Survey Says: 6 Tips for Picking a Search Partner
by Steve Tennessen
Executive search is getting stale, and HR knows it. Faster than ever, technology is wildly eroding accessibility constraints and has already commoditised candidate sourcing to a large extent. A bloated rolodex is no longer the silver bullet for many search professionals. And with the recent economic turmoil, more search groups are playing it safe. Unfortunately safe often means cookie-cutter service, a numbers game recycling many of the "usual suspects" and also-ran candidates. However as HR leaders are rapidly expanding their role as strategic partners in the boardroom, more need be expected from service providers.
Third-party executive search is still a prevailing solution when, as one Fortune 500 executive put it, "you need to get it right, right now." But in our progressively over-stimulated world, how do you separate the difference-makers from the value-fakers? That question was posed to dozens of HR leaders in the TRANSEARCH network, representing a variety of industries and a range of companies big and small. Thankfully, participants went beyond obvious do's (verify industry track-record) and don'ts (sign any contract without a candidate replacement guarantee). With this bevy of source material, below we distilled the most thought-provoking feedback into tips "by HR, for HR".
TIP #1: A Differentiator must actually be Different
More than anything, HR leaders must understand exactly how a given search group is better (or best). Ask consultants to qualify, specifically, how their differentiator impacts both the talent cycle and the business overall. Search professionals better take heed, a Food & Beverage HR executive warned "when I ask about differentiators, I don't hire anyone who immediately refers to a network, a database, global locations, or the same old search process I see on every website." Good point, given enough time and resources just about anyone can close the gap in terms of contacts and procedural elements.
TIP #2: Get to Know everyone who will Impact your Search
Developing rapport with the lead consultant is obvious, but rarely do HR and the Hiring Committee access the supporting cast. This is surprising, not only because companies need to understand who is actually doing the work, but because companies need to understand who is actually doing the work. One career HR professional mused "Most lead consultants are reliable but I know how the food chain works on that side. I sometimes worry that less capable or experienced recruiters are missing things, simply because they don't know any better. I also get nervous about how the front-line recruiter (and the subsequent hand-off) affects the candidate experience and our brand." Comments like this began surfacing back in the 90's prompting some (like TRANSEARCH) to implement a team-delivery model where multiple consultants each with 15+ years of experience, drive search fulfilment.
TIP #3: Dissect how they profile Compensation & Relocation
Some call it the recruiting tiger-trap, when you get excited about a candidate only to find out in late stages the individual doesn't fit your target compensation or can't reconcile with your relocation plan. A Utility HR leader grumbled "this is my biggest pet peeve about search firms...I always have them walk me thru a current example of what they report, and usually I ask for a written sample too." Any reputable search professional will cover the basics of salary and location with candidates, but few have the foresight (or patience) to "itemise" short-term and long-term incentives, or home situations and lifestyle preferences.
TIP #4: Check (and double-check) Off-Limits restrictions
Veteran HR is careful to check Off-Limits but some consultants have been guilty of playing with smoke-and-mirrors. In truth many of the large global firms are locked out of numerous target companies, while nimble boutique firms may lack the credibility of executing at your level. Any good consultant will ask for your Wish List but to further clarify your options prior to search, have them specify a dozen or more attractive target companies and enforce that list. If you sense withholding behind the scenes, have them report on progress and attempts with key individuals.
TIP #5: Ask for a Case Study of "Outside the Industry" Hires
For years, thought leaders have debated the executive-level significance of "knows the industry" vs. "knows how to lead". Often the answer depends on the situation but when it comes to executive search, assessing candidates on the former is much easier than the latter. One HR executive in the clean tech space (where "industry migration" is rather common) remarked, "I can recognise industry players and hunt for keywords on a resume as good as anyone...what I want to understand is how executive recruiters evaluate the soft skills. Case studies are great, it forces them to be specific and it tests communication." As a corollary, some companies avoid niche recruiters (by industry or by role) because executives question their perspective and versatility.
TIP #6: Check References - the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Sure, most search professionals are honest enough. But as with candidates, the story you hear directly is often the ideal state and you want to tap into reality. One crafty HR leader admitted "Before getting to references I ask about their best search, their toughest search...and then later I ask to speak with those client contacts as references. Usually their reaction is more revealing than the actual reference call." Bold, but intriguing. Respect the Rule of 3; some companies even change it up by asking for references from placements or recent candidates instead.
So when was the last time you evaluated your process for picking search partners?
Copyright © TRANSEARCH International 2012