Leaders On The Move: Working with an Executive Search Firm

Hiring is complicated, puzzling, and cryptic. Power is concentrated with the employer, even in a candidate’s market. A lot of the career advice for job seekers has good intentions, but it doesn’t usually come directly from hiring managers. That’s why it makes sense for job seekers to partner with professionals who specialize in getting folks hired – recruiters, executive search firms, and employment agencies.

If you’re job searching and looking for high-level leadership roles (think Executive Directors, VPs, and C-Suite roles), it’s often a smart move to work with an executive search firm. But how do you know how to pick the right executive search partner? And what should you expect from working with with an executive search firm versus another recruiting partner?

Executive search firms differ from their recruiting and placement counterparts in a few key ways:

1. Companies use executive search firms to fill key leadership positions with specific traits in mind.

Hiring organizations partner with executive search firms to find great leaders. If you’re thinking: “Great! I’m looking for a new leadership role right now.” Not so fast. Let’s talk about what most companies are looking for specifically.

Most companies hire executive search firms because they want a custom-sourced pool of candidates. Usually they want candidates who are: familiar with their industry, experienced at companies of similar size and pace of growth, and ideally coming from jobs with known competitors. 

For example: you’re an incredible VP of Finance. You reach out to an executive search firm and connect with a recruiter who is looking to fill a VP of Finance role. However, your background is in large, multinational organizations, where you lead a global team in a specific vertical, and the role they are working to fill is with a growing start-up in a totally different industry. 

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“No problem!,” you say. “I’ve got great experience and transferable skills!”

Unfortunately, the search firm’s client typically won’t see your background in that context. They are retaining the executive search firm for upwards of 33% of the candidate’s annual compensation. Listening to their client is paramount and guides the criteria and flexibilities. In many cases, they want to see candidates who fit a very narrow slate of criteria. Companies using an executive search firm are relying on the firm’s ability to find and connect them with talent they could not attract on their own, and they expect to see the selected pool who match every criteria, including both hard and soft skills.

So, unless you are lucky enough to connect with the right executive search partner on a day when they have a search that aligns perfectly with your background and experience, an executive search firm is likely not a great resource when you first connect. It’s usually a relationship that flourishes over time, so it’s almost always a better experience for someone who’s open to a new role but not on a deadline to land a new job.

Job seekers who develop long-term relationships with executive search firms will likely have true partners in their search. While you might not receive an immediate payoff from the relationship, executive search partners have deep industry insights, valuable connections, and existing relationships in mind for their searches. If you take the time to connect, without expecting immediate payoff, these can be valuable relationships for the future.

2. The executive search process is more in-depth and long-term than many other forms of recruiting. 

As you might expect, a company’s key leadership role typically isn’t a quick and easy hire. There are many considerations and stakeholders to work with to ensure that a critical position is filled by someone with the right experience, character, and skillset. You’ve probably heard about superstars at one company who quickly flamed out in another role, because they didn’t have the right mix of background and leadership style. 

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To ensure their clients’ success, executive search firms often have a defined in-depth, proprietary process. They use tools and assessments that gauge management qualities, strategic thinking, people development, as well as detailed background checks to certify a candidate. If you’ve never been recruited for a role by one of these firms, you might not have experienced the level of commitment and the amount of information the firms glean from working with you. If you’re selected as one of the final candidates, the firm has probably created an entire profile that includes your background, skills, experience, references, and assessments for the client company to review. 

You’ll also go through several rounds of increasingly in-depth interviews, with both the firm and the client, receive in-depth interview preparation and debriefing, work together on total compensation negotiation, and have multiple post-hire check-ins to ensure a successful onboarding. It’s a time-intensive process to ensure it’s a long-term relationship for you and the client company. 

3. Although websites can look similar, every executive search firm is different, so make sure you’re connecting with one that aligns with your professional goals. 

Just like attorneys who work in a specific practice area, doctors in specialty fields, or real estate agents who work in limited locations or on particular property types, every executive search firm has a unique focus and distinct values. Most first work exclusively in specific industries, regions, or in functional areas. This benefits you because they’ll have the knowledge, insight, and connections to best align in your search. 

However, not every executive search firm will be right for you. Make sure you research their recent placements, the roles they currently have open, the clients they work with, and any other information that gives insight into what they can do specifically for you.  

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There are large, international firms who often work with large, international organizations. There are boutique firms that specialize in niche areas – for example, food & beverage, hospitality, or higher education. Many firms also work with clients in limited geographical areas, even if they source candidates from a much larger market. Some will only spend time with you if you are a match to an active search and others like to build their network; it’s up to you to ask.

Every firm has a different reputation. Like all areas of recruiting, there is a relatively low bar to entry. Basically anyone with a computer and a phone can claim they are an executive search professional. However, reputation, a long track record of success, reviews, and awards will shed light on which firms can truly back up their work. 

An executive search partner can be a powerful resource in your search, if their experience aligns well with yours. Hopefully, they can make the hiring process a little less complex and serve as a true partner for you as you search for your next leadership role!