When an organization engages a search firm on a senior-level search, the organization, aka “the client,” expects the search firm to conduct a thorough, professional and diverse search; locate, pursue and help recruit top talent for the role; and be the organization’s “face” in the marketplace. When the client chooses to hire us at Major, Lindsey & Africa, we tell them that “we appreciate the partnership”—“partnership” being the key word.
While a significant amount of the search work is our responsibility as the search partner, you, our client, can help to enhance the level of success of the search as a whole. Here are 9 things that you can continue to do that can “move the needle” toward success when partnering with a search firm:
- Be open and forthcoming. When you begin a new relationship with a search firm, it’s important that you get to know each other. While some clients merely forward along a job description, provide the estimated compensation and essentially say “OK, get to work,” your search will be much more effective if you begin your partnership by spending two or three hours introducing your search firm to your organization. Be prepared to share this type of insight:
- Who are the stakeholders who will interact with this new hire? Can we meet them and hear them?
- What is the culture of the organization like? Be honest with the search firm so that you are truly getting candidates who are a fit for you and not a fit for someone else.
- What types of individuals are successful at your organization? What type of person is likely to flail away?
- Why is the position open? If there is “a history” or “an explanation” here, provide it as best you can. A search consultant can synthesize all of the information and know what to disclose to candidates and what not to say.
- Clarify compensation up front. Your search firm needs to know details regarding compensation so it can properly prepare candidates. If everyone is on the same page about compensation and agrees on what the company can (and cannot) do to bring in a top individual, the search is all the more likely to succeed. If your search firm goes to market with fuzzy details or you change your mind about compensation halfway through the search, problems will ensue.
- Keep in touch. Weekly or bi-weekly calls with your search firm are a best practice once a search begins. These calls are a great opportunity for your search firm to share resumes and information from the market as well as gather answers to outstanding questions that are being presented to them by the candidate pool. For you, the client, these calls give you an opportunity to listen, weigh in on the pool and feel confident that things are going well or—conversely, if there is a concern, alter the path of the search toward more solid footing.
- Clear schedules. More often than not, clients will review a slate of candidates, want to set up interviews and then suggest scheduling those meetings for dates that are four or five weeks out. Plan ahead and block off time on your calendar now—and those of your top business leaders—so you can have interviews sooner rather than later because the delay will immediately kill momentum. The candidates become less excited with time, and they may take another opportunity in the interim.
- Expect honesty, not perfection. A top-notch search firm will be honest and forthcoming about the candidate pool and is likely to share a candidate’s weaknesses along with his or her many strengths. It’s unfortunate when a client hears that candor and immediately decides that the candidate isn’t any good because the search firm disclosed a couple of concerns. Keep in mind that there are very few perfect candidates. It’s important that any weaknesses of a candidate be measured next to his or her many strengths. If a professional search consultant recommends a candidate despite these perceived weaknesses, it is because they absolutely think the candidate is a strong one. Listen to that counsel and don’t be scared off of interviewing the individual.
- Respond! In this day and age, having 400–500 emails piling up in an inbox can be a reality, but when your search firm sends an inquiry and doesn’t hear back from you for days, it slows down the search process and makes everything take exponentially longer. To the extent possible, respond quickly even if it’s brief. Searches have their own momentum and “time kills all deals.”
- Provide feedback. Any search firm worth its salt wants to know how it is doing. Of course, everyone wants to hear positive reinforcement—that’s just part of being human—but if you think there is room for improvement, tell your search consultants. We all have the same goal: to complete a complex search in an efficient, positive and professional manner. Tell your search firm how you think they are doing and ask them if you are doing everything you can do to make the search a successful one. Remember, it’s a partnership!
- Talk to the candidate—and us! As the search process comes toward the end, and you zero in on the individual to whom you want to make an offer, it is common that you and the candidate begin speaking one-on-one more frequently. When a client begins communicating with the candidate directly, that is wonderful because it reinforces all the things that both parties like about each other. However, keep in mind that you have engaged your search firm to not just present you candidates but to essentially “seal the deal.” So keep them in the loop until an offer is accepted and the candidate walks in on Day 1.
- Encourage the offer and acceptance. When an offer is made, it is imperative that you keep your “eyes on the prize” from the time the offer is extended until it is accepted (or rejected). That time period is critical, and sometimes a candidate’s decision to accept or not accept can be based on psychological factors apart from the literal terms of the offer. Did they have a good, final conversation with the hiring manager? Did they feel like they were being heard? Or did they feel ignored? How was the offer conveyed? Did the candidate not get the offer until three days after they were told they would be receiving it? How much does the client REALLY want them? Good clients tend to stay involved and talk with the search firm and/or individual every few days during this critical time.
A top search is complex and requires a sophisticated search firm that is able to provide significant resources, intellectual horsepower, market knowledge and emotional deftness. However, it will always still be important that the organization retain some responsibility for getting the search concluded with a top individual. Those organizations that “own” this responsibility are likely to flourish and “swim” in the battle for talent, and those that take the easy way out and look to a third party to shoulder 100% of the burden are likely to “sink.”
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Michael Sachs is a Partner in the Chicago office of Major, Lindsey & Africa. He specializes in placing attorneys at all levels—from junior counsel to general counsel—in corporate and university legal departments.