Critical Criteria for Choosing an Executive Search Firm

By Glen Esnard, Senior Principal, 20/20 Foresight

If talent is your most critical asset, how do you choose your executive search firm?

We win a lot of executive search assignments based on relationships. We also loose now and then based on relationships.

We seldom see decisions to hire a search firm based on a thorough review of capabilities in a competitive “bake off.”

We find this surprising given most C-Suite executives would place “recruitment, retention and development of key talent” in their top three responsibilities. We also find it surprising given that all recruiting firms are definitely not created equal.

Now, while we can’t alter an executive’s selection style, we do annually assess our industry and the competitive differentiators, other than relationships, that clients find most critical delivering the desired result -- more qualified candidates who remain with the company once hired.

In our assessment we focus on operational capabilities or qualities. We exclude what we call “proof statements” such as references, client testimonials and peer review. Their intent is to validate, important, but they are not hard performance criteria.

Year in, year out, we find the same criteria. While the order may fluctuate bit the factors remain. The top five criteria are:

  • Sourcing process

  • Industry expertise

  • Personalized service

  • Fee structure

  • Performance guarantees

There are, as you might expect, many nuances to those criteria.

Sourcing process: Would it be surprising to learn many recruiting firms with very disciplined, rigorous processes haven’t changed them substantially with the advent of technology? Many use technology simply to drive their old practice, to narrow, from tens of thousands to a large handful, potential candidates based on “tags” associated with candidates. Then they call, or an assistant calls, the filtered group.

This can work only so long as A) the tags on each candidate are accurately spelled out by the intern responsible and B) their database includes all possible candidates. There are very real stories of a “top three” candidate for a position not even contacted for an identical position by the same recruiter weeks later because the sort was ineffective. Technology should drive a broader reach, not simply a faster winnowing.

Our online database is the best in the industry. The 20/20 Foresight team has access to more than 50,000 companies and 200,000 candidates and inspects the lists generated for each search carefully before placing any calls.

Industry Expertise: I am reminded of the family estate attorney who, when asked for a real estate attorney reference responded, “Oh, no problem. I can do that.” Recruiters can be very similar. Specialization is important. Ask yourself one pointed question. Is your recruiter’s expertise based on tenure as a recruiter or a blend of “been there done that” industry expertise combined with recruitment experience? Has he or she walked in your shoes?

Each 20/20 Foresight consultant not only has working experience in the industries we serve, but also has extensive experience in recruiting.

Personalized Service: Simply, who is really doing the work? Your recruiter is an extension of your firm, a representative who directly reflects on the quality, brand and reputation of your firm. Who’s really talking to the candidates? What does that mean for your firm’s brand and ability to attract talent?

We follow a proven executive search and candidate evaluation process designed to source several qualified candidates. Additionally, our consultants document the entire search process and share it with our clients.

Fee Structure: Most frequently fees are viewed as the amount paid. We see fees paid as less significant than setting a fee structure that demands performance. We grew up in the real estate business. We understand “broker risk” in transaction compensation. There is no reason recruiters shouldn’t take transaction or closing risk.

20/20 Foresight is a “hybrid retainer” search firm. We require a small retainer upfront. The remainder of the fee is due only when we find a candidate that is hired by the client.

Guarantees: This may be the most underappreciated factor in the survey. Everyone gives guarantees, essentially refiling the position for free if the employee leaves or is terminated within a certain time frame. The term of guarantee is the best measure of confidence a firm has in its own performance.

At 20/20 Foresight, we stand behind our work by providing a one-year guarantee for all candidates. For “C” level searches, the guarantee period is two years.

Durable success in your firm is driven by the quality, commitment and fit of talent in the organization. A strong recruiter supported by a firm with the right systems, processes, expertise and fee structures can have a powerful impact.

Choose wisely!

For more information on U.S. and international executive search services, contact 20/20 Foresight at or 708-246-2100.