Executive search pitfalls: Steering clear of the three fatal flaws

Let’s assume that you’ve made the (really wise) decision to partner with an executive search firm to fill a critical leadership role. You probably did this because you really (really) need to find the best talent, but can’t/don’t want to do it yourself for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Your current network has its limitations
  • You, ideally, want to make a great diversity hire and don’t know where to start
  • You need to ensure a proper due diligence process
  • You need to find and place the very best talent available in the market
  • Your internal talent acquisition team – if you have one – doesn’t have the time or capacity to engage with candidates at this level
  • You need the whole project to be handled confidentially and professionally.

This non-exhaustive list is usually the precursor or motivation behind hiring a reputable retained search firm (global or boutique) to support your strategic hiring efforts. It comes at a cost but, in the right hands, will guarantee substantial ROI in terms of the quality of the appointment. At the very least, it provides reassurance that you followed a robust and rigorous process.

So considering the cost, time, effort, hopes, dreams and expectations rolled up in the decision to work with an executive headhunter, it is worth doing it properly.

But there are three big pitfalls which will negate the value of the process, and these need to be avoided at all costs:

  1. Taking shortcuts when briefing

Think of the search firm and the team working on your assignment as your company’s ambassadors in the market. Even if the role is confidential and headhunters are requested not to disclose your company’s identity in the early stages of the process, they will at some point need to divulge this, together with a significant and substantial amount of information about the organisation and its vision or mission, the role, the leadership team and board (depending on level), growth, transformation or digitization plans, reporting structure, and EVP.

Arm your search partners with all the information they’ll need to position the role strongly and appropriately with the right calibre candidates, and to answer technical or challenging questions from people ‘in the know’ about your industry or market.

Do not leave them high and dry, unable to answer relevant questions pertinent to the job. There is nothing that turns top level candidates off more than intermediaries who come across as unprofessional, out of their depth, or lacking in knowledge due to insufficient time spent briefing.

  1. Ignoring the search firm’s advice in favour of your wishlist

One of the primary selection criteria for a search partner should be their industry expertise (i.e. they know your sector well), their functional credentials (i.e. they have placed similar types of roles before), or their geographic network and local knowledge (i.e. they have networks in talent pools in certain countries or markets).

Assuming that you go with one of these, to ignore the experts’ market-related advice is somewhat counter-productive. If they provide guidelines or data on package ranges, insights into the scope of experience typically found in types of roles, or recommendations regarding when to look (or not look) for good quality candidates, trying to enforce your wishlist nonetheless is counter-productive and not in your best interests.

  1. Using outdated shopping list-style job descriptions

Part of the skill and added value that a search firm offers, is the ability to craft a really well-worded job description, that highlights the core skills and competencies required from a qualified candidate, and differentiates between experience criteria and behavioural attributes that are non-negotiable for the role (there are typically only very few of these). These are helpful in finding the right person, as opposed to never-ending list of nice-to-haves (which narrows your net unnecessarily and could lead to great candidates falling by the wayside for no reason).

The ‘crafter’ of the job description will also help you articulate the unique value proposition of the company and the role, without using too many hackneyed cliches.

To achieve a high quality document like this takes some time, and is done preferably in collaboration with the key stakeholders, including board members and advisors, where appropriate. To overlook this foundational part of the process is a mistake.

Equally important is ensuring that the role is neither too broadly nor too narrowly defined, or that ‘critical requirements’ are not specified as non-negotiable, when in fact they are preferences. Consider this document the framework for screening candidates in or out of the process. Too narrow, and you’ll miss out on some potentially great talent. Too broad and you’ll not bring in the people from the kinds of companies in the industry sectors you most covet.

In other words, leverage the expertise that your executive search partner will very likely have on offer. And then partner with them properly. This is all included in the fee you’ll be paying in any case, so gain maximum value for your buck.

Author Info: Debbie Goodman

Debbie is Group CEO of Jack Hammer, a global group of executive search, talent advisory and leadership coaching companies. For more than 20 years she has partnered with some of the world’s most progressive companies, NPOs and VC-backed disruptors, in the USA and Africa, to help them find great leaders who drive growth and impact.

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