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’ve written about the Greatest Myths of Search Firm Selection. 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 are retained — they are paid ahead of time to do the work. The payment of that retainer is usually divided into thirds, with the first third due at launch. To ensure quality, retained search firms also insist on an 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 firsthand 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 are 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.
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 if 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 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.
How Long Should Executive Search Take?
One important aspect of the executive search process is how long a search will take. What, exactly, is the timeline? Good firms move with a deadline sensibility. A week in, they should deliver an initial list of candidates. By the second week, they should be presenting interested, qualified candidates. The fastest we closed a search was in 2 weeks — that’s how quickly Amazon moves for competitive advantage. Closing an executive search within 3 months is ideal.
Remember the Paradox of Choice
However, when hiring executive treats a retained search like a dating app — swiping left on candidate after qualified candidate — the search may never end. Scientists have observed that the more choices we humans have, the less satisfied we become. That’s the paradox of choice. You’d think the more choices we have, the better things would be. But choice stresses people out. It can be exhausting.
Be Ready to Move to Offer
We recommend that hiring executives be ready to move to offer when they interview a top-performing, qualified candidate. But continuing to interview additional candidates after meeting a rock-star executive who checks every box? That is what causes the executive search process to fail. You lose great candidates when you keep them waiting too long.
Increasingly, business moves at the speed of light. The executive search timeline must match force with that reality. So we work with clients to innovate ways to close searches more rapidly. In technology, recruiters have to move fast. High demand for Artificial Intelligence (AI), Data Science, Machine Learning (ML), eCommerce, and Cloud has driven up competition and wages for that talent.
Executive Search Process Tick-Tock
Making search smarter not only speeds up the executive search process timeline but also yields better hires. As a national retained search firm that serves some of the most powerful and successful companies in the world, working with a deadline sensibility is the most sensible thing a headhunter can do.