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The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search

Christian Spletzer - February 12, 2019

I’ve worked in the search industry for most of my career. Over the years—first as a recruiter and later as the founder and CEO of a recruitment software company—I’ve developed a deep understanding of how this industry operates. Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned is how successful executive search firms operate.

Up and down the delivery chain and across the spectrum of responsibility, what makes the most successful firms so successful is that they collaborate. Researchers work with recruiters, recruiters work with partners, partners work with clients. Everyone on a given search team plays a critical role. Or at least, they should.

Another thing I’ve learned is that recruiters often come into this work by happenstance. While some may have started in search right out of college, many others pivot into the field from another industry. In addition to an eclectic workforce, many new recruiters don’t understand the bigger picture informing the overall executive search process.

For search firms, that can be detrimental, since it inherently limits your ability to collaborate and complete successful searches. Firms composed of people who don’t understand the fundamentals of the larger search process always prove less successful. The reason is the collaborative nature of the work. Recruitment teams need to understand what completing a successful search entails in order to provide the best service for clients. Without that complete conception, recruiters tend to view the work too myopically, focusing only on their singular responsibilities, and as a result, they prove less effective as a whole.

Successful firms are not merely compilations of people focusing on individual tasks. They’re cohesive units working together throughout the search process to accomplish a common goal.

Accordingly, recruiters new to the field need to educate themselves around what that process exactly entails. And firms need to prioritize that sort of education, which starts with identifying the various stages of the search.

In total, there are eight stages: 

  1. Find work. The first stage of a search is finding clients to work for. It might seem obvious, but without clients to conduct searches, it doesn’t matter what kind of candidate database you have, nor what your outreach strategy is. You won’t have anything to do, and you’ll quickly go out of business.

  2. Win work. Once you find the work, of course, you have to win it. That means arranging meetings, demonstrating your capabilities, and convincing prospective clients that you’re the right person for this particular search.

  3. Strategy. Next comes the critical step of developing your strategy for delivering on the promises you’ve made to your client. Here you will draw up your roadmap to success. You’ll work with your client to develop a deeper understanding of what they need and what sort of person they’re looking for. Then, you’ll determine how you’ll go about finding that person—where you’ll look, how you’ll contact them, and so on.

  4. Research. Only after you’ve developed your strategy will your firm begin searching for candidates. This stage means finding relevant potential fits to call—people whom, if they were to pick up your call, would likely say they’re interested in learning more about the role. You have to target the right people, or else your search will die before it really gets started.

  5. Outreach. The outreach piece is what most new recruiters focus on when they enter this work. It entails more than simply making phone calls. Here, recruiters need to contact candidates, provide critical information about the role in a succinct but enticing way, and also determine if the candidates themselves pass “the sniff test”—whether or not they should be passed onto the assessment phase.

  6. Assessment. Once you’ve screened a candidate over the phone during outreach, you’ll need to determine whether a candidate is worthy of a deeper, more complete assessment. You’ll gauge a candidate’s career experience, personality, and professional trajectory, weighing these attributes against the requirements of the role. You’ll present this information to the client, and together you’ll decide whether or not to proceed with a face-to-face interview. It’s in this stage where you’ll be providing deliverables for your client—quality prospects who themselves evidence whether or not you’ve conducted the search correctly, and whether or not you’re giving the client what they paid for.

  7. Decision. If you’ve conducted the search effectively, then after passing on candidates to clients for face-to-face interviews, you’ll enter the decision phase of a search, during which clients will decide to whom they’ll extend an offer.

  8. Close & Grow. Finally, if a client does extend an offer to a candidate, and if that candidate accepts, you’ll arrive at the last stage of the search. Here, you’ll close the project, ensure the client is happy and will give you a reference, and confirm your relationship with candidate, as well. You’ll need to validate your relationships with both the client and candidate because both might provide work, references, or testimonials in the future.


Why is it critical that everyone on a search team understands each stage of the process?

When it comes to completing successful searches, the bottom line is that everyone on a given team needs to understand how to most effectively proceed from the first stage to the last. This necessity is because every component of a search is connected and depends on the others. Outreach benefits from better recruitment, assessment processes depend on quality outreach, and so on.

Firms that understand and appreciate this approach complete searches like machines. As a result, they execute on strategy more effectively, and in time grow, improve, and allow themselves to conduct searches at scale. On the flip side, firms composed of employees who conceive of the larger operation as merely a matter of calling 50 people a day, or searching for prospects only on LinkedIn, inevitably fall behind.

While executing on a day-to-day basis is of course crucial, one’s ability to do that will be limited without an understanding of the bigger picture—and those limitations will then hinder every other member on the team. A team that operates with such limitations are always flying by the seat of their pants. I’ve been a part of teams that operate this way. Most stagnate, and even devolve into disaster.

A sound, communal understanding of process amounts to laying a quality foundation atop of which your firm can grow. And while it doesn’t exactly guarantee success, growth, or even individual competency, it sure makes those things easier to come by.

If you’re just entering this work, don’t limit yourself with ignorance. If you’re running a firm, don’t let a lack of understanding destroy your dream. Instead, step back and prioritize this education.


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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