magnifying glassThe mark of any successful professional services firm—including retained executive search—is the ability to align its interests with those of its clients.  But in many cases, as an executive search firm grows there are more layers of staff, overhead and structure—and the partners must become more highly leveraged.  This is not inherently a negative thing, but often it translates into less customization and personalization in the firm’s client interactions.  As a result, over time, the firm’s interests diverge from its clients.

Fortunately, for clients who are evaluating retained executive search firms, there are ways to learn whether a particular firm’s way of doing business aligns with their requirements.

Here are five “insider” questions to ask retained executive search firms during your evaluation process.

How many searches are you working on currently?

Asking your search professional about the number and stage of their current searches will give you an indicator of the time investment they will be able to provide.

How many of the searches are in the startup (4-6 weeks) phase, and how many can they anticipate launching in the next several weeks?  The first 30-45 days of a search can be very busy for search associates, and if they are juggling too many client demands, it may take more time for them to develop candidates for you.  Having too many searches in the ‘startup’ phase at the same time means your search partner could become overworked a few weeks in as interviews begin to pile up.  The unfortunate outcome is typically a delay in your own search process.

Working with a search partner who has searches at various stages of the process is optimal.  If, for example, s/he currently has six searches underway, ideally two would be in startup; two would be in client interviews; and two would be in the offer stage.  Working with a partner who has four searches in ‘startup’ might mean less time and thoroughness devoted to your executive search so make sure you discuss how their current workload might affect your timeframe.

What is your search completion rate?

It has been reported that some of the most recognized firms in the executive search industry average around an 80% search completion rate.  That means about one fifth of their clients do not receive the expected outcome.  The fact is that anything under a 95% completion rate is a red flag.  It’s important to understand the completion percentage of a firm over time to ensure your chances at finding the best hire.

Keep in mind that the completion average for a particular partner might be higher or lower than the average of the firm. Asking for both percentages can give you a clearer picture of both the individual partner and the search firm you want to work with.

Delve deeper into the topic by asking about a firm’s ‘stick rate.’  Out of the completion percentage, what percentage of placements have had long-term success in their positions?  How candidates do in their placed position is just as important as completing an executive search.

Would you provide an example of a search you didn’t complete within the last year or two and explain why?

Every retained executive search firm—bar none—has had searches that did not go as well as hoped.  A firm that says otherwise, or dodges the question altogether, should attract suspicion right off the bat.

Knowing more details about a non-completed search may give you a better idea of the firm’s process, as well as your search professional’s approach and expectations.  Ask if they can you give you an example of when one of their searches went off the rails, why it happened and how it was handled.  Ask about the last search the partner did not complete. Although they may be caught off guard, s/he should be candid and transparent about previous failed searches.  Circumstances are not always optimal for a hire, and your search professional should be able to explain  how and why it did not work out.

How is your search team structured, and who’s going to do what on each search?

You want to know who exactly is representing you and your organization to the marketplace. Although you may be working with one search partner, the executive search process extends to many other colleagues in the firm. Asking about a firm’s process can give you a better idea of who is doing what and who will be representing you in the early and delicate stages of contact. Who will make the candidate and sourcing calls? What is the firm’s process for assessing candidates and defining their skill sets? Who will be responsible for setting the research strategy, doing the outreach into the market, conducting interviews and writing the candidate assessment reports?

To a client, the detailed operations of how searches are conducted can seem obscure, especially when working with larger firms that have more dispersed operations. Sometimes the consultant you meet with may have little involvement in the search once it is underway, and junior staff members may have more involvement than you expect. You should expect transparency, communication and active engagement at every stage of the search process, and you want to see your search partner taking an active role from the beginning to the end.

Will you give me the client names of the last five searches you conducted? (No cherry picking.)

Asking for the names of an executive search partner’s last five clients can shed light on their experience and qualifications. Make certain to get the five most recent searches that partner led, chronologically—not the five that went well or five from a mix of partners.

Even if you don’t contact each of the previous clients, just the search firm’s reaction to your request will give insights on their comfort level—and willingness to put in the effort to provide you with the list.

To act as an extension of your team and represent your organization in the market, a retained executive search firm has to, first and foremost, be worthy of your trust. Asking these questions will help you gauge and establish trust by providing more insight into their philosophies, priorities, inner workings, and drawbacks. Are they tough questions? Absolutely. But hiring a retained executive search firm is a big investment by your company, and you want to do everything possible to ensure the right outcome.