Mythbusters: Executive Search Edition…

admin Audacious Ideas, Bob Corlett, Executive Search, Recruiting, Working With Recruiters

Dear Corporate HR Friends,

You know that tough job opening that’s been on your books a while now? The one with the hard-to-find skills and a hard-to-please hiring manager?   Why haven’t you engaged an executive search firm yet?  (Was it the mind-boggling cost? No definitive timeline for results?  Uncertainty about getting any results?  Or perhaps your last experience just didn’t feel “worth it”?)

Yup, hiring managers are reluctant to engage executive search firms. And while some customers are happy, many others are not.  Some search pros view this as a sales challenge, but when I see a common business problem – with lots of unsatisfied customers – I see a huge opportunity for innovation.   And hey, it’s not just me, the CEO of search powerhouse Heidrick & Struggles publicly fretted about failure rates in executive placement (requires free registration).

For nearly a decade, I’ve been working to reinvent the executive search firm – but that’s really just my way of saying “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” By now, I thought every search firm would be innovating like mad, but a funny thing happened.  Most didn’t.   Although many search firms have tinkered a bit with their pricing models, one big unexamined myth killed off the real innovation at most search firms.

So, here is The Big Myth: that recruiting is fundamentally a sales effort.  If you believe this myth, you think the best recruiters must be compensated like high-end sales professionals, and the search process should be organized like a sales effort.

My substitute reality:  Recruiting is fundamentally a marketing effort, followed by a methodical decision support effort.  It’s really not about selling.  The key to success is identifying the right candidate audience, crafting a winning message, and delivering it effectively.   A smooth talking sales pro on a telephone is no longer state of the art for this task.   You can now deliver a recruiting message very effectively through online communities, social networks, and plain old email.  But to be successful, you need a compelling marketing message.  Someone on the phone selling actually gets in the way. Oh, and one more thing – you really don’t need a sales pro to talk the hiring manager into making a decision – you just need to provide them with a solid decision support process.

My evidence:  We’ve successfully completed over 200 VP, Director and Manager level searches across all functional areas without a single cold call to a candidate.   Nobody in my firm works on commission. Nobody gets paid to bring in new business or talk our clients into anything.   Our work comes from referrals and repeat business – in fact, more than 75% of our search work is with clients who have engaged us 3 or more times.

Corollary Myth:  Search fees of 25 to 30% of annual salary are worth it.  If you believe this myth, there is no way to ensure a great search outcome for less money. Hey, real search professionals don’t work cheap, so if you pay less, some aspect of the service must be inferior, right?

My substitute reality:  We deliver full service executive search – with consistently great outcomes – for about 10% of annual salary.  You see, once you get past the big sales myth, it is easy to lower the cost of executive search, simply by redesigning how you deliver the service.  First, we staff our firm with people who are great at sourcing, interviewing and decision support (but not great at sales).  Then we systematically reduce the variability of each search by eliminating off-spec candidates, long and confusing interview sequences, and indecision.  A faster, cleaner, more methodical hiring sequence saves our clients time, and saves us money. Most of our searches complete in about 5 weeks.

My evidence:  Two simple acid tests of delivering value to customers are your repeat business rate (see ours above) and long term candidate retention.  We measure retention rates for three full years after placement.   Our retention rate is 91% at one year, and 84% after 3 years – among the best in the search business (and yes, we did include layoffs in those stats or they would have been 2 full points higher.).   So no, not inferior … actually superior.

Admittedly, if you work in executive search, some of our innovations might seem economically threatening.  For that I apologize.   It’s nothing personal – just evolution.  I’m sure someone, somewhere, is hard at work busting my favorite myths right now … but hopefully with C-4.

Editor’s Note – This guest post is brought to you by a guy who Jessica finds to be totally fascinating. Smart and a giver. What a combo. As the president of Staffing Advisors – a retained search firm in Washington DC, and yes that would make him the boss of @SourcerKelly of this little blog – Bob Corlett can’t leave well enough alone. He is constantly striving for search nirvana and writing about that quest on his blog and with those rock throwers over at the HR Examiner. Despite what you might think, Bob actually likes recruiters… well, some of them anyway. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t run the Staffing Alliance of Maryland Employers, for which he gets paid, like, nothing.