Talent acquisition is a difficult job. There are plenty of variables involved in the hiring process and your job of identifying and hiring a top applicant for your organization isn’t an easy task.
Everything from talent scarcity, industry specialty, pay scales, and even the company’s reputation all play a role in attracting the best candidates. This is even more significant for the senior, C-level, and leadership roles in an organization.
That’s why companies hand over parts of their talent acquisition responsibilities to executive search companies. These firms will help companies fill mission-critical roles and help hire C-level, VPs, and leadership teams for the company.
Any executive recruiter will tell you how difficult it is to hire candidates for senior roles and that’s why most companies hire executive search companies to do that for them. The cost of vacancy for the mission-critical roles can be daunting— it can even be up to $1 million per week, depending on the role & responsibilities.
So, you need to fill those positions, and fill them fast without compromising on quality— that’s why you need an executive search firm. But before you engage a firm, it’s important to have some level of familiarity with the executive recruitment process. That’s what this article will cover.
What is the executive recruitment process?
Executive search is a process or a service that companies use when they need to find, qualify, and recruit specialized candidates for high-end executive and senior-level jobs.
The resources for the executive search depend on the organizational capabilities. It can be done in-house (by your own recruitment/HR team) or a search firm can do it. When done in-house, the capabilities, expertise, resource, and time available will dictate whether they can deliver or if they need to outsource to a search firm.
The executive recruitment process isn’t only used for senior-level or C-suite employees. It’s also used when companies want to find the right candidate to fill a highly-specialized role. This is often done in industries such as investment banking, private equity, and technology, where this kind of talent is scarce, highly valuable, and in high demand.
If you decide not to conduct the executive search in-house, but instead partner up with an executive search firm, you will need to know a couple of things first. First of all, you will need to talk with the executive search company and see if you’re doing a retained search or a contingent search. Here’s the difference between the two.
- Is paid on retainer, usually in three installments (kick off, when a specific goal has been attained such as successful shortlisting of candidates, and when the candidate has been placed).
- Signs an exclusive contract with the organization so that they’re the only ones placing the candidate.
- Is motivated to find the best possible candidate to ensure long-term fit and success.
- Proactively recruits passive candidates, the people who have a specific and in-demand skill set, and are not actively searching for a new opportunity.
- Are functional and industry experts who know the industry and top players intimately.
- Is paid in lump sum only when the candidate is placed in the company.
- Is motivated to place the candidate in the company as soon as possible (because that’s when they get paid) so quality can be compromised. Things like culture fit and longevity of the candidate are often overlooked.
- It isn’t the only search company trying to get a candidate for the organization; they compete with other search companies.
- Usually works with “active” candidates – the applicants that are seeking out new employment
- Are generalists and are suited for roles where the candidates are easier to find, attract, and secure—usually entry to mid-level roles.
Each search methodology has its place so you need to make sure you know which one is best suited to your situation.
Steps of the executive recruitment process
To do their job effectively, an executive search firm needs to be great at three things.
- Collaborating with clients. Transparent and effective communication is the cornerstone of a successful partnership. The executive search firm will have to be transparent in every interaction with their clients, focusing on achieving the desired results and outcomes for all the involved parties.
- Data and analytics. An executive search company will have to gather the data, find a reliable way to store it, and gain insight from it. Then, they will use the insights to create actionable steps that will lead to better hiring decisions.
- Team management. Hiring for a senior-level role isn’t a one-man job, but a team effort. Both the search firm and the company hiring the candidate will have to work together to ensure a successful recruitment process. Open and timely communication with strong leadership recruitment skills usually leads to those goals.
So, if you’re choosing an executive search company to lead your senior-level hiring process, make sure that they have strong abilities in each of the requirements mentioned ab
On top of this, every executive recruitment process has, at its core, five phases that the company needs to go through to hire a candidate for a mission-critical role.
The phases are:
- Strategy. This is where the executive search firm and your organization ensure that everyone’s on the same page when it comes to the goals of the process. This phase is about setting clear objectives, explicitly defining the candidate profile, and implementing a robust search process to ensure success.
- Research. During the research phase, you begin to implement your strategy. In this phase, the executive search firm seeks out potential candidates to fill the role (according to the predefined role requirements). This includes identifying target industries, companies, geographies and identifying all relevant talent that meets the criteria.
- Outreach. This is where the executive search reaches out and connects with potential candidates that the research team deemed to be a good fit. The outreach needs to be done in a highly personalized manner, creating a connection with candidates and determining if there’s a fit (for both the candidate and the company). The essential part of this phase is being consistent with your outreach and exhaustive. Top talent are hard to engage with, especially at senior leadership levels. An omnichannel approach is the best practice to ensure you connect with your desired audience.
- Assessment. Once outreach is complete, the executive search firm will develop a shortlist of high-potential candidates. This phase is all about assessing the candidates to determine how well they would fit into the culture, their hard and soft skills, and their work experience through interviews, assessments, and questionnaires.
- Decision. The last phase of the executive recruitment process involves coming together as a search team and deciding who is the best candidate for the job. Once that’s been decided, the next step is to extend an offer. Elements such as compensation negotiations and background checks are done during this phase. Once the offer is signed, the organization follows up with an onboarding process and the executive recruitment process is done.
Now, we’ll take a look at each of these stages in detail, providing actionable templates and checklists for the entire process.
Strategy is the first phase that you and the executive search company will need to go over. This stage is about setting expectations and deciding what the goals for the search will be.
This phase begins with a kick-off meeting, where all stakeholders collaborate to define the roles and responsibilities of both sides and agree on the entire process so that the search ends in success.
There are seven distinct steps to creating a strategy for executive search:
- Establishing search priorities. The first step is about analyzing the challenges and opportunities that your company is trying to solve. This is where you define what skills or knowledge is needed to fill the gap.
- Establishing expectations. People will have different expectations from the entire process, from the expected time to fill the position to the necessary skills the candidate will need to have, to compensation levels for the candidate.
- Defining who you’re looking for. This is where the organization will have to determine the details for the role, including how many people the new leader will manage, what they will have to accomplish to be deemed a successful hire, and how big of a team they will need to have to accomplish the task.
- Defining what a “good” profile looks like. Use this step to determine your ideal candidate— everything from their education level and behavioral competencies to their values set and hard skills.
- Finding a benchmark. Step five is about seeing if your ideal person is aligned with the talent pools and industry reality. You need to find past examples of executive searches either in your company or in your industry and compare the candidate to your persona to find a benchmark based in reality.
- Identifying where to look. Step six is about the executive search company determining where those ideal candidates are likely to be. Then, it’s about using an omnichannel approach to create a connection with those highly-skilled candidates.
- Writing the job description. The last step in the process is writing a good job description. The job description will need to clearly outline all of the requirements and responsibilities that will pertain to this position. It should also demonstrate why the candidate should be excited to work at your company, and allow them to pre-screen themselves to determine if this position and company is right for them.
Once the strategy phase is complete, the search team moves on to research.
The strategy phase was all about planning what you will do. Now, we enter the first step of executing the strategy.
This part of the process is about the research team going over the strategy, and then creating a talent pool of candidates who could be the right match.
Sometimes executive search companies hire specialized researchers to help them and speed up the process. To do so efficiently, the executive search company will have to communicate with the team of researchers so that they’re all on the same page.
The research team will need to know:
- What is expected from them. This is either done during the kick-off meeting with the company or at a later briefing meeting. The research team will need to know what kind of candidates they’re looking for, how much time they have, how they can leverage the existing databases, and any specific benchmarks to look out for.
- What does success look like. There are two ways you can define success when it comes to executive search: the number of identified candidates who match certain criteria, and qualified candidates. Since the metric “qualified candidates” is quite a subjective one, companies use a scorecard to rank the candidates. You will find one of them, Research Criteria Scorecard, at the bottom of this article.
- Where to look for those candidates. Knowing what to look for is as important as knowing where to look for it. That’s why executive search companies have reports that help them determine where the research team found the candidate. An example of the report, Research Coverage Report, is found at the bottom of this article.
Once the research is completed, it’s time to start reaching out to the candidates.
Sample research criteria scorecard
Sample research coverage report
This phase is where the executive search firm will see if the candidates are interested and available for the open role. But these candidates usually receive hundreds of messages every single week, so reaching them is a process in itself.
That’s why an outreach specialist in the executive search company will need to personalize their outreach to the candidates to ensure that their message gets through. On top of that, they will have to find a way to engage the candidates and build a rapport with them.
And this needs to be repeated to ensure the relevant talent pool of suitable candidates is exhausted. Here’s how to do it:
- Create a process. The outreach specialist will need to create a process that will determine how they will approach the candidates, what channels will they use, how many times they will contact them, and what will be the interval between contacts.
- Pitching to the candidate. When it comes to pitching, it’s first about creating a relationship with the candidate and keeping honest and transparent communication in place. The candidates are looking for what’s in it for them and the sooner you explain how the opportunity might benefit them, the better it will be for everyone involved. It is therefore critical that you understand the candidate’s current role & responsibilities, career to date, intrinsic motivators, opportunities of interest going forward, and then assess how suitable this opportunity is in comparison.
- Qualifying the candidate. The point of outreach is to qualify the candidate and see if they’re interested in taking the position. Usually, there are four main criteria for determining that: necessary experience, interest in the job, skilled for the job, and willingness to take the job.
- Sharing results with the search team. The last step of the outreach process is sharing the results with the team. Here’s where the outreach specialists will say what worked well in the process and what could have been better/changed in the process. On top of that, they will share the shortlisted candidates with other team members.
The goal of the outreach phase is to come back to the search team with a list of qualified candidates who can then move to assessment.
Outreach and screening checklist
- Can the candidate communicate clearly?
- Confirm previous experience (position, leadership, industry).
- Learn about the candidate's lifestyle and interests to compare them to company culture.
- Gauge the candidate’s interest by selling the most exciting aspects of the position and company.
- Determine what the candidate is looking for in their next role (environment and responsibilities).
- Note the candidate’s tone. Do they sound interested?
- Are there any obstacles that the candidate is facing that will hinder their performance or availability?
- Determine if the candidate is available and willing to make a career move.
- Determine if the candidate is willing and able to relocate (if required)
- Determine the candidate’s expectations for salary, rewards, compensation, and benefits.
- Ask if the candidate is willing to move forward in the process.
- Is this someone you can build rapport with and enjoy speaking to?
The strategy is done, the research is completed, and all the candidates have been pre-qualified. Now is the time to assess the candidates and see which one will be the perfect fit for the senior role.
Usually, there will only be a handful of candidates (2-5) that will pass this stage and will be interviewed by the organization that wants to fill the role.
Before the assessment begins, the executive search team will brief the company about the candidates they have found, and receive feedback about which ones should move forward to assessment. This is a two-way conversation where the search team shares their findings and advice, and the company provides feedback on how they’d like to move forward.
Before inviting the candidates to a formal assessment (interview), the executive search firm will need to collect all the possible data that they have on them and prepare it in advance. There needs to be a planned process for the assessment. If you have too few interviews, you won’t get the necessary intel on the candidate. If you have too many of them, the candidate may lose interest.
To help with this, at the end of the formal assessment process, you should have the following information about the candidate:
- Behavioral traits,
- Leadership skills
- Value set
- Intrinsic motivators
To help with this, we created a Candidate Assessment Scorecard that you can find at the bottom of this article.
Sample candidate assessment scorecard
This is the final step in the executive recruitment process. Here, you will offer the job to one of the shortlisted candidates that passed the formal assessment. The executive search firm usually serves as a mediator here, helping the organization see all the necessary data and scorecards that will help them hire the best possible candidate.
Before sending out an offer, you should do a background and reference check on your candidate to ensure that there are no hidden red flags. When doing a reference check, you should talk with one of their managers, their peers, and one direct report to provide a full 360 view. We created a set of questions you can ask for reference checks, which you can find at the bottom of this article.
When proposing an offer to the candidate, keep in mind that they’re highly specialized candidates whose skills are in-demand in the market. So the compensation package needs to reflect that. The offer should also reflect the value you see in the candidate. You have gone through a very thorough process and you need to ensure the candidate feels invigorated by the offer, rather than deflated.
The executive search company is there to help during the compensation package negotiations to ensure communication is clear, there are no gray areas, and everyone has all the required information to make a well-informed decision.
Questions to ask for a reference check
Purpose: Understand the relationship between the reference and your candidate.
- How long have you known the candidate?
- How did you come to know them?
- How well would you say you know them?
- What did you rely on the candidate for when you worked together? (i.e. problem-solving, mentorship, general advice, etc.)
- Did you enjoy working with them?
- Could you rely on them? / Did you trust them with important decision/projects?
- If your company rehires this person what would your reaction be?
Purpose: Explore the candidate’s ability to work in a team.
- Was the candidate an effective team leader?
- The candidate is our top choice, but everyone has their weaknesses. What would you consider to be the candidate’s?
- Did the candidate have any lasting impact on the organization or others on the team? If so, what was the lasting impact?
- Is there anyone the candidate didn’t see eye-to-eye with? If so, why do you think that was?
Purpose: Understand the candidate’s growth, obstacles, and career path.
- Who did the candidate report to at your org?
- Who reported to the candidate?
- Was the candidate promoted during their time at your org? If not, why not? If so, why?
- To your knowledge, why did the candidate leave the company?
Leadership and management style
Purpose: Ensure the candidate’s leadership style will be a fit with your company culture.
- How would you describe the candidate’s management style?
- How does the candidate motivate people?
- How would you rate the candidate’s overall communication skills?
- How does the candidate interact with other senior leaders?
- What leadership skills would you say are the weakest for the candidate?
- What leadership skills would you say are the strongest for the candidate?
Purpose: Gain insights into how the candidate handles certain situations and obstacles
- Talk to me about a time when the candidate faced a setback or challenge that they had to overcome. What was the situation, and how did they respond?
- Can you tell me about a time when the candidate had to deal with somebody who was confrontational? How did they build rapport and handle the situation with this person?
- Tell me about a time that the candidate had to make a difficult decision (about his team, about a project, about a client, etc.) What was their thought process in dealing with this situation? How did they execute a solution? What was the result?
Purpose: Close out the conversation and summarize key takeaways.
- On a scale from one to ten, how would you rate your referral for the candidate?
- Is there anything else that you can tell me about the candidate that we missed?
- If we were to move forward and hire the candidate, what can we do to maximize their success and ability to get up and running quickly?