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7 Ways to Evaluate Your Executive Search Firm

Executive search firms are everywhere. So, how to choose among them? One recruitment provider offers up seven questions to ask when selecting a search firm, while several others weigh in. Let’s see what they all have to say.

When businesses have high profile, top leadership roles to fill,  executive search firms can provide indispensable service. The best recruiters walk alongside a client at every stage of the hiring process. They know the questions to ask that help define the requirements of the role. They take the time to thoroughly understand company culture. And they find talented individuals who can deliver for an organization. Selecting the right search firm can pay huge dividends for years to come. But clients must know what to look for to satisfy their unique needs, especially when tapping the services of an external service provider in a crowded field.

Robert Half Executive Search, which Fortune magazine perennially lists among the most admired companies in the country, has developed seven key questions that businesses should ask when choosing an executive recruitment firm. The answers to those questions can provide guidance for narrowing the field and determining who in the end would be the best search partner going forward. Here they are:

1) What is the search firm’s approach?
Find out about the recruiters’ process. According to Robert Half, “You’ll want to understand the core steps a search firm’s consultants will take to understand your company’s needs, assess candidates, arrange and manage interviews, and more.” Details about tools and processes the recruiting firm uses to guide the search and vet candidates are also valuable to know beforehand.

Communication is also a critical part of a search firm’s approach. How does the recruiter keep clients up-to-date on the progress of the search? Will the client have a direct line to the recruiters working the assignment? These are all additional questions to consider when determining one search firm’s approach from another.

William D. Rowe, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Rowe Global in Dallas, said the initial stages of the search – meeting the client’s leadership, learning the company’s culture and developing the position description – are probably most important. Communication, however, ranks a close second.

“We believe in regular communication – weekly updates on the pipeline of candidates – immediate feedback emails to the client post-discussions with prospects,” he said. “We can be accused of over-communicating but we believe the more you share with the client, and what the market is providing, the more the client can assess what truly fits their need.”

2) What is the search firm’s geographic reach?
Find out how much territory the search firm covers. Does it have the capability to provide for your organization’s needs beyond its own backyard? “If yours is a global company in search of a C-level executive, for example, working with a recruiting firm that has well established international offices and experienced search consultants with deep networks in those markets helps you go beyond your own borders in search for top candidates,” said Robert Half.

The Big Five search firms are all global in scope, and to compete, many of their smaller rivals know its important to show they have similar reach, acknowledged Mr. Rowe. “But in reality, clients should be less concerned with the number of offices or markets a search firm maintains – more so than at any point in our history,” he said. “The power of technology and the Internet enables us all to play in the global marketplace, without the brick and mortar demands of the past,” he said. “Clients should be more focused instead on the capability, experience and tenacity of the individual search consultant they will be working with.”

3) How experienced is the executive recruiting team?
Robert Half recommends that businesses be discerning in their evaluation process. Review the credentials of the recruitment firm’s senior management, on its website and the individuals’ LinkedIn pages. “Next, review a cross-section of the search consultants’ career bios, if available,” said Robert Half. “That gives you a sense for the firm’s overall bench strength and whether it can assign people to your project who truly understand your business – and the position you need to staff.”

Mr. Rowe, for his part, said that experience is a big plus for firms like his that emphasize a “partner-driven search model,” in which senior consultants actively take part in the search rather than merely passing it off to an associate. “There is value in operating experience coupled with retained search experience,” Mr. Rowe said.

“There is value in direct industry or disciplinary experience coupled with retained search experience. However, overall retained search experience coupled with a track record of successfully serving clients and a commitment to the search process – that is the most essential experience.”

4) What kind of executive placements has the search firm completed recently?
Most search firms should be willing to provide examples of recent placements, along with job titles and industries served. Ask for them, but understand that there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.

Sometimes, if a search firm has a lot of searches similar to the type you are seeking, that can mean problems, said John F. Salveson, co-founder and principal of the Salveson Stetson Group in Radnor, PA. “This can be tricky,” he said. “Sometimes, having too much experience in an area can lead to a ‘usual suspects’ search. It can also mean there are many companies which are off limits. I often tell potential clients that if they are looking for a search firm which has done 30 assignments like the one they are proposing we are not the right firm for them.”

5) Does the search firm emphasize collaboration – and discretion?
Look for a search firm that stresses its role as an advisor throughout the search process – and means it. “Search firms that clearly understand their role as an extension of your business’s image and reputation during the executive search should go on your short list,” said Robert Half. “So, too, should expert recruiters that emphasize confidentiality and discretion.”

For the Salveson Stetson Group, collaboration starts with developing in-depth understanding of the client company. That goes a long way toward identifying the right talent. “We always tell clients we do our best work when we get to know their companies in depth and spend time with critical team members and stakeholders,” said Mr. Salveson. “We really can’t assess fit for candidates if we don’t first understand the company.”

That, and good communication, also helps with the confidentiality aspects of any given assignment. “It takes judgement to know what to share with a candidate about the company and what not to share,” said Mr. Salveson. “We make a point of communicating ‘the good, the bad and the ugly.’ However, we also come in contact with plenty of confidential information and are very careful about sharing it. We speak frequently with clients about what we can and cannot share with the market. And there is a difference in what we recommend be shared with a finalist versus a first round candidate.”

6) What kind of service can you expect once the search is complete?
Find out what the search firm does, if anything, to help transition the new hire into their new role, advises Robert Half. Do they help troubleshoot issues by staying in close contact after the prospect starts working? Your company might not require a lot of candidate hand holding, but understand what you are getting beforehand.

Mr. Salveson reported that moments earlier he had just gotten off the telephone with someone his firm helped place as president for a client. They had now spoken twice since the individual started his new job six week ago and plan to meet in person in a month or two. “In short, we stay in touch to be sure the candidate is assimilating properly and is ‘getting’ the company expectations,” Mr. Salveson said. “Since we know this client very well we can be sure he is meeting the right people and focusing on the right things. I don’t want to give the impression that we do an intensive on-boarding process – we don’t. But we stay in touch with the candidate as well as the hiring manager to be sure the transition is going well.”

7) Can the executive search firm provide current and credible testimonials and references?
Client and candidate testimonials can be a good indicator of the recruiter’s effectiveness, integrity, and expertise, said Robert Half. Relevant client references are also helpful. “You might also want to ask trusted contacts in your professional network if they have ever engaged the firm or know businesses and people who have – and what the overall experience and end results were like,” the firm said.

Salveson Stetson Group tends not to provide testimonials but encourages prospective clients to speak with current clients and / or candidates. And all questions are welcome.

“We like to provide a few different kinds of references,” Mr. Salveson said. “Sometimes, it is a candidate who was placed and who later used our services as a client. Sometimes, they are new clients and sometimes they have worked with us for years. We encourage prospective clients to ask any question they like. Specifically, we think it is important for them to ask about who they actually worked with in our firm, how responsive we were, the degree to which we vetted and really understood candidates, our sense of urgency, the communications they got from us throughout the search, the length of the search and the success of the placed candidate.”

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor — Hunt Scanlon Media

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