Rules of the hunt

It’s not a game for amateurs anymore — a 10-step program for building a successful relationship with executive headhunters executive recruitment

It was the sort of call a headhunter never forgets because it led to that fabled win-win every consultant dreams of.

A major distribution company, and long-time client, asked for help in finding a new V.P. of finance. “Sure,” I said, “when’s the briefing?” “Skip it,” replied my contact: “You’ve done so much work with us, you know exactly what we want.”

After working with this company so closely, I did indeed have a pretty fair idea of the qualifications they were looking for. More importantly, I understood what sort of personality would fit into the company best — and fit is as important as qualifications, if not more important. (Actually, I figure that a successful placement is 75 per cent chemistry and 25 per cent skill.)

The result: one of the fastest searches of my career. I soon dug up a short list of four candidates; the client loved them all. The one chosen has enjoyed a stellar career, and I completed my 35th assignment for that company. (I’ve now been to more of their parties than half of their senior management.)

That assignment represents a model of how the search business should work. Client and consultant, harried executive and professional headhunter, working together to build the best management team possible.

Real life, unfortunately, rarely runs so smoothly. Many search assignments are marred by miscues, miscommunication and even mistrust.

Some HR practitioners resent consultants, dismissing them as high-paid “hired guns.” Thankfully, most HR people realize that the search consultant’s job is the same as theirs: to build the organization.

Search professionals merely do what every manager would do, if they had the time, the experience and the contacts. HR professionals and headhunters have complementary skills. Headhunters know the outside marketplace. HR departments know the company’s dynamics and idiosyncrasies. The best results are achieved when both work together.

And as for the money? As with other professional-services firms, good search consultants don’t come cheap. But then, compare the high cost — in money and opportunities lost — of a bad hiring decision. Ultimately, consultants have to create value for their clients; you’ll never get rich doing one-off assignments.

The best search consultants create win-win results by balancing the needs of the employer with the reality of the marketplace. They have the freedom (and the moxie) to cold-call competitors or scan new industries. They can size up a person’s true nature (I call it separating the best candidates from those who merely interview well, and it’s not really a game for amateurs any more). Finally, they are masters of the neglected art of reference checking, including asking the tough questions that elicit elusive truths.

If you use a headhunter, how do you achieve the trust and teamwork that creates win-wins? Start at the beginning. Here’s a 10-step guide to achieving the successful search.

Step 1

A successful search starts with selecting the right search firm. Here are specific questions you should ask, and concerns to watch:

•Who is going to conduct the search? The senior partner selling the service is frequently not the person who will conduct the search. Meet the individuals who will do the work.

•Probe the consultants who will conduct your search. Do they understand your industry? What about the pertinent functional area, such as sales or finance? (If they don’t have direct experience, ask how they intend to make up for that. ) Probe their interview expertise. Do they really have the experience and analytical ability to assess skill, competence and fit?

•A successful search relies on good research. Research staff are often backroom people working the phones; they supply many of the leads the consultants follow up. Find out who will be doing the research for your search. What training do they have? How closely will the consultant guide their work?

•Not all searches pan out. Ask what your search firm will do if a candidate just doesn’t fit in. Look for firms that offer a guarantee that they will do the search again.

•Ask about conflicts of interest. Search consultants have traditionally pledged not to recruit from client companies, usually for one or two years. That’s good ethics, but consider the implication: using a large firm, or one that specializes in a particular industry, means your search might have to exclude many potential candidates.

There’s a flip side to this “hands-off” policy. In recent years, some search firms have backed off from their vow not to recruit from clients; some now will commit only to not recruiting from specific divisions, or even the manager’s department. Clarify your consultant’s policies, to avoid any surprises should they come raiding you three months later.

Step 2

Before selecting a search firm, ask for client references. Reference-checking is a cornerstone of the recruiting process; it’s also key when selecting any professional services firm. If a search firm balks at supplying clients’ names and numbers, consider that a warning flag.

Step 3

Once you have selected your search firm, build a relationship with them. Consider them part of your management team. You have the same goal: to build the business by recruiting the best talent available. We have some long time clients that will regularly copy us on some internal memos — just to keep us up to date on key organizational changes.

Step 4

Clearly define your requirements. Make sure the job description reflects the needs of the position. Does the consultant thoroughly understand the position, your expectations and your corporate culture? Make this a dialogue; an experienced consultant can help fine-tune the job description and the desired attributes of the ideal candidate.

Step 5

Work together on setting a pay range for the position. Respect the advice of your search firm; they may be more in tune with today’s market.

Step 6

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Discuss how the search will be conducted, and agree on target dates. For example, you may agree that the long-list meeting (review of industries and candidates targeted) will take place three weeks after the assignment begins.

Be specific about the feedback you require. How many progress reports do you need, and when?

Make company resources, from senior personnel to organization charts, available to the consultant. And be available yourself for meetings, interviews and sudden questions. Nothing discourages a consultant more than waiting days to get a call returned.

Inform the consultant immediately about any changes in the search, such as responsibilities or reporting relationships. And if you have questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to call them.

Step 7

As the search progresses, your involvement will grow. Keep your company engaged; I’ve seen many candidates lose interest in a position when the company seemed to be neglecting its search role.

When the consultant submits an assessment of the long list of candidates, be ready to offer feedback and guidance. When it’s time to meet the candidates, make sure all your executives are briefed and committed. Interviewers should take notes so they can provide specific feedback to the search consultant. He needs to know why you liked some candidates and what you found lacking in others.

Step 8

Once decisions have been made and the necessary checks completed, be decisive. Don’t drag your feet on making an offer. Many promising candidates have turned their backs on an opportunity because they thought the company couldn’t make a decision.

Step 9

Let the search consultant serve as middleman in negotiating the offer. He can add value to the process on both sides and help achieve a successful outcome.

Step 10

Your top pick has joined your team; the search is over. Your consultant should now be monitoring the candidate’s adjustment. He should provide progress reports on the candidate’s settling-in period and assist to ensure a smooth transition. Remember: the search consultant wants the new executive to succeed as much as you do.

The best consultants want long-term relationships. By working closely with you throughout the search and afterwards, they gain valuable insights into your company and culture. This learning, of course, will mainly pay off by making their next assignment with you even more productive. But, chances are, that’s what you want too.

Michael Stern is president of Michael Stern Associates Inc., an executive search firm in Toronto, and a partner in Canada’s Executive Search Alliance and the IMD International Search and Consulting Network. He may be contacted at (416) 593-0100.

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