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Stage 3: Strategy — Why You Need A Good Research Strategy

Christian Spletzer - February 12, 2019

This article is the fourth 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.

In order for an executive search to prove successful, you first need to establish with your client what constitutes a good candidate. What is the best way to do that? Devise a solid research strategy.

A research strategy is a detailed summary—based on market research, your recruiting experience, and additional industry-level insight—of the type of people your client wants you to recruit, as well as how exactly you’re going to go about recruiting them. It’s a clear set of instructions for your team to follow and refer to throughout the search process.

In developing your research strategy for an executive search, you define what titles and locations you’re going to investigate for candidates, along with your rationale for choosing those sources. You’ll also create a target list of companies you’ll plan to approach based on their similarity to the one you’re recruiting for, whether that be the same industry or similar experiences or revenue.

If you’re looking for a VP of Finance, for example, you’ll be asking yourself: do I want someone who has held that exact role, held a higher role at a smaller company, or held a lesser role at a bigger company?

There's no concrete right answer, but in thinking about these questions with your client, you’ll better your chances of a successful search. Plus, just as importantly, you’ll get your client to buy into your strategy so that you’re both on the same page regarding your expectations and goals moving forward.  

Ultimately, every single search needs an established research strategy. Think of it as architectural plans you design before building a house, or a well thought out business plan that comes prior to the launch of the business. It’s a crucial first step toward eventually landing a great candidate. Here’s why.

Developing a strong research strategy sets the rest of your search up for success.

Every search has to start somewhere, and the smartest place you can start is at the drawing board, designing a thoughtful and purposeful research strategy based on evidence and market insight.

When conducting a search, you need to give yourself certain guiding parameters:

  • What kind of candidate is your client looking for?
  • What type of experience should that person have?
  • What sort of experience will prove relevant in the eyes of your client?

By answering these questions up front, you can define the best direction to aim your search initially.

Sometimes, however, firms skip this step. Their thinking is, "Oh, I need a VP of Finance, so I'm just going to go find current VPs of Finance across the industry." This approach isn’t your best move. Finance might be more interchangeable than other departments, but there are so many variables this kind of strategy ignores. Is your client in need of someone with scale experience? If so—if you’re conducting a search for a $50 million VC-backed company that’s not yet public but wants to grow to $200 million in the next 18 months—you should be looking for a candidate who has experience in a rapid-growth company.

What you risk by skipping this step is reaching the presentation stage of a search with a band of candidates you think are good fits, but that the client is uninterested in. You might approach your client saying, "This candidate is a director for your VP of Finance role,” and unfortunately hear in response, "Why are you presenting me a director when we're recruiting a VP of Finance?"

If you would have established a research strategy up front, you would have known that your client never wanted to see any directors, no matter how qualified you’ve deemed them to be. By agreeing on a research strategy with your client, you’re in effect getting ahead of those potential logjams.

Building out a research strategy in collaboration with your client ensures you’re both on the same page regarding expectations and goals for the search.

Establishing a sound research strategy based on evidence, insight, and data not only increases the likelihood of your search proving successful, it also eliminates any chance that your client will be dissatisfied with what you deliver later on, so long as you deliver what you said you would.

The reason is, in creating your strategy for a given search, you and your client inevitably agree on certain expectations and goals. You establish quantifiable criteria which will inform your decision making down the road. For example, your client might state that they’re only interested in engineers with experience at Google and degrees from Stanford. As you then proceed, that’s what you’ll focus on, finding candidates that meet that criteria.

Ultimately, this amounts to good practice, as it gives your search team an important sense of direction and an insurance policy of sorts.

If, for instance, the people on your team aren’t focusing their research around candidates who meet the client’s specified criteria, you’ll have the wherewithal to correct them, since they’re not adhering to the instructions of the research strategy. And, if later in a search your client expresses dissatisfaction with the candidates you’re bringing them, you can reference the research strategy you agreed to up front as evidence that you are, in fact, doing what you were asked to do. You can say, “Hey, let's go back to that research strategy and look at what we documented, signed off on, and agreed to."

Typically, the client will either relent to your logic or provide you more information that will prove relevant in reshaping your search strategy, such as a new set of criteria.

Of course, agreed upon research strategies or target lists only prove valuable as forms of insurance if you document them in a way that’s transparent and accessible to both your team and your client. That’s why it pays to invest in software that provides you with a place to store such documentation, like Clockwork. Inside of Clockwork, search teams are able to populate various tabs for each project: there’s a Candidates tab, a Positions tab, and a Strategy and Target List tab––places designed specifically to create transparency around strategy.

Searches based on research strategies are completed quicker.

Here’s the bottom line: designing a sound research strategy at the beginning of your search will help you find success quicker. It will give you an idea around what sort of industries and companies you should start investigating. Will it be most prudent to start your search with your client’s competitors? Or do you need to look at an entirely different industry? All this information is important to have.

Personally, I’m a proponent of process. If you have a target list of companies with potential candidates to target, by combing through that list without deviating from it, you’ll find qualified candidates faster than you would while operating less systemically. There is a finite market of candidates but a seemingly infinite number of places to look for them. Operating with a process that’s strategic and purposeful will increase your chances of success.In fact, if you’ve got a good research team, a well-defined set of search criteria in your research strategy will enable you to turn your target list around in a few days, as opposed to weeks or months—which is how long it takes less organized teams.

Just like every beautiful home begins with architectural plans that guide the entire building process from start to finish, so should every search be conducted with a research strategy. To do otherwise is not only riskier, but also extremely less effective. Everyone benefits when you take the time at the start of your project to step back and devise a research strategy they can follow.


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.

Previous article 
Stage 2: Win Work
Next article 
Stage 3: Strategy – Setting A Strategy

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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