How to Evaluate an Executive Search Firm

Choosing the right firm to conduct an executive search is crucial. Some search firms/recruiters are better suited for certain projects than others but there is no formula to make the decision obvious. Firm size, recognized name, number of offices, and size of database have little relationship to a firm’s ability to represent your interests. You want to hire a firm that will bring you the highest quality candidates, in a reasonable period of time, and charge you a fair price. The size of a firm and its database have little correlation to a firm’s ability to represent your interests. The key is to ensure that the objectives of the search firm are in line with yours. Consistent results are achieved by search firms that are totally committed to personal service and quality.

When selecting a search firm consider the following factors:

  • Retained searches are typically done for executive level searches and contingency is more often used at the mid-level roles.
  • Retained or Contingency – You will be required to guarantee payment to a retained firm, but you should also receive a personal guarantee of their commitment. You can contractually protect yourself by insisting that the final fee be contingent on hire, but not all firms will agree to those terms. A contingency firm is only paid if you hire their candidate; they often look for the “quick hit” and may not be fully committed to your search. A more detailed comparison of retained firms vs contingency firms by linking in or in the resource center.
  • Be sure the search firm is committed to completing every search.
  • Be sure your business is important to the search firm and won’t be put on the back burner in relation to other searches.
  • Get a personal guarantee that the search consultant is committed to the project until the search is completed.

Evaluation Criteria

  • Do they have experience recruiting within the industry sector desired?
  • Do they have experience at the executive levels you require?
  • Do they have experience in the necessary market, function, and geography?
  • Can they properly define the role and the key candidate characteristics?
  • Who is going to do the work on the search? How experienced are they? Make sure you are dealing with the person/people actually doing the search.
  • How many searches is your search consultant currently doing? If they are doing more than four-five searches, your search may not get the attention it requires.
  • What companies are off limits? Will this impact their ability to do your search?
  • Ask about their search completion percentage. Every firm fails from time to time, and it is not always their fault. Ask them to talk about what searches have failed and why.
  • Is the fee arrangement clear and in writing? Is there an administration fee (large firms 15% and small firms 10% or actual expenses)? Are expenses included in the fee or billed to the client? Does the search firm have “capped or fixed fee” contracts?
  • Ask the search consultant to describe a typical search process. How many people does he/she typically call? How are most candidates identified? How long do most searches take?
  • What guarantee does the search firm provide? Some larger firms have been known to walk away from difficult searches. Smaller firms typically won’t do that, but they do tend to lose motivation. What happens if the selected candidate does not work out after a period of time?
  • How often will you get updates on the search? Timeframe for update calls to keep the communication flowing should be established.
  • Can they set expectations regarding relocation issues?
  • Do they understand the compensation and benefits?
  • Ask detailed questions until comfortable with the consultant, as it will be a relationship and not a transaction.

Things to Consider

  • The search consultant should be willing to spend hours on the front end of the search to meet with the executive team (and BoD or search committee if utilized) to clearly define a spec and understand the company culture.
  • Make sure the search consultant understands exactly what you are looking for and that they are someone you can trust to be objective.
  • Be sure you feel confident that you can work closely with this search consultant for several months and that you trust this person to represent your company.