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How to Select a Search Firm Page
How to Select a Search Firm

When you've got an important position to fill, an executive search firm is the right answer. But finding a good search firm can be a difficult task. Here's are tips for finding the right search firm and maximizing your chances of success.

Which search firm should you choose?
There's an overwhelming number of search firms out there, everything from big international agencies to small, local boutique firms. Before you engage a search firm, it's important to understand whether they are up to the job.

Are they just “talking the talk” or can they “walk the walk” and help you find the right talent? Do they operate ethically and with high service levels?

Here are some tips for picking a good firm:

Credibility is Key
Pick a firm that has credible people. The firm's reputation is important but the people within the firm are the ones who will either succeed or fail in finding you the best candidate for the job.

Demand Passion
Pick a firm that has the passion and the energy to find exceptional talent. If your search firm isn't enthusiastic when talking to prospective candidates, you can bet the candidates won't be interested.

Go For Knowledge
Pick a firm that knows your industry and your functional area intimately. Past search records are important but even more important is the firm's ability to navigate the landscape that is specific to your company and its needs.

Is Big Better?
Not necessarily. The large brand-name search firms have strong reputations but they also tend to conduct a lot of searches simultaneously, which can lead to less attention given to each individual search. True, they have more resources on staff, but you want to evaluate whether the person who is conducting your search is experienced and competent. Be wary of the “bait and switch” in which high-level experienced search professionals meet with you initially and then move on to similar pitch meetings with other companies and leave inexperienced newbies with the task of actually conducting your search.

Another key factor is how many hands-off agreements they've signed. Search firms typically agree to not recruit employess away from a company they previously worked for for a specific period of time. Over time, they accumulate a lot of so-called “off limits” companies. Needless to say, this can greatly reduce the universe of talented candidates that they can recruit on your behalf.

At the same time, once the hands-off period ends, the larger firms are more aggressive in recruiting from their prior clients. That means they will recruit executives away from you after the hands-off period ends. Smaller firms, more eager for your business, tend to define their off-limits terms more broadly (e.g. “I won't recruit any employee of yours”, not “I won't recruit the employee I just placed with you”) and have longer hands-off periods (e.g. three years rather than one year).

Still, it sounds good to use a large firm. Many HR executives engage large “household name” firms because they believe nobody will accuse them of not picking a good search firm. But large firms are expensive and lead to large invoices, without necessarily delivering better results than smaller firms. Increasingly, human resources are expected to help in the hunt to maximize positive cash flow, and thus the trend is toward using smaller boutique firms, where they get more attention and the search firms handle each search on a “do or die” basis. After all, most of them want to grow up to be bigger firms one day, so they have more at stake because they need to establish and maintain a reputation for producing stellar results for their clients in order to grow.

But smaller firms aren't necessarily a cure-all. If their recruiting executives can't impress a candidate, they may not be able to reach top-level candidates. Hence, in addition to functional and industry expertise, it's important that the recruitiers have individual backgrounds, knowledge, and communication skills that will immediately establish their credibility with prospective candidates.

Getting Started With the Search for the Search Firm

As you prepare to select a search firm, build your short list of search firms by thinking about companies you admire. Who has great executive talent? Then find out who represents them. Try not to do this with your competitors because many executive search firms won't serve two competing companies at the same time. That's a conflict of interest. Another approach is to ask your friends and business colleagues who they think highly of.

Once you've got the short list (or maybe you've narrowed it down to one firm that you absolute know will do a great job for you), pick up the phone and call them. The service you get in that initial solicitation can be quite telling. If they call you back promptly, they probably call candidates back promptly and that can translate into good results for you. If they come in and give a solid, polished presentation, that's a good sign.

Evaluating Your First Meeting with a Search Firm
First impressions in your initial meeting are invaluable. The key question is whether they tailor their presentation specifically for you. Did they do their homework on your company? Do they understand your industry and have a passion for it? Do they know the questions that potential prospects are likely to ask about your organization and the position? Do they discuss the position and search strategy options at a low level of detail?

If a recruiter comes in with a boilerplate presentation that simply gives you an overview of his firm, touting their prior search results, global reach, and a research group that will get up to speed on your industry and find good candidates for you once you give them the assignment, move on. They don't have what it takes to get the job done for you.

Inteviewing the Search Firm
Communication is a two-way street so be sure you know the right questions to ask the search firm during that initial meeting. Here are some questions to ask:

Questions that Assess Whether They Will Represent You Well
How would you describe our needs to a prospective client? How would you describe our culture and business? What benefits do you see a candidate gaining by accepting this position?

Questions that Determine if They Are Competent Recruiters
What are the challenges in the search assignment and how can will you address them? How will you identify candidates and what do you think is the right profile for a good candidate? What questions do you have for me about the company and this position? What search assignments have you completed? How long did these searches take? Have any executives you place left prior to being with the new company for one year?

Questions as to How the Search Firm Conducts Its Work
What is your process for conducting a search? What are the component steps and when do they occur? How long will each step take? How extensive is your network of potential candidates? When will we see information on potential candidates? When will we conduct interviews with prospective candidates? Are you willing to adapt your firm's process based on our specific needs?

Questions About Who Will Do the Work
What parts of the search will you personally handle (or will you hand this search off to somebody else)? Who calls prospective candidates to qualify their abilities and interest? Who interviews them face-to-face? Who analyzes the candidate and writes the briefing documents we will review? How many search assignments are you currently conducting? How many searches is your support staff handling?

Questions About the Fee
What is the fee structure? When do I pay you and why? If I agree to give you more than one search, will you give me a better rate? What else can I do to lower the fees?

Questions About Terms of the Contract
Can I see a contract as soon as possible so I can better understand your terms? What is your hands-off policy? Are you going to recruit this employee, or any of my other employees, over to another client? How long are you willing to promise that you won't recruit my employees?

Questions About Customer Satisfaction
Do you guarantee our satisfaction in some way? What happens if the search is not filled within a given time? Do we have to pay the full search fee if the assignment is not completed?

Questions About Biling and Expenses
What expenses will we need to reimburse you for? Based on your experience how much can we expect in the way of expenses? Will you agree to only incur travel expenses when we have pre-authorized them in order to keep our costs down? What documentation will you provide?

Final Words
Follow the recommendations outlined above and you'll find a great retained search firm. You'll know what to look for and the right questions to ask. You'll soon find you have mastered the art of recruiting a recruiter and the results will show in your improved ability to find, attract, and retain exceptional talent.

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