Close this search box.
Close this search box.

The Ideal Retained Search Relationship

While conducting the search for a Vice President of Human Resources for an international consumer goods company last year, I had the hardest time convincing the hiring manager to interview one of the candidates we surfaced for the position.  She had fewer years of experience than he was seeking, her industry exposure was related but not a one-to-one match and she had several moves early in her career – something he reacted negatively to.  He just did not want to interview her.  After going back and forth with him as the search progressed, I finally said “Brian, trust me. She’s the right person for the job.”

He begrudgingly acquiesced and, after three rounds of interviews, enthusiastically offered her the role.  He promoted her within six months of her start date.  While speaking with him recently about his reluctance to grant that first interview, he said “I would never have interviewed her based on her resume.”  At that point, I knew I had earned my fee for the assignment.

Retained search did itself a disservice during the pre-information age when it held up the mysteries of candidate development as one of the key differentiators for the industry.  The message was “we can find people that you can’t.”  The industry made it seem like there was some black box—locked away in the safe at corporate headquarters—that held the names of executives who somehow couldn’t be accessed by those not initiated into the executive search club.  As candidate information has become a commodity over the past decade, retained search, to a certain extent, has had to redefine its value proposition with clients.  If we all can find the same people, then why use a retained search firm?

Here’s why:

  •  We are experts in candidate engagement.  I love speaking with a potential candidate who initially has no interest in an assignment I am seeking to fill.  A good search consultant is one part IO psychologist, one part career counselor and one part fuller brush salesman.  We have the competency to turn disinterest into interest and make the passive candidate proactive.
  • We are experts in assessing the fit between candidate and client.  Too often, hiring managers fall in love with resumes – General Manager at GE; Wharton MBA; what could go wrong?  A lot, most of which arises from a failure to understand how that executive gets to her results and whether that style will work inside a new organization.  A retained search firm should weed out those high performers whose leadership styles won’t work inside your company.  If not weed out, an executive search consultant should at least make you aware of the gap.
  • We are consultants to our clients.  On a frequent basis, I come out of an initial assessment with a group of the client’s key stakeholders with a much different view of a position than I did in my first meeting with the hiring manager.  A good retained search firm will ferret out if there are different expectations of success before the interviewing process starts.  Clear alignment on a candidate profile is critical to a successful search and the integration of a new executive into a company.  If your search consultant agrees with every statement you make, he probably isn’t doing his job.

I, of course, am talking about the ideal retained search relationship.  I am sure there are plenty of examples you can provide of search firms not fulfilling their obligations to be more than just order-takers and providers of somewhat warm bodies.  However, the retained search consultant has the capability to make a significant difference in the quality of a new executive hire or even the decision to go to search.

I distinctly remember a two-hour lunch with the executive team of a mid-size service company, ostensibly to confirm the profile for a CFO position they were seeking to fill.  The previous CFO had just been asked to leave the organization; he was one of three financial leaders who had gone through the job in the past five years.  By the end of the meeting, I had convinced the management team that seeking to fill the position, given the other challenges in the company, would most likely lead to another unsuccessful hire.  The organization had serious challenges in accessing capital and managing operations.  As the meeting concluded, the management team made the decision to divide the duties of the finance group between the General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer; both would take on these assessment and management issues with the pieces of the finance team they inherited.  Eighteen months later, when these challenges were put to bed, they called me to do the CFO search with a much higher probability of success.  I’m happy to say that the placement is thriving now three years into the job.

So, when you hire a search firm, make sure you set high expectations beyond the simple ability to produce candidates.  Don’t be surprised when your search consultants tests your assumptions; you may end up making the best hiring decision you may have never made on your own.

2 Responses

  1. Hi John,

    Excellent, succinct guidance. I’ve shared more broadly. Thanks for your contribution to our field.


    1. Brenden,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the retweet. I just had my first look at Wright on Leadership ( I look forward to following your blog.

      As to your “Anti-Social Media” entry we too are seeking a Vice President, Human Resources in the DC Metro area for a new client. If you have any thoughts on that one, I promise it won’t go down the same black hole as your previous referral!

      Best regards,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Don’t Be A Stranger…

Just write down some details and our customer success heroes will get back to you in a jiffy!

Contact Info