Executive Search FAQs | Frequently Asked Questions

For your own protection, these 24 Frequently Asked Questions need to be answered before hiring an executive recruiter 

Finding the perfect candidate for an executive position can be difficult. Executive recruiting firms are essential for organizations that want to fill critical positions in a timely and efficient manner. Seldom are the very best executives not already employed. Recruiting firms can help identify, assess, and contact potential candidates for the organization. All recruiters are not created equally.  The following list of Frequently Asked Questions  provide you with the information you nee to select the best search firm for your needs.

Perry-Martel employs unique strategies you won’t find anywhere else.  Our Inside-Out Approach helps us identify Tier-1 executives others miss. This allows us to outperform traditional retained search firms and deliver the top candidates who aren’t actively looking for a new role.

If these frequently asked questions don’t answer your’s, please reach out and we’ll be happy to have a more detailed conversation about how we can help. You may also want to refer to our two books: Executive Recruiting for Dummies AND Hiring Greatness: How to Recruit Your Dream Team and Crush the Competition.

Frequently Asked Questions by Customers ... Answered

This is a critical question MOST employers don’t ask.  Typically, the person you meet with from a firm will be their most polished business development person who may have a decade’s worth of experience but play no ongoing role in the search. There are many firms that will put a team onto your assignment and while this may sound great this “team” may be comprised of very junior people learning the ropes: often they’re freshly minted MBA grads.  Who performs the search is important.  What you need to do before you sing any agreement is meet the person responsible for delivering your project successfully. Make sure you know, and are comfortable with the specific recruiter assigned to the project.

A good firm will help you refine the position description based on their market knowledge.  Starting with a clear Candidate Road map, which all parties have agreed to after participating in its creation, is critical to your success.  Investing in the front-end definition of role, responsibilities and demonstration of achievements will produce superior results.   Tip: It’s impossible to understand an organization’s culture from a job description and “trial and error” recruiting takes too much time.  Your ESP can only gauge a candidate’s fit if they have invested time with several members of your organization and performed a bench marking interview.

This is rarely a frequently asked question – with predictable results.   You need to know if their off-limits list makes the sourcing pool too small AND if it excludes some or all of the firms from which you would want to look at people.   If they do, are they still able to meet your needs?  Some of the big firms are so large that they can’t ethically recruit out of tens of thousands of firms.  If your best candidates would ideally come from a competitor, you’re going to run into that.  Make sure the executive search professional (ESP) you use does not have a hands-off agreement with any of the firms you would like to recruit from, or they won’t be able to ethically touch their employees AND ethics matter greatly to search professionals.  None will risk the ongoing relationship with an established client to feed a new account.  Your best advice: ask for a list and check it.

All searches begin with the same goal: success.  However, not all end in success, so when you ask this question be wary if the executive search professional has a personal record of less than 90%.  But be wary of a record too far out of this range on the low side.  There too, be skeptical if they state they have never failed.  Also, recognize that even though the firm may have a ‘team” of consultants working on your project, the individual consultant’s success rate is more important than that of their firm. Your ESP will be responsible for your project, so look for individual results not weighted averages.

A success rate of 100% is impossible, so ask which searches failed or required a replacement candidate and why.  It’s not a sin. There may be good reason the project was not successfully completed.  However, you do need to understand the reasons for the failure up front, to ensure the same conditions do not exist for your search.  Generally speaking, when searches fail and the ESP is at fault it’s because the ESP did not work from a detailed requirements document or they misread the corporate culture. 

Experienced ESPs know that both of these fatal errors can be avoided all together by spending time up front to detail a tight profile of the ideal candidate.  Also, a detailed requirements document may shave weeks off your search because the process adopts a laser focus and a “check box” like simplicity.    More often than not though, projects fail from abulia brought on by interviewers who mistakenly believe there is an infinite supply of well qualified candidates who they have not yet met.

The executive search professional (ESP) that you eventually contract with should be regarded by all people within your organization as an extension of your company. They act as your advocate. You need to determine if they operate in a way that enhances your brand name, not only with the people contacted and considered, but also with all those rejected.  This is a critical often overlooked factor.  Ideally you want the people rejected to feel they were treated respectfully and want to work with “next time”, and speak longingly about the one that ‘”got away”.

This one factor should rate as significant.  You don’t want a recruiter  ‘cutting their teeth on your dime”.  The risks are too high.

So, project experience is important.  Recruiting the CEO for a $10 million dollar company is not exactly the same as recruiting a CEO for a $100 million dollar firm.  Domain experience aside, understanding the nuances specific to sales, marketing, operations, and finance are critical. 

Likewise, understanding the differences between public sector and private sector companies in terms of fit — pace, leadership style, accountability, and compensation — is the key to your success.  The same is true for public versus private companies.  Insist on using a professional who is an expert if possible.  You do not want an ESP cutting their teeth on your nickel.

Your requirement for domain or functional expertise or both influences where you start your search and how far afield you need to go.  Domain centric searches are best started within the locale of your head office and then expand according to geographic hubs.  For functional searches you should picture a dartboard where the search starts at the bull’s-eye and expands out in concentric circles outwards.  Your bull’s-eye represents the geographic location for the position.  In the case of regional VPs of sales for example, start your search where the remote office is located and try and contain it there to ensure your ideal candidate is plugged into local markets.

This may be important if you’re hiring a senior executive because senior people often will not talk to junior recruiters. They want to know that they’re being assessed by an industry peer who understands their issues. This often only comes – at the most senior level – with having P&L experience. As important, the ESP needs to feel they have the right to talk to the people they will be recruiting as a “peer”. That’s a critical psychological issue that you shouldn’t ignore. If the consultant is nervous about assessing a senior person their unease will be felt in a nanosecond and the consultant will be deemed to junior to talk to and you may lose a viable candidate. If you deem it is not a senior enough search, a “no” answer would be acceptable.

Next to robust research, access to key decision makers will make or break your search. Being on the board of directors of an industry association or being viewed as an industry insider works to your advantage. If you are looking to speak with the best talent out there, and not just who’s available the moment, the ESP’s credibility should allow unfettered access to the A-Players.  In some cases, this “may” not be of all that much importance, but If not an absolute must you still should query the recruiter in regards to their knowledge of your company and your competitors.

It matters.  In fact it’s absolutely critical. This is absolutely critical because most executives say “no” when initially approached, and the consultant personally needs to understand why the overture was declined so they can repackage and represent the opportunity until the persuasion works.  Often it takes five to six passes at the better prospects before they become engaged in dialogue.  Many search firms have researchers first determine who is interested before the consultant picks selects candidates to call — BAD MOVE.  You will in all likelihood meet the firm’s most experienced business development person when you’re being courted as a client.  What you need to do though before you sign on the dotted line is meet the person responsible for your file.  Will a junior person actually do the work? Make sure you know, and are comfortable with, the specific recruiter assigned to the project. (I suggest one Search person and one Researcher is a good team.)

How busy an executive recruiter most often is a bi-product of the method of payment and how they will you.   A contingency firm may have to work 10 or more searches for every 1 which they complete.  Generally speaking a consultant will need to complete one $100k search per month at a 30% fee to take home $72,000 per year personally.  If the ESP discounts the fee to 20%, then they need to work 15 searches per month simultaneously.  If they have taken on too many assignments already, your search won’t get the time and attention it deserves. (No one can handle more than 6 assignments well – 3 being ideal.)  The more searches they work the less time your search gets. 

How do they get paid – retainer or contingency often defines the service you receive. A retained firm will provide a full service, whereas a contingency recruiter will try to make a “sale” as fast as possible. Which method more closely satisfies your requirements?  Both have their place. 

Retained firms are under contract to work a project to a successful conclusion.  While both retained and contingency firms may pursue active and passive candidates, contingency firms may lack the incentive to finish if it becomes difficult to locate or attract A-Players in a reasonable amount of time.  

Contingency firms need to balance the workload of their consultant’s desk to insure the completion of a minimum number of projects each month to stay in business.  If the flurry of activity and constant contact which heralded the start of your search dwindles to every other day or less, you’ll need to decide for yourself if they’re dedicating an acceptable amount of time because there’s no incentive for the firm to tell you they’re not actively working the search.  Their previous time is a sunk cost which they may be able to recoup if they keep the search warm and get lucky.

Tip: If you have 6-12 months to do a search, then a contingency firm could be a good bet.  Likewise a small window would best be served by a retained firm.  You must assume that in the end whichever firm you select is going to be successful and will earn a full fee.   You need to appreciate the level of service commitment you require to be successful.  How busy are they? 

Ask the ESP what professional organization(s) they belong to requiring that they practice in an ethical manner. Ask them what standards they are required to uphold and ask them if they can verify their affiliation with that organization.

How many prospective candidates an ESP contacts is not as important as the state of mind a candidate is in.  If you want to improve the odds of attracting your ideal candidate, you must insure the ESP is approaching “passive” candidates: people who are not currently looking.  And frankly, this is one of the major benefits of hiring an ESP. 

If you only consider “active” candidates – people who are currently looking – you will miss the opportunity to speak with 80-90% of the candidates who are qualified for your role.  Put another way, for a CEO or VP search your ESP would talk to a tightly qualified group of 100 people to ensure your interests are being met AND in that group 85-90 people will be fully employed.  While it takes more time and skill to cold-call or introduce a potential opportunity to someone who is not looking, the extra effort is worth it.

Also, when your ESP only presents candidates who are actively looking, you may be competing with other employers who are also interviewing them. This is why the initial requirements document needs to be tight and speak to a qualified candidate’s needs.  Packaging the opportunity is crucial!  This opens you to direct competition, elevated compensation and a lower probability of success. [Note: retiring baby-boomers and a shrinking labor pool of “talent” will only exasperate it.]

When you find your ideal candidate, their attraction to your company won’t be based solely on cash.  Tying compensation plans to performance is crucial.  This requires your ESP to understand the candidate’s “hot buttons” and the limitation and permutations of your compensation program.  They need to understand what drives the candidate’s performance to achieve your corporate goals and what’s possible financially and structurally inside your company. 

This is a more vital question the higher up in the organization the new hire will be. The ESP should be able to provide you with the most up-to-date information for the discipline and/or geographic area.

A national or international search will surely involve relocation.  Ask your ESP to recount one or more problems they have encountered before and explain to you how they dealt with the issues.  A seasoned ESP will discuss relocation with every candidate they approach at first contact – thus avoiding “unseen” issues during the close.  While getting initial buy-in from the candidate and their significant other is mandatory, it’s never enough.  Rather, as the interview cycle progresses the ESP needs to address the relocation issue before and after every round of interviews. 

More to the point, they must speak directly to the candidate’s significant other directly to understand if there are any special needs that may not be accommodated in a new locale.  For example, a lack of denominational schoolings, restricted access to medical attention, and aging parents are the biggest hurdles to cross – but that is not a complete list by any means.  Better to deal with them head-on than at the last minute. 

Also, enquire about dual career considerations up front and deal with them immediately.  Simply stated… you aren’t relocating an executive – you are uprooting an entire family and you must deal with ALL of their issues.  If you expect that the candidate will “have a grip on his family”, you’ll be disappointed because it’s often easier for the candidate at home if they do nothing. 

On several occasions in the past we have brought a candidate’s spouse in to interview with them and meet the senior team with their spouses before we’ve made a final offer.  We have often followed this with a dinner party where the candidate and his/her spouse are the guests.   When the candidate has a spouse who doesn’t work outside the home, an introduction to their new “executive family” often helps them visualize their new social environment and makes the move less unsettling.

A national or international search will surely involve relocation.  Ask your ESP to recount one or more problems they have encountered before and explain to you how they dealt with the issues.  A seasoned ESP will discuss relocation with every candidate they approach at first contact – thus avoiding “unseen” issues during the close.  While getting initial buy-in from the candidate and their significant other is mandatory, it’s never enough.  Rather, as the interview cycle progresses the ESP needs to address the relocation issue before and after every round of interviews. 

More to the point, they must speak directly to the candidate’s significant other directly to understand if there are any special needs that may not be accommodated in a new locale.  For example, a lack of denominational schoolings, restricted access to medical attention, and aging parents are the biggest hurdles to cross – but that is not a complete list by any means.  Better to deal with them head-on than at the last minute. 

Also, enquire about dual career considerations up front and deal with them immediately.  Simply stated… you aren’t relocating an executive – you are uprooting an entire family and you must deal with ALL of their issues.  If you expect that the candidate will “have a grip on his family”, you’ll be disappointed because it’s often easier for the candidate at home if they do nothing. 

On several occasions in the past we have brought a candidate’s spouse in to interview with them and meet the senior team with their spouses before we’ve made a final offer.  We have often followed this with a dinner party where the candidate and his/her spouse are the guests.   When the candidate has a spouse who doesn’t work outside the home, an introduction to their new “executive family” often helps them visualize their new social environment and makes the move less unsettling. 

Your organizational DNA is unique.  It’s what powers you in the marketplace and is often invisible to outsiders.  Your ESP must triangulate on the role’s power and influence correctly.  At the “C” level and for all VPs, the ESP should meet with several external board members besides the Chair to insure they clearly see the context and expectations and “upside” clearly.  They should be willing to spend as much time as necessary to understand the position, marketplace and culture.  They are your emissary and will be regarded by candidates as a knowledgeable insider.  Arm them to the teeth with corporate knowledge.

Here is where you must decide whether you are best off with a functional or geographic expert.  Your desired outcome and timetable will influence your choice.  Do you need the best CEO in the software industry or the best CEO in New York?  Or do you need the best software CEO who will relocate to New York?   Is there some other permutation that works best?  Localized knowledge of New York will allow your ESP to get off to a fast start but what happens if you want to reach out to the best CEO in software no matter where they currently live? 

A partner will first probe to ensure a full search is necessary before allowing you to engage their service.  They will offer alternatives to a search if they make more sense.  A partner will refuse a search if it requires “raiding” one of their existing clients or other unethical behavior.  A partner will showcase candidates unvarnished: they will not write or alter a candidate’s résumé to fit the search.  

This question may or may not be of the essence. It’s a judgment call. On one hand an ESP with localized knowledge will get s/he moving faster but there may be a trade off.  You need to assess if when it could be necessary to look outside the local area. Some recruiters just have local reach while others are regional and/or global.

Don’t expect them to give away all of their trade secrets, because they won’t and shouldn’t. Do ask them how many contacts they usually make, how they source candidates and how long an average search takes.

If you’re dealing with a firm that has a one year guarantee – you have a partner with a vested interest in your success.  Successfully landing your ideal candidate is challenging enough the first go round.  Neither you nor your ESP want to have to conduct a supplemental search if a candidate does not work out.  Ideally your ESP should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of every candidate they bring to the table against the backdrop of your requirement and become more dogmatic on fit as the search heads towards completion.  They should hide nothing.  Their selections should be transparent and advice objective — even if that means leaving a candidate at the altar and starting over from scratch (because of ”fit” issues that arise during interviews or reference checking). 

Often the difficult conversations an ESP needs to have with a client revolve around experience versus compensation.  They also need to be realistic with you about compensation.  If the ESP thinks your expectations are out of line with the market reality, they need to say so.  At which point you need to walk through competitive salaries with them, and reset the search objectives or hire another ESP.  Star candidates understand their value and will not move unless the opportunity is compelling and the compensation attractive.   

A professional ESP will not let you make an unconditional offer without having thoroughly referenced a candidate.  They should encourage you to redo one or more of the references personally to check for accuracy and consistency.  They should help design the reference questions to extract meaningful information.

The issues you is simple: far too many recruiters will fling resumes at you hoping one or more will stick.  There’s little or no additional work on their part beyond a database search.  It should not matter if the search is retained or contingent, this is not the level of “service” you should expect. A” Confidential Candidate Brief” is a highly detailed outline of all questions that the recruiter has asked the candidate and exactly what their responses were. Additionally, a Confidential Candidate Brief may contain supplemental notes and should shed light about the  “pluses” or concerns the recruiter has about the candidate in the role being considered – especially where “fit” is concerned.  If the firm does not produce this type of documentation they’re a body shop – you’d be well advised to walk away and continue interviewing other prospective firms until you find one which will work with you and your team.

Frequently Asked Questions: The Bottom Line

Every company’s DNA is unique.  No two executive searches are ever identical.  Each search requires a fresh start and novel strategy because every search will have different priorities and cultural nuances.   As with most branches of management consulting, a thorough effort that is customized to your needs may take months of effort.  For the Executive Search Professionals, their personal networks, business acumen, and methodology, along with their ability to discern leadership and fit, are the most critical factors determining your recruiting success.

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