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The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search

Christian Spletzer - September 9, 2020

If you’ve been in the executive search industry for a while then you know the importance of having a process in place for managing your projects and business leads. What many new executive search professionals just entering this industry may not realize is what a good executive search process should look like. Furthermore, many don’t realize the importance that a good process can have on the success of their growing business. 

A good executive search process is one that enhances the efficiency of your team by bringing them together to form one cohesive unit working cross-functionally towards an end goal. While the nuances of this retained executive search process can vary from one firm to the next, at its core, the process is the same. 

In this article, we will cover the fundamentals of executive search as a prelude to The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search - an eight-stage process that takes you beyond the success of your project’s lifecycle, to that of your firm. Jump to the following sections to learn more about each stage in the executive search process.

The Fundamental Principles of the Retained Executive Search Process

Stage 1: Find Work

Stage 2: Win Work

Stage 3: Strategy

Stage 4: Research

Stage 5: Outreach

Stage 6: Assessment

Stage 7: Decision

Stage 8: Close & Grow

The Fundamental Principles of the Retained Executive Search Process

Talent Acquisition Models

Two primary types of talent acquisition models can be used for finding new talent: the model used by in-house or contingency recruiting teams and that used by retained executive search firms. The former uses an inbound process ideal for handling the influx of resumes they receive from active candidates looking for new jobs while the latter uses an outbound process ideal for amassing a network of passive connections specific to the firm’s specialty.

Contingency vs Retained Firms

The above talent acquisition models are reflected in the two types of search firms: contingency search firms versus retained search firms. Similar to in-house recruiting teams, contingency firms are best equipped to handle the influx of resumes they receive from active candidates and for staffing lower-level positions in a timely manner. Retained firms, on the other hand, take on a more consultative approach and derive their success through the efficiency of their process, thorough engagement with the client, and the quality of the placement.

Ultimately, when it comes to executive search this much is clear: the retained search model is most beneficial for finding executives due to the nature of the relationship between the firm and the client as well as the intricacy of the process. This is where our eight-stage methodology comes into play.

The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search

The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search is a methodology best suited for the retained search model as it is a thorough process meant to enhance client collaboration and streamline project management all in an effort to sustain and grow your search firm.

The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search Cheat Sheet

What makes this process so unique is that each stage is reliant upon the other. It takes you through the entire project lifecycle from finding work to closing out a project and even goes a step further to use your project’s success as leverage for business development. 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.

Roles and Responsibilities in the Executive Search Process

Just as critical as having a thorough understanding of the executive search process, every person on a given team should know their responsibilities and how these responsibilities tie in together to make this process seamless. You will often encounter five major roles in an executive recruiting team:

  1. Partner
  2. Recruiter
  3. Researcher
  4. Administrator
  5. Client

If you and your team understand the retained executive search process and what each role entails, then you’re better able to understand what it takes to find the best executive hire.

The Importance of Technology in Executive Search

Just like how your team and process play a key role in the success of your firm, so too does the technology you use. This is especially true in the case of retained executive search. Because of the complex nature of the executive search process, these firms require software that can keep up with the work that they do.

Applicant Tracking System (ATS) vs Executive Search Platform (ESP)

An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is a database that serves as a central repository for collecting, storing, and indexing resumes for candidates that actively apply to jobs on job boards or a company’s website. An ATS is best equipped for matching skills on a resume with skills on a job posting, whereas an Executive Search Platform (ESP) is specifically designed to handle the more strategic functions that go beyond simple applicant tracking. They not only provide the means for conducting thorough research and outreach, but they have the means to assess candidates, collaborate with the rest of the team, and communicate transparently with the client.

Additional Resources:

What Makes a Successful Search: The 4 Core Roles Broken Down

Stage 1: Find Work

This stage is all about lead generation and how to find your next executive search project. This is done by:

  • Determining your firm’s area of specialization
  • Marketing techniques to place your firm in front of the right people
  • Maximizing your executive search software to leverage past work, contacts, and resources

Finding new search work can be difficult for firms to accomplish which is why we made it the first step of our process because, without any leads, there would be no business.

Why Your Firm Needs to Specialize

Professional services is a challenging industry when it comes to marketing and winning new business beyond referrals. If prospective clients are at a loss for a referral they start with a Google search to find a specialized executive search firm that ticks all the right boxes for their search. This is why you want to ensure that your firm specializes to differentiate yourself from competitors and place yourself in a favorable position with prospective clients.

There are five areas of specialization that your firm needs to consider:

  1. Location
  2. Seniority
  3. Industry
  4. Company Stage & Size
  5. Department

By including your specialty within your marketing efforts and initiatives you can build a stronger SEO profile for your search firm, raise your brand awareness, and increase your ranking within search engine results.

How to Market Your Search Firm

The best way to market your firm to the right people is by creating Target Market Lists. These lists should include prospective leads such as:

  • Referenceable Clients
  • Client Competitors
  • Competitor Decision Makers
  • Referenceable Placements
  • Individual Influencers

In creating these lists, you are leveraging your existing connections as well as identifying new opportunities to help prospective clients. Once you create these lists, you can then use them in your marketing campaigns to target segmented groups that are most likely to partner with your firm. The more targeted your campaigns are, the higher your chances are of generating a high amount of leads that convert into clients. For a more thorough approach to your marketing tactics, create a ‘Specialization Brief’ to use as a reference to guide your strategy, tone, content, and channels to help generate more search work.

Leverage Your Executive Search Software

Finding and winning new executive search work is one of the most time-consuming stages of executive search. Having the right software can help to dramatically accelerate finding and winning new business by helping you create and manage marketing lists, track key relationships, use customizable email templates for business development outreach, and manage your deal pipeline.

Additional Resources:

Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Marketing Your Executive Search Firm

Yes, You Need To Specialize Your Executive Search Firm. Here's Why.

Stage 2: Win Work

With a marketing strategy in place to generate leads and attract prospective clients, the next step in the process is to win them over. When a prospective lead hits your inbox your priority will be to:

  • Score and gauge fit for whether a lead is qualified
  • Customize and prepare your pitch deck for presentation
  • Determine if you should refer a search to another firm

When it comes to this stage of a search, marketing campaigns can only get you so far. Ultimately, winning work amounts to closing the sale. Here’s what the process entails and how you can do it successfully.

Score and Evaluate New Leads to Pursue the Best Opportunities

When a new lead enters your pipeline, you will need to do some research to determine if the contact request or inquiry is qualified and aligned with your executive search services. By following a BANT methodology to assess a prospects Budget, Authority, Need, and Timing, you can efficiently assess whether a lead is worth following up on.

Because of the opportunity costs associated with working with uncooperative clients, you want to make sure you partner with the right one otherwise you're going to be wasting time that could be better spent on other more successful endeavors.

Once you evaluate that a lead is qualified and start preparing the contract, you want to ensure that you are not over promising anything in the event that you under deliver. Ultimately it boils down to being transparent in your abilities in terms of what you can realistically accomplish versus what is not in your capacity to deliver.

How to Create a Pitch Deck

When it comes to drafting a pitch deck, the last thing you want to do is recycle a pitch deck used for previous clients. You’ll want to customize your pitch deck to include relevant details concerning your firm and your ability to perform to the client’s expectations. It’s one of the first few touch points that clients have with your firm and is the only thing you can leave behind with them while they consider partnering with your firm. Thus, ensure that your pitch deck is accurate, factual, complete, and explanatory by doing the following:

  • Research the company beforehand to fully understand your client’s needs
  • Convey your firm’s honest value by building a solid relationship with the client
  • Substantiate your value claims by expressing your understanding of the intricacies of the recruitment process, and evidence of your skills as they relate to search.
  • Solidify your process so you can explain how and why it works

At the end of the day, your time is valuable. Sometimes there is not a fit between a prospective client and your search firm or you just don’t have the bandwidth to take on a new client—and that’s OK. Instead of turning a prospective client away and forfeiting potential revenue, maintain your role as a trusted advisor and pass or refer the search project to another search firm that has the right experience. By providing the prospective client with a solution, you preserve your relationship with them and you can even benefit from a referral fee if there is one.

Additional Resources:

Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Winning New Work for Your Executive Search Firm

Stage 3: Strategy

Why You Need a Good Search Strategy

You’ve won the client over and are ready to execute on your promise to find a qualified executive for your client’s company. What most firms don’t realize is that this stage is arguably one of the most important stages in this eight stage process.

Formulating a strategy before you begin your search project is like creating a blueprint prior to building a house: it’s your roadmap for success. In essence, it is a guideline for your team to follow that includes crucial details such as who to search for, how to recruit them, and where to look for them.

Think of the strategy as a way to hold your team accountable for their responsibilities. 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 search strategy.

The strategy is also a way to hold your client accountable for their expectations which is why they are a crucial part of the strategy-setting process. By setting the strategy alongside the client, this serves several purposes aside from managing client expectations including:

  • Acquiring better feedback
  • Finding candidates that more accurately meet the desired criteria
  • Making fewer errors

In other words, by keeping clients thoroughly engaged in the process and managing their expectations, you are completing projects quicker and with a higher degree of efficiency as well as effectiveness.

How to Set a Winning Search Strategy

Now you understand the importance of why your search project needs a search strategy, but you also need to know how to create one. 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.

A basic executive search strategy can be broken down into 5 key components:

  1. Job Description: the most basic information and responsibilities about the role
  2. Research Criteria: the candidate’s qualifications
  3. Target Company List: the companies where you’re going to look for candidates
  4. Logistics and Expectations: the details surrounding the working relationship with the client such as interview time blocks, point of contact, etc.
  5. Benchmark Profiles: potential candidate profiles presented to the client to attain feedback and confirm everyone is on the same page

These 5 categories address every aspect of a search project in a way that ensures little deviation from the plan. Furthermore, a strategy laid out this way inhibits the misconceptions commonly associated with more ambiguous strategies.

Additional Resources:

Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Formulating an Executive Search Strategy

What Does 'Good' Client Management Look Like?

What Clients Actually Need From Their Recruiters

How to Write the Best Possible Job Spec

How to Get Your Clients Invested in the Search Process

5 Ways to Avoid Having Unhappy Clients

4 Ways to Improve Engagements With Your Clients

Stage 4: Research

Start With the People You Know

More often than we’d like to admit, we start a new executive search by hopping on LinkedIn and clicking through profiles. That’s not really a process and it certainly won’t impress the client. Instead, you’ll want to begin your research with the well-defined research criteria and target company list from your strategy setting session.

Here are 3 crucial steps to maximize your research efforts and find the best possible candidate for your search project.

Step 1: Rather than going straight online to look for candidates, start your research by leveraging your existing database to find people at target companies that match the research criteria.

Step 2: Next, search your database for people at target companies that may know someone who meets the research criteria. These people are often referred to as sources.

Step 3: Once you’ve exhausted your database, then and only then should you turn to other locations like LinkedIn to find matches. Again you’ll want to look for candidates and sources.

It’s worth noting that this strategy only works if you’ve managed to maintain relationships with these folks. Otherwise, your database will be worthless because the people in it won’t care to work with you again.

Use Research Reports to Showcase Tangible and Transparent Results

Reports are crucial to the executive search process to remain transparent with the client and keep them updated. However, rather than assembling reports manually, you’ll want to take advantage of the reporting features of your executive search software so that you take the hard work out of creating reports.

Take our Clockwork platform for example. There are two primary methods of showcasing your search project results in Clockwork and that is through a Research Coverage Report and a Research Criteria Scorecard.

A Research Coverage Report showcases the current and past employees at the companies found on the Target Company List that would either make great candidates or might know great candidates. It ensures you have adequate coverage of the Target Company List from your strategy session. A Criteria Scorecard on the other hand goes more in-depth into the individual candidate to evaluate them on a five-point scale against the established research criteria.

As you proceed further into the search and begin to reach out to candidates that meet the search criteria, you’ll want to continue updating your client so that they remain abreast of the project’s progress.

Additional Resources:

Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Showcasing Your Research Results

Capture Unique Person Record Data Using Custom Fields

The Best Way to Calibrate Research Progress With Client Expectations

Stage 5: Outreach

Keep in mind that you want to be reaching out to candidates that match the criteria in the search strategy. Also, note where they were found—through your own database or LinkedIn—and whether they are a source or a candidate as this information can help shape your outreach strategy.

Establish a Clear Outreach Strategy

It's your job as a search firm to present your intended audience with the information they need to make an informed decision. This responsibility is why it's crucial to ensure you're getting your message across as clear and straightforward as possible. Use the following tips to guide your outreach message:

  • Who are you? Establish your credibility.
  • Why are you reaching out? Specify the search details and who you are looking for.
  • What are you reaching out about? Specify if you’re reaching out about potential candidacy or for their help as a source.
  • How can these people reach you? Specify a way for them to contact you whether it’s through email or phone.

Tailor Your Outreach to the Candidate

Sending a mass email to dozens of candidates might seem like the fastest and most efficient way to get your outreach done and over with. This couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to executive candidates though. You’re reaching out to busy folks so it’s crucial to draw them in right from the moment they read the subject line in your email.

Not only that but you must ensure that once you draw them in, you’re holding their interest with a well-positioned opportunity. The best way to do this is to tailor your outreach to the candidate and make it feel natural. A personalized outreach tends to produce better response rates which in turn allows for the opportunity to engage the candidate in conversation to further qualify them.

What to Look for When Qualifying Candidates

When reaching out to candidates, you want to qualify them to ensure they are Qualified, Interested, and Available (QIA).

Qualified: Verify that the candidate is indeed qualified for the position and identify if there are any gaps in their profile.

Interested: Determine if the candidate is truly interested in the role. Consider their tone and whether they’re interested in learning more and next steps.

Available: Determine if the candidate is available to move forward. This is a good time to gauge their expectations for compensation and benefits.

Remember that throughout this process, you are essentially buying and selling. You are ‘buying’ on behalf of the client and ‘selling’ the opportunity to the candidate. Take note of the candidates’ responses and keep your client informed on the latest activities. Gain their feedback on these candidates and continue to drive them toward the next steps as informed by the client.

Additional Resources:

Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Candidate Outreach

How to Use Research Criteria to Streamline Your Candidate Screening Process

Stage 6: Assessment

Since the strategy stage, your client has remained passively engaged, aware of your developments, and providing feedback when needed. Now is when you need to bring them back in and deliver the relevant information you’ve gathered on the prospective candidates.

Best Ways to Present Clients With Candidate Information

In this stage when your client is starting to gather all the information needed to make their final decision, you want to continue sharing your findings through Status Reports and Candidate Assessment Reports.

Status Reports in Clockwork display all candidates found with varying degrees of information for each one depending on where they are in the search process. The further the search progresses, the fewer remaining candidates and the more details you can add such as resumes or Criteria Scorecards.

For every finalist that the client is considering you should also include a Candidate Assessment Report (CAR). The CAR is a comprehensive report containing everything you have uncovered about the candidate thus far including:

  • Research findings
  • QIA analysis
  • Red flags and outstanding notes
  • Recommendations for how to proceed with interviews

Prepare Your Client to Make a Final Decision

Since your job in this stage is simply to set your client up for an informed conversation with the candidate, one thing you should NOT be doing is aggressively selling the candidate on the role or the client on the candidate. If you do find yourself working overtime to sell the candidate on the role or the client on the candidate, that’s a sign it won’t work out well.

The important thing to remember is that your job is to present information and remove obstacles to a future productive conversation so that both parties involved can make informed decisions. It’s not enough to simply tell your client, “This is the answer.” In this scenario, you’re a consultant, so your job is to share with your client how you tackled the problem, what process you took, what your findings were, and what informed your final recommendation. In doing so, they’ll be able to make their own assessment of the candidates and be set up to make an informed decision.

Additional Resources:

Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Candidate Assessments

How to Showcase Your Expertise in Diversity & Inclusion for Executive Search

Why You Need to Be Scheduling Candidate Interviews Yourself

Stage 7: Decision

At the decision stage of the executive search process, the client you’ve been working with is ready to extend an offer to a qualified candidate. It’s your job as the recruiter to make sure both the client and the candidate have all the information they might need to make an intelligent choice about their future. Here’s exactly what this stage of the search process entails, along with what you should keep in mind to play your role appropriately.

Tips for Conduct Reference Checks

The important thing to remember if and/or when you are asked to conduct reference checks is to ask hard questions. Below is a list of topics that you can cover in a reference check regarding a candidate’s abilities that should give you a better idea of how well the candidate will fit in your client’s company.

Relationship: What is the candidate’s relationship with the reference?

Teamwork: How well does the candidate work with others?

Growth: What are the candidate’s long term goals?

Leadership and management style: What kind of leadership style does the candidate possess?

Adaptability and Challenges: How well does the candidate handle pressure, conflict, change, difficult challenges, etc.?

Agility and Fit: What is the ideal situation in which the candidate would thrive?

The number one component to conducting not just a great interview, but a productive conversation is to be prepared. Here are a few rules of thumb to help you go into a reference check feeling prepared:

  • Always ask for permission before contacting a candidate’s current employer
  • Prepare a dialogue without being overly scripted
  • Ask follow up questions
  • Know how to speak to a reluctant reference

How to Guide Your Client’s Evaluation Process

Once you finish checking candidate references and present your findings to your client, your priority now is to recognize when they are making decisions founded in personal bias so that you can enlighten them on the errors of their evaluations. Familiarize yourself with the following possible biases in your client’s thought process that can impede their ability to choose a quality candidate.

Leniency Bias: The client is going too easy on all candidates.

Strictness Bias: The client is too harsh on all candidates.

Similar-to-Me Bias: The client is biased towards the candidate that is most like them.

Contrast Effect: The client is evaluating a candidate based on their comparison to other candidates rather than the actual job description and criteria.

Halo Effect: The client allows their perception of one attribute in a candidate to affect their perception of all attributes.

By this point, it might seem as though you’re playing the role of your client’s therapist and in many ways you are. They are in the midst of making a critical decision that can impact the future wellbeing of their company. Thus, you must ensure that your client is thinking clearly and confidently to make that final decision.

Additional Resources:

Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Making the Final Candidate Selection

The Consultative Aspect of Executive Recruiting Can Make or Break Your Search

Stage 8: Close & Grow

The executive search process is a cycle, good search work leads to good business development which leads to good search work. This last stage helps complete that cycle and ties back into Stage 1: Find Work to ensure you land the next executive search project.

Conduct a Final Review With Your Client

Upon the closing of a search, the first thing you should do is arrange a meeting between you and the client to reflect on how they feel the search went. In this review, you want to gauge your client’s temperature, asking primarily for feedback. This feedback you can then use to improve your process and grow as an executive search firm.

What you’re hoping for, of course, is that the client is happy with the work you did for them. If the client is satisfied with the work that you’ve done for them then they are more likely to give you future work if asked. At the very least they can provide you with a quality recommendation.

Follow Up With Other Candidates

No search is truly complete until you alert the candidates who were not selected for the role.

On top of being rude, corrosive, and unprofessional, not alerting candidates about a position they might eagerly be awaiting updates on is the best way to burn bridges.

QIA executive candidates are people you’ll need in the future, either to fill similar roles or to obtain references. And since most of your candidates are executives, they very well could become clients or refer you to work in the future.

Send a Targeted Placement Announcement

Once you complete a successful project, you’ll want to advertise that success by way of a targeted placement announcement. The keyword here is ‘targeted.’

If you blast your entire contact database then you’ll risk sending a placement announcement that many will find irrelevant. The goal is to target a select few groups of people that will find interest in the success of your project to stay top-of-mind if they require your services later on.

Grow Your Database and Improve Your Skills

At the end of the day, these are the two imperatives of this stage. For one thing, with every project you complete, you should be getting better by realizing what you did well and what you could do better.

Additionally, you absolutely need to use every search to grow your database. The best way to do this is by nurturing your network. If your database is up to date and healthy, it will prove a critical resource for you both in your future searches and in your business development efforts.

Additional Resources:

Executive Recruiting Best Practices: Closing Out Your Search Project

Why Creating a Targeted Mailing List for Your Success Notifications Will Benefit Your Executive Search Firm

Manage Your Search Projects and Deals Pipeline Under One Roof

Final Thoughts

This eight-stage methodology extends beyond the contractual engagement with the client to include critical business development activities before and after the formal search process. They are also cyclical, building upon prior stages every time you run a search to help you continuously improve.

Armed with this process, you and your team should be poised for improved effectiveness, efficiency, and growth. However, understanding something and then implementing it are two entirely different undertakings. It takes people, process, and technology to effect change. For the best chance at success, you need the right tools and support along the way.

Regardless of what tool you use or how you decide to implement your process, remember that firms and teams who understand and appreciate client satisfaction are most likely to succeed long-term. Results drive client satisfaction in executive search. If you stay aligned with these three fundamental principles of retained executive search—the eight-stage process, client collaboration, and search project excellence—you’ll be in an advantageous position to distinguish yourself from the competition, establish long-term partnerships with your clients, and grow your business.

Read our free online eBook, The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search, for a more in-depth understanding of what a successful executive search process entails. Also make sure to check out our free online course based on our eBook for additional resources and helpful tips. 

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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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