Appointing the Right Executive Search Firm

Alex KaarTeam member Chris Hughes Appointing the Right Executive Search Firm

Appointing the Right Executive Search Firm

Appointing the right executive search firm to partner with can be confusing and problematic.  However, if you focus on the right criteria and take a pragmatic approach, it can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. 


Hire a Go-To-Market Team 


When looking to engage with a recruitment firm, hire someone who can represent your brand, with the same passion, enthusiasm and care as you would.  Don’t appoint transactional “job fillers”, but rather, hire a sophisticated brand advocate and persuasive communicator, who can effectively convey the essence of your business and the value of the opportunity that they are representing. 

The ideal executive search firm will take the time to understand the nuances of your business and unearth the underlying challenges and opportunities of the role and gain a clear understanding of the expectations and deliverables. They will ask the right questions in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the role, the people and culture.  They will want to know where your business is today, but more importantly, where it’s going and what challenges and opportunities you’ll you face into the future. 


Once the brief has been established, the recruiter will devise a strong go-to-market strategy, which will include search, research, market mapping and, if appropriate, a print and/or online advertising campaign to reach as many quality candidates as possible.  To make your recruitment process run as efficiently, they will agree on the process, the format for presenting candidates and a timeline of events. 


Managing Your Brand 


The executive search firm you engage are going to be the custodians of your brand, so it’s essential that they convey your business, its people and its purpose in the best possible light.  They need to effectively and efficiently manage communication with the candidates to ensure that everyone they approach has a positive interaction.  It’s particularly important that unsuccessful candidates are provided with constructive feedback and an exit process that leaves them feeling as though they’ve been treated with the respect they deserve.   


Leverage Relationships 


The main function of a recruitment partner is to give you access to talent that you can’t access yourself.  An ideal executive search partner will have deep relationships, developed over decades with the candidates they represent.  Senior talent are typically reluctant to move from their current roles. They’re likely to be deeply involved in key projects and long term initiatives and it’s highly likely that they will have a succession plan mapped out for them in their current organisation.  As trusted advisors, an experienced executive search consultant has a unique opportunity to break past the initial resistance that’s often met with a “cold call” approach to a candidate regarding an opportunity. Senior executives who have developed trusted relationships with reputable executive search consultants will welcome their call and will value their counsel.  


Cultural Alignment  


To successfully partner with the right executive search firm, it’s imperative that the firm’s values are aligned with yours. If they are going to represent your brand, they need to demonstrate that they understand your business at a fundamental level and be committed to positioning those values.  


Some of the areas that are critical to understanding the cultural elements of an organisation include: 


  • Core values and heritage of the brand – What is the “True North” of the business and how does it keep its focus on living these values. What behavior does it promote, or conversely, what behaviour does it not tolerate?  How do these behaviours play out?  


  • Current dynamic of the Board and ELT – What is the relationship between ELT and Board and what are the potential challenges? How is the candidate going to complement that dynamic?  


  • Current competitor landscape and shifting market conditions – What stage of the company’s life-cycle are you in? Is it a phase of re-invention, revolution or disruption or just keeping the ship steady?
  • Current strategy and future state of the business – Is the business undergoing a fundamental transformation?   What are the drivers behind this?
  • Succession – What are the current and future opportunities for growth? 


Communication and Transparency 


Executive search processes can take weeks or months to complete, so throughout the process, it’s important to engage an executive search partner who will communicate effectively and transparently with both you, the client and the candidates who are engaged in the process.  A clear timeline of activity should be agreed upon at the commencement of the assignment and regular updates should be provided between key milestones in the process (short list, interviews, offer etc).  An accomplished executive search firm will be honest and open about the strengths and development areas of each candidate.  This open appraisal should extend to both skills and cultural alignment and will help guide your line of questioning at interview stage.   


Ask for a meeting and a proposal 


Before requesting a proposal, we suggest scheduling a meeting to gain an understanding of the style and personality of the search consultants that will be running your process.  Aside from a strong track record and brand, it’s important that you like who you are working with.  There’s a strong human element to any executive search process, so it’s critical that you are working with people you trust and get along with.    


Once you’ve agreed on the consultant or the shortlist of consultants that you are keen to work with, ask the firms to prepare a formal proposal.  This proposal should outline their methodology for the search process, a guide on their timelines and a list of relevant similar roles they’ve successfully completed.  They should also provide references, which will provide an insight regarding their style and approach.  They should also include their terms and conditions, which will outline the total costs and payment structure.   


Reputable executive search firms will work on a retained basis.  This means that the fee is split into three parts. One third is paid on commencement of the assignment – this covers the investment in research and market mapping.  The second third is the short list fee – this is invoiced once a shortlist has been presented that you are happy to progress to interview with.  The third is paid upon placement of the candidate, once the offer has been accepted.  


The purpose on undertaking a retained search process, as opposed to a contingent process (where the entire fee is paid on placement), is threefold: 


  1. Commitment – An upfront commitment by you, the client, means that you can hold the search firm accountable for the work they produce.  There is a common misconception that you can hold your firm to account during a contingent process, but this is not the case.  The reality is that by undertaking a contingent process, you are not committing to a process.  All firms prioritise retained work over contingent work, so if you are taking your search seriously, then you want to be the firm’s top priority, not their last. 


  1. Research and Service – As you’ve paid for a search process, which includes research, the firm you engage is obliged to provide you with the results of research they’ve undertaken.   This allows you gain clear insights into the number and quality of candidates they’ve assessed, prior to short listing and gaining additional insights regarding how your brand and the role is perceived in the market.  With retained search, the consultant you are working with can dedicate time to conducting comprehensive research, they can interview more candidates and ultimately provide you with a higher level of service throughout the process. 


  1. Outcomes – Our research indicates that you are more than eight times more likely to fill a role using a retained search process than you are with a contingent process.  This is largely due to the fact that the retained search process is more comprehensive and collaborative, allowing you access to better talent, comprehensive research, higher service levels.  You have the complete attention of the consultant you are working with and essentially, you’ll remove the element of risk from the process. 


I encourage you to think of using retained search the same way you would consider engaging with a law firm or accounting firm.  Undertaking a “no win, no fee” approach is likely to attract the wrong kind of firm to partner with. 

If you value your brand and place an emphasis on gaining access to the best talent available, then retained executive search is by far the most effective way to achieve a successful outcome.

We wish you the very best with the selection of your search partner.  If you have any questions, or would like any further advice on selecting a search firm, please email me at: [email protected] 



Chris Hughes

For the past 20 years, I've focused my career on Executive Search and I've been privileged to partner with prominent global, national and local brands on their talent management projects, from executive level searches to functional expertise requirements. In addition to Executive Search, I offer career coaching, career strategy and resume writing services for executives at all levels. I also develop digital marketing strategy, powerful thought leadership articles and create engaging videos and podcasts for Alex Kaar.

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