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Hiring an Executive Recruiter:

Separating the Extraordinary from the Ordinary

Executive search is not an easy gig – as we say, it is a business with an unstable product – but the best recruiters make it look easy. When hiring a search firm, the most frequent question we get is “How many CFO (or fill in the blank) searches have you done?” There are far better ways to assess an executive search partner, and ensure you are working with the best.

The truth is that most of us who work in the executive search industry stumbled into it. There is no college major in recruiting, and executive search is typically an end-of-career move rather than a stepping stone to another position. As individuals, we are somewhat anonymous and are referred to by our firms rather than individually. Executives or press releases always report that “The Alexander Group conducted our CFO search” rather than “Jane Howze conducted our CFO search” So, given our relative anonymity, what individual qualities separate superstar executive recruiters from the pack?

1. Meaningful business experience.

An executive search partner is more than an order taker. The best have experience that allows them to discern a good fit for their clients. It is important to understand how businesses function and how various functional positions interact within an organization so that you can ask the right questions. Les Korn and Dick Ferry, the founders of Korn/Ferry International, the granddaddy of search firms, were consulting partners at what is now KPMG. Their consulting experience advising many different types of clients across a wide range of industries made them naturals in search and an instant success.

2. Commitment to client relationships.

While most executive search consultants say that they are committed to client relationships, not all realize what that truly entails. Not every search is easy---some searches may take hundreds of calls, connections, and meetings to find the best candidates. Great recruiters know to continue to drive forward on those never-ending, impossible searches because they are ultimately focused on the long term relationship. Last year I watched a rival firm conduct a very public search for a top executive. The Board changed its mind several times and their search manager accommodated the requests for many weekend meetings and changes to the position requirements. Could he have said the search called for a new contract (and fee) because of the changes? Absolutely. But he knew if he focused on serving the client, the rest would take care of itself. And it did, as he is conducting the searches to help the new CEO add more new talent to his team.

3. Communication skills.

You have to be able to communicate with your clients and candidates. I’ve yet to see an executive recruiter who says he can’t communicate, but the truth is that you need to be able to write well – be able to articulate in writing the strengths and weaknesses of candidates and provide a cogent assessment of why they should be considered as viable. Verbal communication is equally important. Good recruiters understand that it is better to over communicate than under communicate and that if a client calls to ask how a search is progressing, the recruiter has failed to communicate sufficiently. Lastly, you must also be able to communicate a compelling reason for the candidate to consider the opportunity with the client.

4. Creativity.

With the lines between functions and industries blurring, good recruiters are able to think outside the box and attract a refreshingly different set of candidates. The Chief Executives Organization named Alan Mulally of Ford the best CEO for 2011. And indeed he was, helping Ford rise from the ashes of bankruptcy as the phoenix of US automakers. Mulally had no auto experience, having spent his entire career at Boeing, but what he did have was experience managing a diverse, geographically dispersed and unionized workforce, and expertise returning poorly performing businesses to profitability. A brilliant masterstroke by the search firm that recruited him.

5. Perseverance, energy and passion.

Not every potential candidate wants to be found. And most executives now have gatekeepers and restricted voice mails. Thus the best executive recruiters know that they will have to persevere in order to reach the best candidate. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of HP is a prime example. The recruiter who conducted the HP search called Fiorina every week for three months, finally reaching her in her office at 9 p.m. when her assistant had left.

6. Integrity.

During every search, there will be ample opportunity to either operate with complete integrity or not. The history books of executive search are full of stories of fired recruiters who neglected to tell the client that one bad reference detail or who fudged on out-of-pocket expenses.

7. Ability to assess talent and fit.

Seems like an obvious quality but those recruiters who can’t recruit the right executive for a client’s culture get few repeat clients. The superstar executive recruiters can all point to placements who have been with clients for many years and who have made a true difference in their organizations. Ability to assess talent is only meaningful if it is partnered with assessing fit with an organization. We know one renowned CEO of a very large company who did not make it past the one year mark because he demanded a driver, flat screen TV, and other perks, which, while not out of character with the size of the company, were out of sync with this particular company culture.

While finding the best candidate for an executive role may be the goal, the first step is finding the right executive recruiter who can get you there.

This article was originally published March 26, 2012.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director