A search firm and client can spend 15 minutes or 15 hours drafting a position specification, but it can emerge a useless document either way. A well-crafted specification, spec for short, is the foundation upon which a successful search is built. Without the right approach and investment of effort—clearly assessing, defining, and communicating the opportunity—the entire search risks collapse down the road.
"I once had a search firm take a job description our human resources department gave them, reformat it, slap their logo on it, and send it back to us. Totally unprofessional and unacceptable."
— CEO for global technology company
The search firm is responsible for developing the spec, but the client should provide more than a generic job description and a single conversation with their human resources department. Rather, the search firm needs to meet—in person if feasible—with a number of key stakeholders from the client, ideally those who will be most involved with the position. For a Chief Financial Officer search, the client should expect the search firm to meet, substantively, with the Chief Executive Officer, direct reports from the finance staff, other senior executives, and perhaps even members of the Audit Committee and the Board.
"The search firm either pasted our name onto one they had used before, or wasn't paying much attention, because the spec kept referring to our extensive operations in Europe. We're a single-site facility based in Milwaukee."
— CHRO for industrial manufacturing company
These meetings benefit and facilitate the search process in a number of ways. Obviously they provide a more thorough understanding of fundamental responsibilities, business operations the position will impact, and levels of connection the position will have across the organization. They help identify where a predecessor has been successful and also unearths potentials for dysfunction. If the search firm and client have not previously worked together, these meetings provide the consultant with a sense of the client organization's culture and work environment.
"The process of crafting the spec really made us sit down and think: Were we looking for a change agent? Someone to keep the trains running on time? Building consensus in the early going made it that much easier for our team to agree on the ultimately successful candidate."
— Board Member for national not-for-profit organization
Importantly, the search firm can also evaluate consistency in message: If human resources sees the position one way, the CEO another, and the Audit Committee a third, alarm bells should sound. A top-tier candidate will easily identify that level of disconnect through the interview process; internal alignment of key stakeholders is prerequisite for a successful search.
"I hate to see a position specification full of implicitly obvious attributes, such as "positive attitude," "good work ethic." It should clearly and concisely describe the ideal candidate we are looking for with as much specificity as possible."
— COO for major professional services firm
The spec should be a synthesis of everything the search firm has learned about the client and the position. It should show the client that the search firm truly understands—and is in agreement—on the defining points of both the position and the company. To the outside world, the spec serves as both an "RFP" for candidates and as marketing material for the client. It will often be the first impression the client makes with potential candidates. The quality of the spec, like the quality of a candidate's resume, is an initial and direct reflection of the caliber of its author.
"The specific objectives they wanted to accomplish represented the next logical step in my career path—they clearly knew what they wanted and the obvious effort they put into the spec told me volumes about how they valued this position."
— CMO candidate
Beyond an introduction and point of conversation, the search firm should use the spec to shape the rest of the search process, as well. A good firm will use it to develop targeted questions and identify areas to focus on during the interview process, and then use it as the basis for reference reports.
By investing the time and effort upfront to meet with stakeholders and produce a comprehensive and expressive blueprint, both the search firm and client ensure that they are best positioned to conduct as effective and successful a search as possible.