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Caveat emptor.

I just finished reviewing a confidential Position Prospectus for a major southern California academic medical center. The search firm leading the assignment is one of the largest in the world.

I was more than a little surprised.

The document was only 11 pages long and that included the cover page! The information and allocated space was balanced between a description of the client organization’s business units, its interrelationship with a medical school and the CEO leadership characteristics deemed important by the client.

What this position prospectus DID NOT address was the cultural DNA of this particular client organization; the real core values – not just the ones promoted in brochures. Nor did the document discuss how decisions are made and implemented or disclose any operational or financial challenges that may exist.

Why? Aren’t these issues important? Isn’t one common reason that successful executives fail in new assignments is that they did not understand the new culture or the hidden agendas? That may be why so many c-suite leaders laugh when they hear my definition of executive search: That it is a process in which the candidate and the client end up getting married after two or three dates.

One of the most common laments I hear from CEOs who take on new jobs is that they had to do much of the client research themselves. They claim that the search firms provide little more than an overview of the opportunity, much less an analysis of current operations or any risks. Those candidates who do not do their own extensive research are, more often than not, horribly surprised. Advertisements and promotional materials extolling a search firm’s ability to drill deep to master a client organization’s cultural DNA is mostly business development exaggeration, these CEOs say.

A colleague accepted a CEO position with a large western U.S. health system. A major Midwest search firm had the assignment. My friend read the position overview. She asked questions about the financials. Yes, the position was a risk, but one of her strengths was repairing distressed properties. Except, in this case, there was one big problem that NO ONE disclosed: that a decision was imminent to declare the hospital a non-producing asset that was to be converted from a 100-bed acute care facility to a Critical Access Hospital, or go on the auction block. She learned about this little oversight when she sat down with her boss to outline her plan to turn the hospital around.

The health system and the search firm were NOT marginal players. The health system is one of the nation’s largest. The search firm is one of the top 10 in the country. When my friend called to confront the recruiter, the search consultant refused to talk, saying only: You will have to take that up with …

There are precious few search firms of any size who deliver transparency in the Position Prospectus, and fewer still that are willing to tie a portion of their professional fee to client satisfaction or accountability for their performance through extended placement guarantees.

Why don’t the major firms offer that type of value?

Because they do not have to. Hiring a worldwide executive search firm is a safe and expensive choice. Who among the stakeholders will criticize the board or CEO when they hire a worldwide recruiter? We seem to have returned to the old healthcare axiom: no one ever was fired for buying computers from IBM or telephone systems from AT&T.

At JohnMarch Partners we think clients and candidates deserve better. Our Position Prospectuses are among the most detailed found in any sector. We are a boutique firm which means we can innovate. For example, we provide clients with video summaries of our candidate interviews, and we are willing to share the risks through guarantees concerning client satisfaction and candidate performance.

Larger search firms, with their extensive overhead structure that must be fed each month, are loath to invest in accountability or innovation. Their growing sales volume provides little incentive.

For the clients, that is a real loss in value.

For candidates, let the buyer beware.