How to Select a Search Firm

When choosing a search firm, you should carefully question the firms you are considering before entering into a relationship.We believe the following questions will be particularly helpful:

Exactly who will be doing the work?

If more than one person will be involved, find out who will be responsible for which parts of the search and the number of years' experience each person involved has in executive search.

How many other assignments is the person who will be responsible for your search handling now?

Determine where the timeline for your search intersects with those of other clients. Determine if the search firm has mechanisms in place to ensure that their consultants are not overloaded with assignments.

Can we speak with references?

Speak with at least two former clients of the search firm. Find out what went well and what went poorly in working with the search firm. Find out how quality-oriented the search firm is.

What will the search firm's general approach be?

You are entitled to know what organizations will be targeted and why. Find out whether there is a secondary plan of attack in case Plan A does not produce a sufficient number of qualified candidates.

When should you expect to see candidates?

Find out what form status reports will take and how often you will get them. Find out whether the search firm is willing to share detailed information about their contacts.

How is the final candidate slate determined?

Once the search firm has narrowed to a slate of +10 potential candidates, find out how they narrow to the final three or four you will meet. Listen carefully to see how much importance they place on face-to-face interviews, the role testing plays, and reference timing (referencing at the 11th hour just before an offer is delivered risks wasting hours of time on someone who may be only a B player).

Suppose you are not satisfied with the slate of candidates, what happens then?

Find out what happens if you aren't comfortable with the candidate group presented – and/or if the successful candidate leaves within the first year.

How are "re-dos" handled, if necessary?

Determine what happens if the search must be redone – and at what cost.

Ask about the search firm's "stick rate."

Determine how many successful candidates are still employed after three, five or even ten years. However, be aware that there is no right answer here since new economy firms tend to have more turnover than utilities. It is important to get a feel for whether these firms know (i.e., care) about the people whose lives they have changed forever.

Does the search firm have values consistent with your company's?

Be aware that the search firm will be an extension of your company until you begin meeting candidates. Be sure to select a firm with whom you would enjoy working with on a day-to-day basis and whom you expect would treat potential candidates just as you treat your employees and customers.

Is the search firm a member of Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC)?

The Association of Executive Search Consultants, an international consortium of the world's leading retainer firms, is considered the benchmark organization in the search field. If your firm is not a member, ask if they are familiar with the AESC Code of Ethics. Are they willing to abide by it?

These are tough questions. However, if an assignment is important enough to use executive search, you cannot be too careful. Quality firms will give you straight answers.You will then be in a position to make an informed decision.