How to Select an Executive Search Firm: 6 Critical Success Factors

Posted by The Bowdoin Group on April 6th, 2021


Two business people shaking hands on a deal

Originally published on LinkedIn by Scott Aldsworth, President at The Bowdoin Group.

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that leadership matters. This is especially true among companies in the Digital Health, Life Sciences, FinTech, and Software & Technology sectors with the myriad challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic.

Whether you are bolstering your C-suite to support continued success and growth or seeking executives to help redefine your strategy in the face of change, you need an executive search firm that can connect you with leading-edge talent.

Leveraging our 25 years of experience in the executive search industry, The Bowdoin Group has established six critical success factors to select an executive search firm:

  1. Extensive expertise in your industry
  2. Credibility and connections
  3. A well-defined executive search strategy
  4. Proven commitment to DE&I
  5. Full transparency into the talent search process
  6. Capabilities to grow with you

Read below for how you can identify the right search firm for your next executive role, strategic leader, or team expansion:

1. Extensive expertise in your industry

To find a qualified leader for your company, you need an executive search team with expertise specific to your industry. The search firm should have resources dedicated to your vertical, including a senior partner and team members who understand what it takes from a talent perspective to drive success and growth.

They should have deep knowledge of your key leadership positions, the responsibilities of these roles, and the attributes that define qualified executive talent.

Most importantly, they should have their fingers on the pulse of your industry, staying on top of news and trends, identifying key opinion leaders and influencers, and continuously expanding their network of relationships.

2. Credibility and connections

To find the executive talent that everyone in your industry is talking about—the thought leaders, the trailblazers, the individuals currently heading the companies you aspire to be—your executive search team must have the credibility to engage them.

To open doors and engage with the caliber of candidates you desire, ensure an owner and/or senior partner of the firm is leading your search, rather than handing you off to a more junior associate. C-suite executives are more likely to return a call from someone with a similar level of seniority and experience, versus someone just entering the field.

Confidentiality is also a key consideration when conducting an executive search, particularly when you are replacing an incumbent leader. Your executive search firm should have a proven track record of representing companies with professionalism and discretion. Don’t be afraid to ask for references to assess the firm’s reputation among clients and business communities.

3. A well-defined executive search strategy

A successful executive search requires a well-defined strategy. The search process can be challenging and complex, requiring the identification and assessment of a wide range of individuals to pinpoint those very few who meet your specific needs. Finding your next leader is an art and a science – not a shot in the dark.

They should have the ability to find and recruit the best people in the market, not just the best people in their network. This is the key difference between securing a “good” versus “great” pool of executive talent.

Leveraging a robust research function, a superior search firm will assess the market to identify candidates who match your criteria and desired location. This includes developing a list of companies or organizations where these individuals are currently employed.

During this process, the firm will determine how realistic your search is, and if an executive candidate who matches your specific criteria even exists. An exceptional search team will have the expertise to validate your criteria where it makes sense, but also challenge your search when it limits hiring potential.

For example, the team might determine that a candidate checks all of the boxes with regard to your current needs, but lacks the skills necessary to carry your company three-to-five years into the future. You’ve invested in an executive search firm for its market knowledge and expertise—be sure to use it.

4. Proven commitment to DE&I (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion)

There’s growing recognition of the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) when it comes to executive leadership teams. The McKinsey 2020 Diversity Wins report revealed how companies with more diverse executive teams (gender, culture, and ethnic diversity) are “now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.” [1]

While many are “jumping on the DEI bandwagon” because they view it as a trend, ensure your chosen executive search firm understands its importance to the success of your business and has a proven strategy to help you build a diverse, high-performance leadership team.

5. Full transparency into the talent search process

With a top-tier executive search firm, your search process shouldn’t be kept a secret from you. Select a firm with a transparent approach, where they openly share information at each stage of the process.

Rather than telling you “we have some good candidates in the pipeline,” they should be willing to tell you exactly how many they have reached out to and how many are interested and engaged.

To perform an informed and targeted search, your firm must have a technology platform capable of triangulating information to deliver advanced analytics on what candidates are out there and which ones are right for you.

When assessing a firm, ask the following questions up front:

  • What is your average number of days from outreach to closing?
  • When a search begins, how many candidates do you typically screen in a month? Two months?
  • Do you have numbers for candidate response and engagement rates? (As a rule of thumb, look for a 30%+ response rate)
  • How do you measure a candidate’s interest level?
  • At what stage in the process do candidates typically drop off?
  • Approximately how many candidates will you screen and how many will we review?

6. Capabilities to grow with you

You want an executive search partner who can grow with you. While your priority right now may be to find that perfect Chief Revenue Officer, in a few months you may find yourself needing to hire a variety of positions at once, or even deciding to completely outsource your recruiting function.

If you are investing time and resources into an executive search firm so they can develop a deep understanding of your organization, customers and culture, make the most of that investment. Select a firm that can do more than find one piece of your leadership puzzle. Find a team that can support your company as it grows throughout its entire lifecycle.

An executive search firm that understands your industry and has worked with companies on a trajectory similar to yours should understand the required personas to support your growth. The team should have connections with these individuals through its network—and know how to find them.

When you find a partner like this, they will be well equipped to present you with candidates who are more likely to thrive within your particular environment and play a key role in your success because they intimately know your business.

Final Thoughts: Don’t settle for good

The success of your company is highly dependent upon those leading it. The last thing you want is to reach the end of an extensive and costly search process with a pool of “good” candidates and be forced to choose one out of necessity.

When evaluating executive search firms, do your homework up front, ask the right questions and watch out for red flags. See what others in your industry are saying about them. Ask for references. Make an educated decision before you bring them on board.

While it will take a bit more work up front to perform this due diligence, envision the end game where your firm presents that individual with whom you have the confidence to entrust the future of your business.

Now that you know what kind of partner you should look for, check out the key metrics your executive search firm should track to ensure success.


[1] Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, McKinsey & Company, May 19, 2020

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