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Today I want to share a soup-to-nuts summary of the executive recruiting process as well as highlight some common misunderstandings.

Along the way I will probably share some information on the search process you have not heard before.

Let’s begin with the biggest misunderstanding in the search process, and it is very understandable one — if you are a candidates the process is not about you.  It is all about the recruiter or search firm who is working to meet the needs of the client.

I once remember being frustrated when I was not selected for an executive position.  The search firm never called me to provide an update but one day I received a letter telling me I had not been selected.  This was at least a month after I assumed the search had ended.  I was very busy at the time and participating in that search, at least from my perspective, was a big imposition on my time.  When I was not selected I remember thinking: well if they weren’t interested in me, then why did they bother calling me in the first place!  Clearly I did not understand that the whole of the recruiting process revolves around helping the client find the right match, not me or my now bruised ego.

Secondly, most people do not think about the amount of time it takes to complete a search.  When you are out of work and earnestly — anxiously — seeking employment, the search process will not move as a fast as you want it to – ever!  Recruiters should provide qualified candidates a project timeline at the outset, but few do. I am not sure why — the candidates are an important asset to the process and are worthy of respect — but that is just how some organizations operate.

If you are involved in a search for a senior level executive, the candidate sourcing phase could take up to 30 to 45 days.  If you are early to the party, you will have to wait the longest.  Now, if you are provided a schedule then you will know the deadline for making decisions concerning which candidates will advance.  If you are not provided a schedule, you have the right to ask for that information.

The information on a particular position that recruiters and search firms share with candidates varies widely.  The average “position description” is about 12 pages with narrow margins and generous spacing between the lines.  Primarily candidates are provided a narrative of the selection criteria as well as a brief overview of the position and the hospital.

With a 12-page summary, much of the necessary research for the position is going to fall to the candidate.

Pursuing a position based on 12 pages can be risky since many search firms, as well as internal recruiters, do not address the organization’s culture, the performance deliverables or the obstacles to success.  It would seem that clients only want the candidates to hear positive things about their organization.  That’s too bad since ever organization, from the Mayo Clinic to  the remote cowtown community hospital, have their good, their bad and their ugly.

Not providing full disclosure to candidates is but one reason the turnover of candidates recruited externally is so high.  So if you have questions that were not addressed in  the job overview, it is perfectly ok to ask questions … with this caveat:  there are some recruiters who see candidates who ask a lot of questions as high maintenance.  High maintenance candidates take more time and to some, they pose more risks,  and for recruiters who are notoriously risk-adverse, these candidates may be moved to the “bubble” for possible elimination.

If an external search firm is coordinating the search, there is another important question you should ask:  how long is your placement guarantee?  Contingency recruiters would just as soon not offer any guarantees given the nature of their business model,  but most will offer up between 90 to 180-days.  Executive search firms, including the global giants and industry specialists, typically offer a 12-month guarantee.

Why should you care?

The shorter the guarantee the less risk a firm has.  If they are not comfortable with the concept of complete transparency in their disclosures to the candidates, the one-year pledge is actually no guarantee at all.

Consider this:  fifty percent of externally recruited candidates usually leave within two years, according to search industry research.  In 2009, Heidrick and Struggles disclosed that more than 40 percent of their placements were fired or left within 20 months.

Ask about the firm’s “stick rate” — the average tenure of a placement at your level in the organization.  You may also want to know if the firm has recruited other executives to the organization you are considering, ask about their status.

We offer our candidates detailed information on each client we represent.  We cover all facets of the position. We detail the organization’s cultural profile.  We list the performance deliverables as well as the challenges that the candidate must overcome in order to be seen as successful.  We specifically ask our clients to define what success will look like at the end of the first year.

So here is the big takeaway: the longer the placement guarantee the more likely it is that the search firm has done ample due diligence to protect their financial interests.

Lack of communication between recruiters and candidates during the recruitment and screening process is the source of most of the candidate complaints about the search process.

Candidates call it the dark hole and they hate being left there.

While communication in a search, given the number of candidates in the process, can be challenging, we as an industry need to step up and realize this is really not about our convenience but respect for the candidates.

Now, let’s spend a few minutes with the search process.

In terms of the actual screening process, no two search firms are alike.

Some rely heavily on candidates they source themselves, and pay less attention to those who might submit but are not known to the firm.

There are also firms that deploy extensive psychological testing, online and in-person, to identify the candidates who will be the best fit for their client’s organization.

Other firms require candidates to fill in detailed professional and personal profile forms, and write mini-essays on their leadership style, or even how they would approach a client-specific issue.

Most firms, including those with special features like those I just mentioned, conduct two or three interviews with targeted candidates before they are submitted.

In our case, we use two or three screening interviews along with a DiSC profile from each candidate that we will match against  the cultural profile we developed from our client.   The first interview is typically conducted on the telephone.   If you are selected to advance, you will meet the engagement partner for a 3+-hour interview in which a portion will be videotaped and presented to the client as part of our overall dossier.

In this age of technology, some firms are forgoing the face-to-face interviews in favor of videoconference meetings between the partner and the candidate.  They say it saves time and money.  Ok, I get it – we need to be sensitive to client expenses.  But not at the expense of obtaining a complete assessment of a candidate’s substance and that is something, I believe, you cannot obtain by looking at someone on a computer or big screen tv.

Let’s talk about references.  Most firms will also conduct reference checks prior to you being submitted for client consideration.  While the industry standard has been for the candidate to provide three references, we recommend four — one or two superiors, people you have worked for in the past, one or two colleagues, peers you have worked with in recent past and at least one subordinate, an individual you have previously supervised.

Increasingly, firms are now conducting background checks on candidates they plan to submit to the client.  We use outside investigators which requires that candidates sign a special release under the fair credit reporting act of 1998, as amended.  Even if they are not checking a candidate’s credit, the requirements and protections of this law come into play.

So why would a recruiter want to review your credit profile?  What investigators are typically looking for are patterns of inappropriate behavior or evidence of prior fraud or judgments from inappropriate business ventures.  In essence, what they want to know is if there is something in a candidate’s background that, if disclosed publicly, would prevent them from discharging their duties or would harm the reputation of the employer.

In my more than 22 years of executive recruiting, I have encountered only a small handful of situations from a credit report that precluded a candidates from advancing.  By law, we cannot show the client this report.  We can only report serious adverse findings.

The search process can be a frustrating ordeal for candidates, even when all the trains are running on time.

If the firm cannot provide you information on the project timeline, or if there big gaps in what they do not know about their client, that is a red flag that you must seriously consider.  You do not want to accept a position that turns into a career train wreck that seriously damages your brand.

Finally, as a candidate, you must remember that regardless of your relationship with the recruiter, internally or with the firm, they are not your representative or your career coach.  They represent the client.  The honest souls who practice this craft do an amazing job of balancing the needs of their clients with the needs of the candidate, but in the end, you must keep your own counsel when it comes to negotiations.

Less you think I am being too tough on my brethren, please know that I love my profession just as so many of my colleagues do.  We know that our work can help a client be more successful, or can cause great harm.

We also know that when you recruit an executive to move to a new job — across town or across the country — that is serious business.  So much rides on these types of decisions, from the happiness and the well-being of an executive’s family to the success of their new company.