It is a recurring question — how can I be sure that I am hiring the right executive and that once they join will they stay?

In all honesty, when dealing with people, there are no absolutes.  But with the right search consultant — internal or with a firm — and a gold-plated recruiting/candidate screening process, you can substantially mitigate the risks. However, let the buyer beware:  if your executive search firm uses terms like “job order”, “hiring authority” or “fill rate”, more than likely they are a placement agency or staffing company trying to move up the financial ladder.  

The real secret to success in executive search is to select a partner or search consultant who possesses some important skills.  First and foremost, success in executive search is not tied to the number of years of experience.  That is helpful, but if the consultant lacks a particular set of skills necessary for success, years of experience will ensure only that you are buying experienced mediocrity.  Nor is the size of the firm of any consequence unless your organization is a multinational operator and geographic reach is important.  No, the secret lies in the search consultant who will be doing the majority of the work.  Does this person possess a deep understanding of the culture of the organization — the values, the rules governing interpersonal relationships, and how decisions are made?  Do they require complete transparency regarding performance expectations, details regarding the hurdles that must be overcome to achieve success, and identification of the always dangerous sacred cows?  The consultant must insist that the client lose their natural desire to put their best foot forward while obscuring important problems or challenges that will become the organizational equivalent of an IED – improvised explosive device — with career-limiting consequences.

Is the consultant who will do most of the work on your search, save perhaps the candidate's final interview with the engagement partner, present for the all important site work, or are they closeted away in the Firm’s office working on other projects?  (That is the most common model in the search industry.)

If your consultant does not force you to deal with the tough issues, do not be surprised if the outcome is only average.  Executive search is like dating and marriage — decisions are made after four or five dates.   If the search does not force the client to deal with always-present nasty little details in advance of the marriage, there is a good possibility that it will not be a long and productive relationship and the divorce will be messy and costly.  

The truth is that far too many executive recruiters practice what I call “don’t ask, don’t tell”  recruiting. The partner signs the engagement, a consultant who may, or may not have been present for the site work, prepares a superficial job description and if the candidate doesn’t ask about the culture or potential problems that could affect their success, the search firm does not tell.  Oh, the big firms deny that is the case, but I have interviewed far too many candidates who say otherwise.

How confident is the search firm in their ability to find a candidate who will deliver value to the organization?  To test a search firm's true mettle, ask the partner in charge if they will guarantee their work for an extended period of time and listen for the reasons they do not.  Most firms offer a 12-month placement guarantee.  That is average.  There are one or two firms competing in the healthcare provider segment who will offer an extended placement guarantee, but they are the exception.

So the answer to the question is, in the end, really this:  Given the cost of an executive search — professional fees plus an overhead assessment and travel costs:  Can you afford average?

© 2011 John Gregory Self

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