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

Christian Spletzer - January 10, 2019

Executive recruiting has evolved.

It used to be that what mattered in executive search was the depth of your professional network. The more connected you were as a recruiter, the more in-demand your services were. After all, that’s how you found the best candidates for your clients: by reaching out to people you already knew. This meant most firms became almost naturally specialized—or, in other words, focused on placing candidates in one specific type of industry or position. The more engineering candidates you placed, for example, the more specialized you became in that field.

Specialization, in time, became something of a fundamental to executive recruiting.

With the emergence of database technologies like LinkedIn, however, the need for firms to specialize changed. Suddenly, it was possible for an executive recruiter to find quality candidates across industries even if they didn’t have any contacts or experience in that field. This enabled firms to become more generalist in nature—“specializing” in a much wider array of jobs and searches.

What we’ve seen, however—despite the rise of field-leveling database technologies—is that firms that specialize remain not only more effective but typically more successful.

Here’s why.

Usually, what’s most important to clients is a recruiter’s ability to find candidates in their specific field.

In executive recruiting, clients partner with firms to help them fill a specific, mission-critical role. That means clients choose who they work with because of their proven specialization. The more technical or critical the role in question, the more clients stand to benefit from working with firms who specialize.

Think about it: clients have too much on the line not to partner with a firm in which they have legitimate, referenceable confidence.

Most growing companies who need to place a CFO, for example, opt for recruiters who have a background in accounting or who otherwise have relevant experience. The reason is that clients need recruiters who can accurately assess a candidate’s ability in relation to the role.

And recruiters who specialize are, generally speaking, better able to do that.

Firms that specialize also better leverage their past work.

In executive recruiting, winning the work is just as important as doing the work. And firms that specialize—and, in the process, build a track record showing their ability to fill a certain kind of role—have an easier time winning new work.

The reason, once again, is simple. The roles companies work with recruiting firms to fill are often so important that they look to firms who specialize first. If you’re the CEO of a growing company looking for a key marketing executive to help build your team, for example, who are you more likely to partner with: the firm whose last five searches have focused on CMOs, or the firm who’s conducted one marketing-related search in the last year?

Ultimately, the recruiter with more industry knowledge will be able to get started faster and with a better understanding of the marketplace.

Plus, a proven track record is much more persuasive than a simple can-do attitude.

Of course, how you leverage your past work is equally critical here. Clockwork, for example, empowers recruiters with a platform they can use not only to complete specific projects but to also curate and quickly reference past completed projects for prospective clients. It allows recruiters to store key lessons and final outcomes pertaining to individual searches and present them as evidence of their ability to complete searches in that industry.

To determine a specialization, try to identify what motivates or interests you.

Now, if you’re running a search firm today and you’re not particularly specialized, that’s not a reason for panic. After all, you don’t need an educational background in a given profession to specialize in it.

Most recruiters decide on their specialty in one of three ways:

  1. They fall into it after completing multiple projects within a particular area.
  2. They’re intellectually curious about an industry, and they invest in their ability to complete searches within that industry.
  3. They already had experience in the area and decide to tap into that background.

As you can see, the first two options are achievable through old-fashioned hard work—through persisting from one new project to the next until you’ve built up a track record that speaks to your ability to fill roles in that industry.

Regardless of how you specialize, the key to doing so successfully is having a good process in place.

The quality of your process is what will ultimately define your success as a search firm, regardless of whether you specialize or not. From winning the work to conducting research, to placing a candidate, you must have a process that’s airtight and replicable across searches.

And if you do choose to specialize, part of your process must include saying, “No,” to clients when they ask you to complete a search that falls outside your specialty. Let’s say you specialize in placing tech executives, but the agency you just worked with comes back to you and says, “Hey, you did a great job finding our CTO. Can you help us find a CMO now, too?” Especially for smaller firms, saying, “No,” in this instance is hard because you want to keep your client happy. It’s also tempting to say, “Well, we have LinkedIn. Maybe it won’t be so hard.”

But not declining this kind of request is usually a mistake.

It’s better, instead, to recommend another recruiter or firm that you know will succeed in that specific search. Each different kind of search necessitates a different set of skills and experience. If you enter into a search for which you don’t have the right background, there’s a high probability it won’t go as well as the search for which you were adequately prepared. And searches that don’t go well often compel clients to look elsewhere when they need roles filled in the future.

At the end of the day, while the profession has certainly changed, some elements of search remain the same. Namely: it’s better to do one thing really well—and to be known for doing that one thing really well—than it is to be generally average.

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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