Insight

Vetting Executive Search Firms and Questions to Ask

by Sami Barry
Question marks
Retaining a search firm to find a key professional is a big decision. After all, it’s a significant investment of time and money. To ensure that you retain the right firm for your organization and its needs, you’ll want to vet them thoroughly, and if you’re new to the realm of executive search, this task can be intimidating. So, here’s our advice, as search consultants, of how to do this effectively.  
 
Whether you were referred to a search firm or simply found them by googling certain keywords, the first thing you want to do is review their website. Is it informative and functional? Does it have your organization’s industry noted on it? Does it show their team? Bring up the website on your cell phone – is it responsive? While this may seem trivial, it can actually be a sign of their progressiveness as it relates to their internal operations and their approach to searches.
 
Of course, exploring their website is just the beginning. There are lots of questions to ask prior to engaging a firm, especially one that operates on a retained basis. Delving into the firm's experience, its search process, and its capabilities is well worth your time because it will help you to better perceive how well they will represent your organization, if you want to work with them, and how strong the return on your investment could be. 
 

While the following recommended questions may seem like a lot, a reputable firm and experienced consultant will appreciate your thoroughness. 

The "weeding out” questions:  

  • Do they specialize in your industry and/or in the role’s function?

A specialized firm that works in your industry comes with many advantages, including knowledge and understanding of your sector, a strong network of pertinent contacts, and the ability to identify and attract professionals who aren’t actively seeking new opportunities. 

A retained firm represents your organization on an exclusive basis, works in partnership with you, and conducts a comprehensive strategic search to find a candidate with the right technical skills, as well as cultural fit. Standard fees are 30 – 35% of the selected candidate's first year's salary, and the firm is paid a retainer upfront. A contingency firm does not work with you exclusively, and it may be working with your competitors at the same time, even sending you the same candidates. Contingency recruiters are only paid if they place someone with your firm and typically charge 27 – 35%. Both types of firms have their advantages and disadvantages, and depending upon which you select, you can have very different experiences. 

  • What is their fee and billing structure? 

"Dig deeper" questions:

  • What is their search process, and how do they differentiate themselves among their competitors?

  • What recent relevant searches have they performed?

  • How will they get to know your organization, so they understand your need (its objectives, internal culture, structure, role, minimum and preferred qualifications of candidates, etc.)

  • Who would be handling your search and representing your organization in the marketplace? What is his/her experience? Will you have direct access to him/her? 

  • What is their current workload, and how many similar searches are being conducted? How will those affect your search?

  • How do they source candidates? Do they have “off limits” organizations for candidate sources meaning they cannot recruit from those entities? If so, will it limit the talent pool for your search?  

  • When they present job candidates, how much information will you get? Do they have a finite number of candidates that they will present?   

  • How will they manage the interview process? Will they perform the first round of interviews? 

  • How do they conduct references? 

  • How long does a typical search take? 

​The general timeline in the market is approximately 120 days, which can vary with the difficulty and level of the search.

  • What is their guarantee period, and how is it defined? 

​Typical guarantee is 6 months if the position description and how the role was originally presented to the candidate hasn't changed.

  • What is their post-search follow through process? Do they continue to follow up with you and the candidate after the search is completed, and for how long?  

Finally, ask for references of clients and candidates with whom they’ve worked in the last 5 years and call them because talking to references is the most important thing you do to evaluate search firms, even if you were referred to them.

Be prepared to answer the consultant’s questions about your organization, the role, and many other factors surrounding the prospective search. Take their questions as a good sign because it means they're considering if they have the abilities to complete your search successfully. From these initial discussions, you will come to understand the firm's and the consultant's abilities to provide comprehensive, focused, and strategic recruitment services that are right for you, your team, and your organization.

If you have an upcoming talent need and would like to talk with one of our consultants, and maybe even ask them the outlined questions, reach out to us!