How Do Executive Search Firms Find Candidates?

Posted by Emily Leinbach on January 6th, 2020


This is a question we get asked a lot, and with good reason. Most companies find hiring challenging, particularly at the executive level, and they want to know the secret behind finding great candidates. It’s especially difficult today given the talent shortage.

In this article, we’ll explore that very question: how do executive search companies find candidates? (Because we’ve been at it for 25 years.) We’ll also share answers to other questions we get asked in those same conversations, like how long a search normally takes, our advice for candidates looking to be found, and more.

Let’s start with the basics.

Why do companies make the decision to hire an executive search firm?

Companies decide to hire an executive search firm because they have a leadership role to fill that’s both critical and time sensitive to their business, and they need to be confident that they have the very best candidate for that role (not just the best person in their networks or who can be found on LinkedIn). We often uncover perfect fits that were unknown to the company.

Companies choose an executive search partner over in-house resources because the internal team doesn’t have the time, expertise, network, or skill set to achieve the desired goal.

What types of executive search firms are out there?

Many executive search firms specialize in some way, by industry (e.g. “We serve the BioPharma industry”) or by position (e.g. “We are the CRO experts”), for example.

They also vary by the way they approach searches—contingency or retained. A firm that works on a contingency basis gets paid contingent on hiring someone. Contingency firms are often not exclusive, meaning that they’re up against internal resources, direct applicants, and even other recruiting firms. We may be biased, but contingency searches are not a good option for leadership roles—we’ve picked up the pieces after plenty of them over the years. Contingency firms are incentivized by speed rather than fit, and “sell” candidates with inaccurate versions of the company and the role to get a search over the finish line. In the end, your company suffers.

On the other hand, a firm that works on a retained basis is paid fees at the onset of a search. While speed is always a desired factor, finding the “perfect fit” candidate is the goal of retained searches.

Executive search firms may also differentiate by providing other types of recruiting services, like RPO (recruitment process outsourcing) services. Companies lean on RPO providers to expand their existing HR team or outsource their recruiting function entirely. It’s a great option if you need to scale up or down quickly without hiring a full in-house team…especially if you need to scale back later.

How do executive search firms find candidates?

Great executive search firms don’t simply pull great candidates from their databases like rabbits out of a hat. They approach searches through a number of angles, including:

  • Activating their peer network to learn the thought leaders in the space
  • Identifying who has been successful in similar companies
  • Researching social channels and internal databases

When you rely on just one of these angles, you’ll get misleading information. According to Dave Melville, CEO and Founder of The Bowdoin Group, “When you conduct deep research into all of these angles, certain names light up, and they keep lighting up the more you dig into it. Start with them.”

The biggest risk recruiters make is being overly reliant on their network. Melville says, “We all want to help our friends. While a friend may be the right person for the role, it’s important to validate that in the market. Jumping to “known” candidates without doing your due diligence is the fastest path to hiring the wrong person.”

How long does an executive search typically take?

The process for executive hires generally takes 90 days from start to offer, although the timeline can be affected by a number of factors, like the organization’s capacity to make decisions quickly and competitiveness of the market, for example.

Meeting that 90-day timeline requires starting with an intimate understanding of the company’s needs and how the role contributes to its mission. Kicking off with a deep dive into competencies (the skills, abilities, and expertise you require) typically means that you’re going to meander and you likely won’t hit that timeframe. It may seem that the tactical path is the right one, but when hiring an executive, start with how this role is going to drive the business forward and work downward.

While you can estimate that the entire process will take 90 days, 95% of the time, a great search firm will have identified the candidate you will eventually hire in the first 30 days. You’ll still have to go through the interview process, but much of the research is complete within that first month.

What advice do you have for executive candidates to ensure they can be found?

Melville says this best:

“Don’t hide. Calling on an executive search firm is a good first step, but we tend to focus on the searches we’re involved in at the moment.” He recommends that you keep your public profile updated (and not just your LinkedIn profile). “Have coffee with people, sit on panels, publish thought leadership. Step outside of your bubble and connect with people. Trust me—it works.”

What advice do you have for companies considering an executive search?

You’ll want to answer four questions before you decide to partner with any executive search firm:

  1. Does this firm have the ability to represent my company the way I want them to?
  2. Do they understand what we’re trying to achieve as a business?
  3. Do we trust each other enough to have real conversations?
  4. Do they have a track record of success in searches similar to mine?

To learn more about executive search and the impact that a great executive hire can have on your business, check out our infographic: The Multiplier Effect of a Great Executive Hire.

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