The executive search process varies little from retained executive search firm to retained search firm. 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. Every time they conduct a senior-level executive search, executive 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 retained search process and pricing looks are pretty much the same at every traditional search firm, it can be challenging for executive search buyers to figure out which firm to select. We will have more on discerning the differences in another post. However, before we get into the nuances, you first must learn the basic steps of the retained search process.
Engaging the Retained Firm
Retained executives search firms work by retainer and 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.
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 key 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 important, the search partner witnesses first hand the management style and corporate culture, which are essential to understanding what makes someone successful at the company.
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, preventing searches from veering off course. Once the client approves the document, it is used as a marketing tool with candidates.
Setting Research Strategy
The search team develops a strategy 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.
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.
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.
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 whether it is time to schedule in-depth interviews.
Interviewing and Pre-referencing Top Prospects
The search consultant interviews and evaluates top prospective candidates in a deep-dive interview that steps through the 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.
Writing Candidate Profile
For those candidates the search firm presents to the client, they prepare a written Candidate Profile, a report that details the candidate’s education, career history, honors, and awards as well as an analysis and appraisal of the candidate strengths and weaknesses and appropriateness for the position. The report also highlights any key motivators, issues, and deal-making details essential to closing the candidate.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Closing the Candidate and Search
The search team closes” the candidate 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.
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 do it 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.
What executive search buyers object to is when retained searches take too long for no apparent reason. As a NYC area retained search firm that specializes in senior-level executive search for some of the most powerful and successful companies in media and technology, we understand that their businesses move at the speed of light. We get deadlines. The executive recruiting process does not need to move at a snail’s pace. Over the years, we have experimented with different ways to close searches more rapidly for searches in video games, digital media, software, and advertising. With few exceptions, making search smarter yields faster and better hires.