What are the Steps of the Executive Search Process?
Last updated Apr 1, 2021
by Krista Bradford

Understanding the Executive Search Process

The executive search process varies little between different retained executive search firms. In fact, the basic steps of the retained search process are described by the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), an organization that represents retained search firms. For every senior-level executive search, recruiters seated at the largest search firms in the world — Spencer Stuart, Russell Reynolds, Heidrick & Struggles, or Korn Ferry — as well as at the leading boutique executive search firms follow the same basic retained search process.

Of course, since the retained search process and the pricing look pretty much the same at most traditional search firms, it can be challenging for executive search buyers to figure out which firm to select. We have more on search firm selection in another post. However, before we get into the nuances, you first must learn the basic steps of the retained search process.

Step 1: Engaging the Retained Firm

Retained executives search firms work by retainer and by exclusive contract. The standard retained search contract stipulates that the firm serves as the exclusive representative of the search for external and internal candidates. It also defines engagement timing, off-limits agreements, and other issues relevant to the particular assignment.

Step 2: Holding Launch Meetings

The retained search firm meets with the hiring executive and relevant stakeholders to discuss the requirements for the role. The meetings often include board members, members of the senior executive team, peers, and subordinates. These meetings enable the search firm to gather important information about the requirements of the role. More importantly, the search partner witnesses first hand the management style and corporate culture, which are essential to understanding what makes someone successful at the company.

Step 3: Creating Position and Candidate Specification

The retained search firm drafts a description of the position, detailing its reporting relationships, responsibilities, and objectives. The candidate specification details core competencies, preferred experience, and soft skills — the personal qualities that sought in the ideal candidate. The document serves as a touchstone, defining all the requirements of the role and preventing searches from veering off course. Once the client approves the document, it is also used as a marketing tool with candidates.

Step 4: Setting Research Strategy

The search team develops a strategy of targeting companies most likely to yield a successful candidate, including the initial list of target companies. The strategy considers the level and scope of comparable roles as well as other key data points: office location, corporate culture, and each company’s ranking. Companies that are off-limits are also delineated — companies out of which the firm will not recruit due to sensitive client relationships or because the firm has client blockage.

business man and woman corporate maze

Step 5: Conducting Original Research

Using the strategy as a blueprint, the search team conducts original research to identify and profile idea candidates, mapping the reporting relationships and often building out org charts of target teams. Traditional search firms usually do most of the research online. The search firm will also query its own candidate database, proprietary information services, and social networks such as LinkedIn to yield prospective candidates.

Step 6: Querying Sources

Search firms sound their network of sources for candidate referrals and calibrations. Sources include journalists, professional associations, and other relevant groups. Prospects that meet the requirements of the role are added to the initial list of prospects.

Step 7: Qualifying Prospects

The search team contacts prospective candidates to determine whether they meet the primary requirements of the role and gathers details on the candidate’s motivations — what it would take for that candidate to make a move to a new company. The search team reviews the list of qualified, interested prospects to determine whether more research is necessary or it is time to schedule in-depth interviews.

Step 8: Interviewing and Pre-referencing Top Prospects

The search consultant interviews and evaluates top prospective candidates in a deep-dive interview that steps through the candidate’s career history. The executive search partner evaluates the candidate against the candidate specification through in-depth, in-person or video-conference interviews. Taking great care not to jeopardize candidate confidentiality, search firms pre-reference candidates whenever possible to verify past performance and essential soft skills. Those who are not a fit are closed out.

Step 9: Writing Candidate Profile

For those candidates the search firm presents to the client, they prepare a written Candidate Profile. A Candidate Profile is a report that details the candidate’s education, career history, honors, and awards. The report also serves as an analysis and appraisal of the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and appropriateness for the position. Additionally, this is where the recruiter will highlight any key motivators, issues, and deal-making details essential to closing the candidate.

Step 10: Presenting Candidates and Tracking Progress

The search firm presents candidates at regular progress meetings. Working closely with the client, the list is refined to a slate of 3 to 6 strong contenders for the client to meet. Client-candidate meetings are then scheduled.

Step 11: Scheduling Client Interviews

Client interviews of the candidates scheduled to winnow selection down the two or three finalists.  Those that are eliminated are closed out.

Step 12: Checking References

The search team checks the candidate’s references, contacting the contacts provided by the candidate as well as other sources available to the firm. The team makes every effort to ensure discretion and confidentiality. Verification of employment and academic credentials is often performed by third-party services.  It is the consultant’s responsibility to ensure that such checks have been conducted.

Step 13: Extending the Offer

When a final candidate is selected, the search consultant works closely with the client and candidate to position the offer with the candidate, and to negotiate a package that is agreeable to both parties.

Step 14: Closing the Candidate and Search

The search ends when the executive accepts the offer, agreeing to join the company. The search firm then closes out the engagement by thanking those involved for a successful outcome. Often, search firms will continue to stay in touch to ensure the executive has a smooth transition into their new role.


Updating the Executive Search Process

The retained executive search process deserves an upgrade.

Given the many steps involved in the retained search process, the recruitment of CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, CTOs, and CIOs requires an investment of time to be done well. However, the AESC states categorically that senior-level executive search is “a time consuming if it is to be done professionally. “

That is a point with which we respectfully disagree.


Executive Search Process Time Consuming Process

Tick tock.

One of the things that executive search buyers object to the most is the executive search process timeline. Far too often, traditional retained executive searches take too long.

As a national retained search firm that specializes in technology executive search for some of the most powerful and successful companies in the world, we understand that their businesses move at the speed of light. We understand the importance of deadlines. And we know that the executive search process timeline does not need to move at a snail’s pace.

Over the years, we have innovated ways to improve the executive search process timeline and close searches more rapidly in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Cloud, Data Science, E-commerce, Internet of Things (IoT and IIoT), Machine Learning (ML), and Software.

With few exceptions, making search smarter not only speeds executive search process timeline but also yields better hires.

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