Monday, June 26, 2017
Part 1: 6 Key Steps to Take Before Engaging an Executive Search Firm

Having been in the executive and board search industry for more than 40 years, our team at Howard Fischer Associates (HFA) has a broad range of experience in working with clients across industries to identify the right leaders for their environments. But, a true partnership flourishes when both parties are invested in the outcome. While we’re here to guide you through the process, there are several steps that you can take throughout the phases of our engagement to help ensure that you find a leader who will continue to perform well long after their hire.

Below, we focus on the steps we recommend that you take before you reach out to us. While we can work through these steps with you, the most successful searches are those that take these steps under consideration before an engagement begins. 

1. Get Executive Buy-In

While one member of the leadership team may feel strongly that a certain executive needs to be hired, that does not always guarantee buy-in from the rest of the team. Before you even begin the search process, make sure you have everyone on board who needs to be on board, and make sure that you have a clear idea about what the person’s responsibilities will be, what their experience should look like, and how you will define success for the first six to twelve months after the hire.  

2. Identify Four “Must-Haves”

Yes, you want to find the best possible candidate to join your team, but you also need to be realistic. When you’re profiling your ideal candidate, be careful to consider if this person actually exists. While it may be possible to find one person with a doctorate in quantum physics who also has an accounting degree and has led a sales team, chances are that you won’t find two of them – and you’ll spend a lot of time searching. You can certainly have a list of ten to thirty (or even more) desirable traits or skills an ideal candidate should possess, but you need to pick only four to put on your non-negotiable list (and again, make sure they are realistic). When a candidate comes along who doesn’t have all four traits, you can now easily rule them out. The rest of the attributes, while important, will be a mix of tradeoffs to help you find the most ideal candidate in a realistic timeframe.

3. Engage in Calibration Conversations

Take some meetings with executives (not candidates) who are currently serving in the same role or a similar role to the one you are trying to fill. Learn more about what the role looks like and what success means. By doing this work upfront, you will know what “good looks like” as it relates to the specific function. This is especially helpful if you are not looking for a straightforward blend of characteristics or if it’s the first time you’ve personally had this role report to you. In fact, many of the first-time CEOs we work with have been greatly aided in the learnings garnered from these calibration conversations. 

4. Explore Your Network (Quickly)

While the upfront cost of retaining an executive search firm may seem expensive, this is offset in the time and money that you’ll save during the process. A firm will be able to efficiently vet and evaluate candidates, ultimately helping you to reduce turnover and increase the likelihood of the candidate’s success after the hire.

That said, if you feel that you may personally know someone who may be right for the role, it makes sense to start by quickly processing your network to see if you can find a match without having to go through a formal search process. Be critically aware of the “DIY Syndrome.” Time is not your friend when you decide to hire an executive. Likely, you will already feel urgency to fill the position and pain associated with the gap in your team. If you choose to take this route, give yourself no more than three weeks to explore your network. Most of your contacts will likely disqualify themselves around issues of timing, leaving you with one or two potential candidates.

This is the point where many executive teams make a crucial mistake: They think they have “their person.” It then takes three to five months to try to close them, and at the last minute, for whatever reason, it doesn’t come together. Now you’re eight months into the process with no candidate pipeline. For some CEOs, this can be a career-ending mistake. If you don’t think you can realistically onboard one of your network candidates in a month’s time, the best practice is to retain a firm. A good firm will allow you to process “your” candidate while they build a pipeline of professionally sourced and vetted candidates who will be ready to accept the role should your person not work out. A firm’s network is vast, and in many cases, it will yield better candidates than your network.

5. Compensation Range & Timeframe

The search process is not just about a person, their skills, and a great cultural match; there are many other factors. Before you kick off a search, define your parameters around compensation and consider any potential timeframe constraints. In terms of compensation, know what you can pay and what market value is for your given role. When it comes to time to begin a search, evaluate your calendar for looming fundraising events, IPOs, key tradeshows, and product launches. Plan to start a search six to eight months before you need someone on board.   

6. Pre-Determine the Interview Process

An efficient search process is the key to a successful search. Having a candidate meet 25 people over a three-month period and still not being able to make a decision is not what success looks like. To start, you need to decide in advance how a hiring decision will be made – and who will make it. The hiring manager should be the key decision maker. They should also agree to be the “quarterback” of the search and work directly with the search firm. The degree of personal attention the hiring manager puts into the recruiting process is directly proportional to the success of process.

The hiring manger should take the first meeting with all new candidates. After that, the adjacent executive team should compose the subsequent few rounds. While a candidate may make it through these rounds of the process, they may be shot down by someone involved in the process with “veto power.” Likely, that’s someone who serves as your boss. If you’re the CEO, it’s your board; if you report to the CEO, then it’s likely the CEO. You should be aware of those with ultimate veto power and keep them abreast of the search process, consulting them early and often. If you don’t, your entire team could fall in love with a candidate who is ultimately vetoed by a higher power. 

During the entire process, from initial sourcing to a 360-degree reference audit, your search firm should be performing references on prospective candidates for you. The reference process is an incredibly valuable and sensitive process, and it is one of the key ways a search firm can help qualify the right candidate for your company. We will revisit references and best practices more in depth in a future post.

After a series of successful meetings, one of the final steps in the process should be a presentation of a 30-60-90-day plan to the executive team to get buy-in and further evaluate how you will work together as a team. Ultimately, you need to ensure that everyone involved is on the same page and that the timeline is tight and realistic – and that starts before the interview process even begins.

By following these steps, your search process will begin on day one with a strong foundation for success, and you and your team will be able to more efficiently and effectively partner with a retained executive search firm. Check back soon for my next post in this series discussing what you can do during the engagement with a search firm to better facilitate success.

If you’re interested in working with HFA or learning more about search best practices, contact us at search@hfischer.com or 215.568.8363.

Charles Hubbard, Partner