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Stage 3: Strategy — Setting A Strategy

Christian Spletzer - February 12, 2019

This article is the fifth of a 12-article series about The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search. By reading the entire series, you and your search team will learn the overall retained search process, how each role is connected and dependent on the others, and how to most effectively proceed from the first stage to the last.

Before you can get started finding candidates for a new client in an executive search, you have to develop your search strategy. Setting the strategy is the stage of the search when you and your client establish how exactly you’re going to conduct the search.

This stage requires care, focus, and collaboration. It’s like putting together a strategy in the locker room before the big championship game: you have to account for potential challenges, designate what sort of role every person involved will play, and think through exactly what you hope to accomplish. This process allows you to play intelligently and with purpose.

And just like in sports, it pays to spend the time and the effort developing your strategy before you start the game. If you don’t, you’ll regret it later on. Here’s why.

Setting a strategy allows you to establish important parameters for the search moving forward—such as where you’re going to look and why.

A key component of developing a search strategy is setting parameters around where you’re going to look for candidates. While not infinite, there are thousands of companies out there who employ potentially qualified candidates. Just as you need to identify promising places to start your search, you need to determine which companies not to look into—those companies that fall outside the parameters of your strategy. This approach allows you to keep your process manageable. Otherwise, the search might never end.

But it’s not enough to determine where you’re going to look or not—you must also finalize how you’re going to search, and for whom. Are you going to call people? Are you going to email them? Are you going to in-mail them? And what does a quality candidate look like? What is it that you're going to do to engage with people that meet the criteria for the project?

All of this consideration is critical to do before the search begins. Ultimately, it amounts to ensuring you work smart, not hard, and accomplish your client’s goals as purposefully as possible.

Setting the strategy is also where you’ll set critical expectations around what sort of engagement and understanding you’ll need from your client moving forward.

Executive search is an inherently collaborative process. And as such, you can’t set your strategy for any given search on your own—you need input, insight, and information from your client. Quite simply, a key component of any quality search strategy will be regular involvement on behalf of the client you’re working with. There are just certain things every search needs that only clients are positioned to provide, like information pertaining to what companies should be avoided in your search or what about the opportunity should be included as a selling point on the job spec.

After all, your job as a recruiter is not only to find and screen candidates, but to also sell those candidates on the opportunity. There's a lot that you need to gather and prepare to this end, and you won’t be able to do it all without the client.

Speaking of the job spec, there’s even more to it than meets the eye. Most executive searches are retained, meaning you’ll be looking to recruit passive candidates—people you have to sell on the opportunity. As such, when you’re writing up a job spec, you need to sell the company. Why is the company so great to work for? What’s interesting about its future? You also have to do this with the role. What is the role? What are the responsibilities of it? Why is it so intriguing that the candidate should leave his or her job to fill it? The job spec needs to be both educational and intriguing. You need to sell and inform.

Ultimately, what you’re doing in this stage is cementing the details of the working relationship with your client and getting them to buy-in to their end of the bargain—to commit to the process. To show up to status calls. To review information you send to them and provide their feedback on it. Acquiring this commitment all happens in this stage of the search.

At the end of the day, search is a collaborative process. For the clients who have hired your firm to conduct a search, they need to know that they will in no way be passive participants in it. You won’t be putting your client to work, but they need to understand what sort of participation is expected.

This stage is also where you’ll ensure the client agrees to the parameters and process you set.

Of course, another critical component of setting the strategy of a search—and working so hard to have your client agree to all facets of it—is to help avoid confusion and angry accusations later on.

What you are essentially doing during this stage is setting expectations. You’ll say to your client: "I’m going to do XYZ, as we discussed." You do this expectation setting so if they come to you weeks later complaining, "Why haven't you looked at company X or people from company Y," you can point back to the process and strategy you created together and say, "They're not on our list."

These expectations are critical to set because you might get to a point where you've run through your research and executed your strategy, but you haven’t produced the results your client expected to see. At that point, you have to have a process you can point back to—one that the client agreed to early on. You cannot promise results—you can only promise that you’ll abide by your process.

With any luck, if you do the work you agree to do and you do it as well as you know you can—executing an intelligently designed search strategy—you'll more than likely get the results you expect. But you don't want to be accused of not doing your job. In this way, this component of your search strategy amounts to something of an insurance policy.

As such, you should make sure you have all of this well documented. As it happens, you can with software like Clockwork. In fact, Clockwork has its own tab specifically for strategy documentation where you can detail all the critical pieces of this stage of the work: the research strategy and parameters; the client’s goals for the search; week-over-week participation requirements; and what multi-step process you are promising to stay loyal to until the search is complete.

Take the time, up front, to build your strategy right.

Setting a strategy is akin to building a foundation for the rest of your search. Without it, any progress you happen to make will at some point come crumbling down.

Sometimes, firms feel pressured to rush this stage of the work, diving right into pulling candidate profiles or conducting research. They’re eager to get started, and they mistake activity for productivity.

Don’t let this happen to you. When it’s all said and done, just as no NBA coach has won a championship without a cogent game day strategy, your firm will not be able to complete a successful search without first setting a strategy for doing so.

Take the time to do this stage right, and you’ll be grateful later on.


To learn how The 8 Stages of Successful Retained Search are incorporated and supported in Clockwork, read our support documentation. To see it in action, view this playlist of videos.

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Topics: The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search

Christian Spletzer

Christian Spletzer

After years of working as an executive recruiter, Christian Spletzer founded Clockwork to improve how search firms and clients work together on retained search projects. He designed Clockwork to help recruiters demonstrate their consultative value to their clients at every stage of each project.

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