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Working with executive search firms

Executive search firms should add value throughout your hiring process.

One key advantage of working with a retained executive search firm is the time that is spent in defining requirements and constructing an interview process that is fit for purpose. All too often, insufficient time is spent at the start of the process in defining the key requirements for a candidate to be a success in the role. These nearly always involve:

  • Being a good cultural fit. Think about the style of communication within your company. Are you very direct and open? Are you more data-driven or intuitive? You also need to think about the nature of the role – is it in a big company where lots of influencing skills and matrix management abilities are key? Or is it in an earlier stage company where they need to thrive in an ambiguous, resource constrained environment?
  • Having the appropriate technical skills – Most roles require a depth of functional knowledge.
  • Being at the right level of seniority and cost – You need to ensure that you are hiring someone who is attainable financially, and who also has an appropriate level of seniority and leadership skills to be able to carry out their duties.

Errors can sometimes be made in selecting candidates – particularly with regard to cultural fit and technical skills. Once you really understand your needs, you need to make sure you are assessing candidates properly against these criteria. A key task for an executive search firm is to create an interview process that is fit for purpose. It’s very normal for a generalist – a CEO, or CFO or HR Director for example – to not be able to qualify the technical skills of a candidate in a different function. If you are hiring a Chief Technology Officer, or IT Director, you should ask a senior member of that function to be a part of your interview process.

Referencing is also a key tool for executive search firms and companies hiring directly, and an excellent complement to interviews. Ask your candidates to provide a reference with at least one former boss and one former report (ideally 2 or more in each category), well before offer stage. Obviously if they are in employment today they will need to choose someone who isn’t a current colleague. Try and talk to that reference on the phone and understand their personality and skills. Ask a lot of open questions around motivation, strengths, weaknesses, management style, and how they were perceived internally and externally. Thorough and effective referencing is your best tool for spotting that most dangerous of candidates – someone who interviews well but is ultimately faking it.

It’s a great idea to test cultural fit in your recruitment process too. Make sure you set up at least one informal team session – perhaps drinks or lunch – to help get to know them and also enrol them further into the business. You can augment this with a group exercise – perhaps try to recreate a realistic situation by putting them in a group with potential future colleagues and talking through how they might approach a real problem. By all means get them to sign an NDA and send them some data ahead of the meeting to help them prepare. This can give you a strong steer as to how the team dynamic might play out after the hire.

Of course you can’t completely insure yourself against a bad hire, but the vast majority of cases are avoidable. Working with an experienced executive search firm should substantially mitigate that risk. Specialism is very important, and at Neon River, we want to be clear about where we do specialise – working with internet, software and technology companies, as well as where we don’t. It’s sometimes tempting for search professionals to try and be too broad in what they offer, but it soon becomes impossible to stay informed so broadly.