Demystifying the Executive Recruitment Process

More than ever before, executives are focused on attracting top talent to their companies.

As the groundbreaking management book The War for Talent noted: "The war for managerial talent will be a defining feature of the business landscape for many years to come."'

That was a significant statement at the time it was made, and it could not be more true today. That means executive recruiting, or headhunting, is more crucial to business leaders than ever before.

Yet, paying recruiters to find talent is viewed by many executives as a necessary evil because they believe there is no alternative.

Unfortunately, this bad rap is only partially undeserved because the recruiting process often lacks transparency. Many clients don't have a good understanding of what they are paying for, compared with other professional services such as legal and accounting. This lack of transparency frustrates clients, but seems to be fostered by the industry. It doesn't have to be this way.

The headhunting phenomenon began informally with well-connected former industry executives with big rolodexes and great contacts. In those days, searches were simple: You needed someone and headhunters put calls out and found someone. Today, an effective search is much more sophisticated, yet myths continue to dominate.

To help dispel these myths -- and ultimately find the right candidates -- business leaders and human resource departments must work closely with recruiters to better understand the process.

It's often thought successful headhunters have the biggest lists of contacts. Don't believe it. I remember working with one search veteran who perpetually milked his rolodex for all it was worth and rarely went beyond it.

No matter how well connected a person is, no matter how large a rolodex, they cannot replace a thorough and intensive research that uncovers fresh, attractive candidates. It is common for effective research to assemble between 150 and 200 potential candidates for each search.

Can a rolodex play a role in assembling such a pool? Absolutely. But the names from a rolodex should only form a small component of a robust search pool. Business leaders should find a search professional who builds a broad and fresh pool of candidates and doesn't allow his rolodex to rule over his judgment.

It's commonly held that companies should choose a search firm that specializes in their industry. In truth, just because a recruiting firm understands an industry, doesn't mean it can find the best candidates.

I have seen industry networks become "old boys clubs" that don't contain the fresh talent companies are looking for. And I have seen hard work trump industry expertise time and again. As well, industry experience will likely only produce a small number of appropriate candidates for a position because any one industry provides a limited field of talent compared with what exists across industry sectors.

Another common mistake is that a company should choose an executive recruiter who has offices in the city where it plans to hire. But sound and extensive research knows no geographical boundaries.

For example, we recently recruited a chief executive from a big U.S. city for a specialized industrial company in a small Ontario town. The reason was there were no potential candidates in Canada for that industry sub-sector. When one begins looking for a recruiter, it's best to choose a firm that's got a proven methodology, not simply an office down the street.

The truth is firms that work for multiple clients in one industry have a conflict of interest. They need to create "Chinese walls," which places many of the best candidates off limits. The result is sub-par recruiting. It's simple: If they are working for your competitors, they can't recruit potentially good candidates from those firms for you.

Ideally, you want a firm that can focus solely on your needs. Buyers of a search would be well advised not to be impressed by firms because they have multiple clients in the same sector -- in fact, they should be wary.

We are referring to the databases big search firms build and then market to prospective clients as something that makes them better. The pitch goes something like this: "Our search firm has a large proprietary database. We'll plug your requirements in and immediately find a huge list of appropriate candidates."

The truth is databases deliver names and numbers, but rarely the best candidates. Some years ago, a friend joined a big search firm with a big proprietary database. When conducting a search for a chief financial officer, he went to the database and was delighted to find an individual who fit the bill.

He quickly placed a call to the prospect but was surprised to hear from the individual's wife that the candidate had passed away. When he expressed his condolences, he was told it was a little late -- he had been gone for five years. 

The short search -- sometimes referred to as the "smart search" -- refers to finding the 25 most compelling candidates from a database, rolodex and contacts, then doing some quick-and-dirty research, and developing a list of the top five to present to the client. This method is fast and inexpensive, but short cuts don't yield consistent quality. There are times when a client is in crisis mode and absolutely needs someone quickly, in which case short can be sweet.

But if a business has the time to invest in a longer process, it will be guaranteed a larger candidate pool and far greater odds of a better shortlist. That often means 200 or more calls -- the 200th call may yield the best candidate. Search comes down to research. The two words belong together and anyone who is going to deliver the best talent to his or her clients will take the time to do the intensive research that uncovers the best people. It's not glamorous. It's often painstaking and laborious. But it works.