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You need to find a successful leader for your organization, and that process begins with identifying a competent and trustworthy executive search firm. In my last post, you learned what you should demand from a search firm in terms of candidate screening and tenure and performance guarantees. In the second half of this two-part series, I’ll share some tips on how to evaluate an executive search firm in terms of who you’ll be working with, what information to expect from them, and why they may or may not be able to offer you candidates from specific companies they’ve worked with in the past. 

Think about the questions below and what the answers might mean to your organization and your own hiring needs – and be sure to get the answers you want before signing any executive search contract.

4. Will the executive search firm consultant I meet with actually be the one doing the work?
When you’re evaluating search firms, you’ll probably meet with a senior partner or principal to learn about each company’s search process. While these individuals may have many contacts and lots of experience, they may or may not actually be the ones working to fill your open position.

Many search firms delegate research work to junior search consultants. But the critical task of assessing a candidate’s prior performance and ability to deliver exceptional value for your organization requires a seasoned search executive with a proven track record.

Especially for mission-critical C-level and management positions, it’s best to have at least one senior-level person involved in actual candidate screening, interviewing and decision-making. Unfortunately, that’s not the case at many executive search firms. Here’s how the process works at most large firms:

  1. The partner sells the deal, and he or she and an associate will do the site work at your offices. The associate may, or may not, be the person who will do the recruitment and initial screening.
  2. A senior associate – the recruiter – does most of the sourcing and telephone screening. He or she may use videoconferencing. He or she may meet the candidates face-to-face, but not always.
  3. The partner may keep tabs on the process to update the client, and may spend “some time” with the candidates who will be presented to the client. This may be a couple of hours or a lunch or dinner, and is not likely to be an in-depth screening at the partner level.
  4. Most big firms do not provide video interview summaries, and many do not do in-depth background checks. Most conduct a news media public documents check to see if anything negative surfaces, but rarely hire investigators or spend time digging deeper.
  5. Some of the big firms provide competency and personality testing, others do not.

Ask how involved the individual you meet with will be, and who will handle what part of the process. If you feel that it’s not enough to have a senior-level partner just sell you the engagement and take responsibility for the performance and results – you want high-level experience at all phases of your search – find a firm where the partners or owner are more hands-on.

5. When the search firm presents job candidates, how much information will I get?
It’s been said that hiring someone is like getting married after four or five dates. Few successful marriages are based on such a short courtship, but in business, such commitments are commonplace. In marriage as in executive hiring, a deep understanding of the individual makes all the difference.

The consequences for a bad hiring decision can be staggering: When companies must replace an executive, they lose up to 25 to 50 times the employee’s annual base salary, according to several national surveys.

How can you protect your business and manage risk throughout the search process? Demand comprehensive information, full disclosure and a thorough candidate assessment from your executive search partner. From the information in the position prospectus to the candidate dossiers you receive, the depth and quality of information is critical.

At a minimum, clients should receive a candidate dossier that includes:

  • A resume
  • A candidate assessment profile
  • A 360-degree reference profile, including superiors, peers and subordinates
  • Verification of all credentials listed on the resume
  • A summary of civil and criminal background checks spanning the past 15 years
  • The summary results of a credit report

Before making an offer, the client should see the candidate’s final references, including those not provided by the candidate. Other tools, such as a DVD with video summaries of candidate interviews, and DiSC behavior and values profile reports, can also present a more complete picture of a candidate before a hiring organization invests time in its own interviews.

6. How many former clients are on search firm’s “lockup” or “no contact” list? How long do clients remain on this list?
Few healthcare organizations are aware that many search firms are actually prohibited from contacting potential job candidates who are working for former clients. Each search firm keeps a list of all clients with whom they’ve done business, and are restricted from soliciting candidates from these organizations for a specific timeframe, usually 12 to 36 months.

While such restrictions protect client organizations from having their best people lured away, an executive search firm with a long list of “no contact” clients has its hands tied. On average, past clients remain on “lockup lists” for two years. There are a limited number of healthcare organizations in the United States, and if a large search firm has worked with dozens of them in the past two years, that firm’s future clients will not be able to tap the talent available at any of those healthcare facilities. That’s a huge pool of highly skilled individuals – possibly hundreds of talented executives – who will never know about your job opening.

Even if a candidate from a protected organization hears about your open job and asks your recruiter to keep him in mind, the recruiter must seek permission from that candidate’s employer before they can discuss the opportunity. Few candidates are willing to take that risk.

When choosing an executive search firm, ask for “no contact” lists, and find out how long past clients stay on them. If a search firm sidesteps the question or doesn’t provide a list, that’s a red flag: Any search firm that won’t share this information doesn’t want you to know that it is severely limited in the range of candidates it can offer you.

Some companies have been known to hire two search firms, having compared their “no contact” lists. While this approach may offer access to a larger pool of candidates, the search ultimately costs twice as much.

Many healthcare organizations determine that going with a smaller search firm is their best bet. Many small firms take on only a handful of searches each year, so their “no contact” list will be much shorter than those of the larger search firms. Because their reputation rides on client satisfaction rather than a well-known name, smaller firms may also be more value-oriented and work harder for their clients. 

This information can be valuable to any organization selecting its next search firm. While these tips provide solid guidelines, what ultimately matters most is what will work best for your organization. With that in mind, strive to truly understand your organization and predict what it needs next, then choose your search firm accordingly.

© 2012 John Gregory Self