What Are the Steps of a First-Class Executive Search Process?

Posted by The Bowdoin Group on December 17th, 2020


Steps of Executive Search

Founders and HR leaders across industries have asked: What are the steps of a first-class executive search process? All executive search processes are not created equal (and neither are the firms you might partner with). Finding a ‘fit’ for an executive position is not what anyone should settle for: finding the perfect candidate or a “unicorn” is what a top-tier search firm should be delivering.

That is a lofty challenge, but in this post, we’ll outline the steps of an executive search process and some best practice nuances that drive the results you should expect.

Discovery: Setting the Definition of ‘Success’

Any great executive search process starts with gaining a deep understanding of the role, the stakeholders, and the company’s culture. This beginning stage lays the groundwork for every aspect of the engagement. In fact, this discovery takes a great deal of probing, analysis, and EQ on the part of the executive search firm. In the end, this part of the executive search process needs to marry the business goals and human capital needs of the organization for today and for the future, incorporate any desired or required changes, and satisfy and align all stakeholders.

These stakeholders can be internal (team members, direct reports) and external (investors, board members, etc.), but it’s important to interview and get in lock step with those on the search committee from the beginning—otherwise you risk misalignment early on (which leads to wasted revolutions later in the process). There may be differing views on what the ‘ideal candidate’ needs to look like based on their soft and hard skills, personality traits, and required or perceived background requirements, but as long as a consensus is built among the stakeholders, you’re setting your search up for success.

In any case, an extremely complex decision must be made, and it is the search firm’s responsibility to bring it all together and gain consensus prior to moving on to the next phase.

Universe Mapping

Once the client and their expert search team collectively have the ideal candidate criteria in place, it’s time to apply data, knowledge, and research. Ideally, executive search firms cast a wide net with a comprehensive market assessment. After all, you need to know what the talent pool actually looks like before you jump in to find your candidate.

This goes beyond the simplistic guidelines and parameters of must-haves, must-not-haves, and nice-to-haves, and includes some out-of-the-box criteria that may bring interesting backgrounds to the table.

Expert tip: If your talent pool only includes active candidates, referrals, or ‘in-network’ submissions, proceed with caution. Passive candidates (those that are not actively looking) need to be included as well. Excluding them is a trait of lazy search firms and a ‘make-or-break’ mistake.

Finding the Stars

Now that the talent pool has been clearly identified, how do we find the stars?

As executive recruiters, we spend our time vetting the field so our clients only connect with the best. This takes skill. People are far more than a CV or resume. The best executive search processes have comprehensive methodologies and frameworks that round out the picture beyond the words. What are they like personally? What company culture draws them in? How have they had an impact in the past? What are they like working as part of a team? What new perspectives will they bring to the table? The best picture emerges when a qualitative and quantitative evaluation whittles down the vast pool of ‘possibles’ to the chosen few.

Expert tip: Today, more than ever, executive search firms should aim to provide candidates that may not check every box but can augment and add to a current company’s culture to drive innovation. Without a diverse slate of candidates to choose from, companies won’t have the full picture of what talent exists in the market to help take their team to the next level.

Communicating the Laws of Attraction

One important component of any great executive search process is clear articulation of what makes an opportunity the perfect fit – for both sides. While the end company is the client, creating a win-win for both the candidate and the client is the only outcome that will work for the long run.

Longevity is of the utmost importance and a huge part of the ROI of an executive search. Some of the things that breed longevity and loyalty on both sides is transparency and honesty. Starting here and maintaining this type of relationship is imperative to arrive at the best result. If the process is fraught with hidden agendas, side conversations, dissenting opinions, no apparent rigor (or depth of expertise), it doesn’t matter how in-depth the process, it is doomed to fail.

Continuous Integration

Underlying the above steps, a great search process should be rooted in continuous improvement and integration. No one step is done without feedback, optimization, clarification, and collaboration. At every point in the process there should be a moment where you revisit decisions, parameters, and outcomes to ensure the end result is the right choice for all parties.

This happens organically when your search team views themselves as an extension of your team. Finding the perfect-fit candidate requires much more than just following a step-by-step process. An executive search team’s expertise in getting companies to a point where they are ready to move forward with a candidate requires an equal mix of expertise and emotional intelligence. Above all, you deserve personalized attention and a true, trusted advisor relationship—those are the secret ingredients that will ensure you find the candidate you need.

Expect More from Your Executive Search Firm

What makes one process great and another rife with inefficiencies and poor outcomes?

Process experts who follow a Six Sigma approach would tell you that expertise is critical and mandatory to make processes work as designed and to achieve the best outcomes.

This is clearly true for executive search. Organizations that have utilized executive search firms on an on-going basis have likely experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly. They would tell you that the executive search process should be built on best practices, robust data analysis, successes (and failures), and a dash of real artistry. We are, after all, talking about people in the end, which means decisions are not black and white. A truly great executive search process cannot be wrapped up in a perfect, cookie cutter process. It is a delicate balance of bringing two parties together in perfect harmony – you and your next leader. It takes precision, deep expertise, and finesse.

Need to find your next executive? Find out what your unique process should be. Let’s talk.

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