How to get the most out of your executive search firm

Bad search firms can’t hide in this talent market. We asked top executive recruiters and the VC talent partners who work with them for advice on how to find and work with a high-end firm.

Three workers waiting for a job interview.

Like any external partner, recruiters need to be managed, and the leaders who hire them need to play an active role in the process of finding great executives.

Photo: Hispanolistic via Getty Images

So, you got lucky and rose to the top of a search firm’s waitlist. Now, how do you make sure your executive recruiters — whom you’re likely paying at least $100,000 to help find your next CXO or VP — get the job done well?

Like any external partner, recruiters need to be managed, and the leaders who hire them need to play an active role in the process of finding great executives. We asked top executive recruiters, as well as some of the VC talent partners who work with them most frequently, for advice on how to get the most out of an executive search firm.

Choose the firm carefully.

Search firms have different networks, and different specialties. Michelle Delcambre, operating partner at Felicis Ventures, recommends working with highly specialized firms. Look for search partners with a rep search list — a track record of recent searches they’ve completed — that’s as relevant to your company’s search as possible.

“Most startups have a network of their own, or they have investors who have a network,” Delcambre said. “If they’re leveraging executive search, it’s for access to a broader network, and to someone who understands the market.”

Beyond that, the right recruiters can help sway top talent to consider a new job, Delcambre said.

The going rate for a search at most firms is 28% to 33% of the executive’s first-year pay, and it’s becoming more common for search partners to ask for equity. Not all companies want to give equity, so decide whether that’s a dealbreaker when evaluating firms.

Lastly, don’t get overly hung up on a search firm’s fee, one VC talent partner said: If the right head of sales can take your business from $500,000 to $25 million in revenue, does it matter that you paid $50,000 more for a search firm with a better network or more relevant expertise?

Align expectations early.

Communicating openly and early about the process will help clients learn what they’re getting into, and recruiters to know whether they’ll be able to deliver on the client’s expectations.

Talk with the recruiters about the market, the role, the compensation and other expectations related to the search. That conversation should take place before signing the contract, said Delcambre.

“The better we do that, the more we avoid situations where the client’s not happy with the level of candidates that they’re getting,” said Mike Foley, regional managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Technology and Services practice in the Americas. “Having that partnership and that relationship to be able to give tough feedback both ways, I think, is helpful to come to the right conclusion.”

Check in throughout the week.

Treat your search firm as a partner, not just a vendor, said Frank Cumella, a partner at search firm Daversa Partners.

“This is your search partner, your strategic adviser for what we all agree is the most important part of your business: your people, your talent,” Cumella said. “It’s not a once-a-week check-in sort of relationship.”

In Cumella’s view, founders should be exchanging “constant feedback” with their search partners over mediums like text and Slack. Holly Rose Faith, executive talent partner at Greylock, recommended calling the search partner immediately after meeting a candidate to share feedback.

“The quicker you’re able to move with both giving feedback and getting feedback, the more advantageous it is for you in order to close your search,” Faith said. “Bringing [search partners] as close as you possibly can to the search is going to have, ultimately, the best outcome for you.”

Get comfortable with feedback.

Founders should both be able to trust their search partners and expect some pushback when they disagree, Cumella said.

Be willing to give your search partners negative feedback about candidates — and to receive the critiques that candidates pass along, said Faith.

“Our human nature is we’re sensitive on how we give feedback,” Faith said. “The best thing you can do is to make that open line of communication so that you both get the positive feedback, but then you also get the critical feedback.”

That can help improve your search and interview process, enhance the way your company is being pitched to candidates and refine the way you evaluate potential hires.

Know what you want, but keep an open mind.

Be clear about how you’re defining success. Being clear with recruiters about what the role should look like will move the process faster, Delcambre said.

But sometimes, clients have an overly prescriptive vision for the executive they’re looking for, said Foley.

“Don’t get me wrong: That’s our job, to try to find that,” Foley said. “But outside of that, I think they have to have — especially in this market — an openness to look at different avenues to solve the search.”

That could be moving from a regional leader to a global leader, or considering an executive at a much bigger company, Foley said.

While your search partner doesn’t know your company as well as you do, you don’t know the talent market as well as they do — and they have the perspective of hundreds or thousands of past placements. Some founders have never even hired an executive before, and it’s the search partner’s job to serve as an adviser.

Try to be patient.

Everyone wants to find the perfect candidate in the least amount of time. That includes recruiters: Executive search contracts are typically paid in three installments over 90 days, so recruiters are incentivized to get the search done as quickly as possible.

But search firms are brand-conscious, and in some cases recruiters will continue working on a difficult search for six months or even a year, Faith said. There’s a range of how long a search will take: A company may only need to meet four candidates before finding the right person. In other cases, it could take 30 intros, Faith said.

Delcambre recommended that clients optimize for hiring the right executive, even if it takes longer to find them.

“Of course it makes sense to get these done as quickly as possible,” Delcambre said. “But it is a really tight talent market. Talent is being really thoughtful about moving.”

Speak up if you’re not satisfied.

Subpar search partners can’t hide in this talent market: With so many opportunities, it’s tougher than ever to reach top candidates.

One VC talent partner said she’d seen three companies walk away from search firms in the last year over low-quality work. Good candidates weren’t moving forward, too many bad candidates were surfacing and the search partners weren’t managing the client relationship well.

In one case, the search firm agreed that the work was so bad, it refunded the whole fee. A second company got a partial refund. A third company, a Series B startup looking for a VP of Engineering, heard objections from the search partner about how tough the market was — but when that company went to another search firm, it was introduced to a steady stream of candidates.

On the other hand, companies that aren’t closing the right candidates might have themselves to blame, said Delcambre.

“It’s incumbent upon companies to be the kind of company that talent wants to go and work for,” Delcambre said. “The best executive search firm in the world will help you find talent, but they can’t make you a better or more appealing organization.”

Think long term

Executive teams evolve over time as companies grow. Talent partners at VC firms can help advise on how companies should plan for this at different stages, Delcambre said.

“The roles, the motivators, the outputs, the expectations change on both sides — both for the company and for the person you’re putting in that role,” Delcambre said.

If founders are looking ahead, they can be more proactive about filling important roles without a sudden time crunch.

“There’s value in companies and founders understanding not just what they need today,” Delcambre said, “but what it’s going to look like in a few hundred million more in revenue or a few years down the road.”


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