate our requirements? A good consultant will ask
both "What kind of person do you want?" and "What
does your organization really need, both now and in the years
ahead?" This probing should challenge your organizational
assumptions, tradition, culture, and long-standing structures.
In the process, the consultant's questions should help you look
at your needs with a fresh perspective. He or she should help
you to clarify your expectations, develop profiles of potential
candidates, and even help you modify your organizational structure
and reporting relationships to create the best fit for the long
How do you act as an arbitrator or mediator? In addition to acting
as your agent to recruit candidates, the consultant should work
to bring candidates' concerns and reservations back to you. If
candidates have second thoughts about the opportunity, or have
special requirements for compensation, title, or reporting relationships,
the search consultant should act as a mediator and try to meet
the needs of both the client and the candidate.
Have you recruited for this type of position before? Your friend
or former colleague may have gone on to become an executive search
consultant, but the skills and abilities that make an executive
successful in one industry or function doesn't always translate
into success in the search field. In the same way, a search firm's
track record of success in conducting searches for one function
or industry doesn't always guarantee success in finding executives
for another. Review the credentials of several search firms, not
just one that is recommended by a cohort. Base your review on
predetermined criteria, including the number of searches executed
within a specific field or within a comparable market.
How do you calculate your fees and how do you track expenses?
While the fees quoted by some executive search consultants may
seem exorbitant, resist the temptation to seek out the lowest
bidder. The stakes of finding a qualified executive who can address
your organization's needs are too high to waste time negotiating
bargains or waging a price war among competing search firms.
executive search firms have charged a percentage of the executive's
first-year compensation, usually one-third. For example, if an
executive is paid $200,000 in total compensation, the total fee
will be $66,000. Some search firms will charge a fixed dollar
amount that's roughly equivalent to the fixed percentage. In this
way, even if an executive is hired at a salary greater than what
was originally estimated, the organization pays no more than the
fixed fee. Will the fee include an estimate of bonus to be earned?
Signing bonus? Stock options? Benefits? You don't want any surprises
once the new executive has been hired.
Also critical is the issue of expenses, which typically include
travel for the search consultant and candidates, lodging, meals,
phone calls and expenses such as printing. While these expenses
vary with the location of candidates and the difficulty of the
search, hiring organizations should ask search consultants to
estimate the type and extent of expenses before an agreement is
signed. While the majority of search firms are reputable, some
firms have been known to charge clients for office overhead and
secretarial support under the category of research.
What is your guarantee? Most search firms will provide a replacement
guarantee in the case that the hired individual does not work
out for some reason. One year is a typical guarantee period. However,
it is difficult to get most firms to concentrate on a replacement
search when there is no longer a financial incentive. Ask for
references from the search firm from companies which required
a replacement search, and find out whether they felt well taken
care of, or had to badger the search firm to get the replacement
Recruiting and retaining a top quality executive is one of the
most important decisions you can make. Choose a search firm that
operates with a style, approach and sense of values that complement
and reflect your own organization.
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