Common Pitfalls in Executive Search

This section lists ten commonly heard complaints about the process of executive search from clients. Search firms cannot guarantee a successful placement, but they do expect to be successful at least 75% of the time. You can reach (or beat) that average if you choose your recruiter carefully and invest time and effort in the search process. The following problems are all avoidable with a little advance planning:

1. No internal consensus before beginning the search. It is a mistake to bring in an executive recruiter before you have developed a clear analysis of the company's needs. Searches sometimes fail because a client rushes to engage a recruiter to find a VP of Marketing before developing a detailed job description that is agreed to by all of the other relevant executives.

2. No manager with final responsibility for the search process. Searches do not manage themselves nor should the executive recruiter be left to work independently. One member of the client organization must be the "point person" for the search process. This person should take direct responsibility for the success of the search and should demand briefings from the recruiter every week or whenever new developments arise.

3. Settling for a "satisfactory" candidate. Sometimes, clients feel obliged to hire the best candidate of a weak group rather than let the search be a "failure." This is a mistake. The point of using an executive recruiter is to find superior managers. Everyone involved in the process should share this expectation.

4. Excessive focus on candidates' flaws. All candidates have flaws. It is important to be aware of them and to reject candidates whose problems are serious. But your hiring choice should be driven by candidates' strengths not weaknesses. If you understand what is good about a candidate, you can then place any flaws in context. For example, some view frequent job-hopping as a bad sign in a candidate. However, an executive may have been headhunted frequently precisely because she is ambitious and talented.

5. Evaluating candidates based on industry prejudice. "We would never hire someone from ABC Company -- they're too process-driven and set in their ways." Whatever the scuttlebutt about other companies, individual executives should be evaluated purely on their own merits. Weak companies have great executives and vice versa. It is very easy to confuse a corporation's culture with the executive's abilities.

6. Second-guessing the candidate. "There's no point in offering X a job -- he'd never take it, and if he did, I am sure he wouldn't stay very long." This kind of logic leads to poor hiring decisions. As part of undertaking a rigorous search process, you must confront hypothetical concerns like this with data. If you are concerned about a candidate's likelihood of moving on to another job, raise this issue during the interview process.

7. Recruiter did not understand the position/the client. A common reason for searches to fail is that some hidden qualifications were never discussed explicitly at the outset. For example, for a Vice President who will become a key member of a management team, the candidate might need to be a nonsmoker, enjoy talking about sports, be comfortable talking in the language of finance, be a member of a church, be married, be clean-shaven, or be enthusiastic about working most weekends. All too often, these "background" factors stay in the background when they should be used "up-front" to eliminate otherwise qualified candidates who will never pass muster with management.

8. Recruiter presented too many unsuitable candidates/too few good ones. Seeing unsuitable candidates is a problem that can be quickly fixed by tightening up the job description and working more closely with the recruiter to decide whether prospects should become candidates that will be presented to client management. When the recruiter struggles to find good candidates, this can have several root causes. The job title and salary may not be competitive relative to alternatives in the job market. Possibly, the client company has a poor reputation. Perhaps the qualifications list for the position has been drawn up too tightly. Most clients like to choose between a handful of excellent candidates, and this target slate should normally be attainable. Occasionally, the problem may be that the search firm is facing unusual client blockages. This issue must be clarified at the outset.

9. Recruiter was too slow or is overloaded with other assignments. Recruiters often behave towards their clients as if they work full-time on their account only. In reality, most recruiters are handling half a dozen or more assignments simultaneously. Good recruiters should be able to handle this amount of work, but occasionally crises develop on more than one assignment at a time. At times like this, clients may feel that they are not receiving sufficient attention. We recommend that clients recognize that they only have a partial commitment on their recruiter's time. It is also important to recognize that the process of searching for superior executives inevitably is measured in months, not weeks. If the pace falls badly from the prearranged schedule, ask for explanations, extra resources, or an adjustment to fees.

10. Recruiter overcharged us. The most common problems in the area of fees concern re-reimbursable expenses and whether a percentage fee applies to all forms of incentive compensation such as stock options. In every case, the best way to avoid these time-consuming and unsatisfactory disputes is to cover all eventualities in writing before the assignment starts.