LS International 12 August 2019

6 Common Pitfalls in an Executive Search Process

It takes two to tango. That prescient saying holds true for the executive search process as well. Especially when client organizations use head-hunters, client executives and representatives of the search firm involved in the search need to work closely to ensure that the best candidate for the position is hired. At the start of the search mandate, the parties must agree on a shared vision that encompasses the ideal candidate’s persona or profile going beyond his/her qualifications, expertise or experience. All through the execution of the search, there must be transparency, mutual respect and trust, so that the process is smooth and the goals are achieved.

When hiring decisions go wrong, it is easy for each side to blame the other. But that kind of finger-pointing does not help. What is important is to understand what factors may have contributed to the less-than-ideal outcomes. Drawing on my own executive search experience, I present below six key aspects that are often overlooked during the search process, leading to sub-optimal candidates identified or the right candidates not being hired.


1. Lack of alignment: This is something that usually comes up when conducting searches for roles that involve matrixed reporting relationships. For example, when companies are looking to hire senior executives in subsidiaries or when hiring for new business divisions that require more control from corporate headquarters. In such situations, the views and expectations of local leaders will need to be aligned with those of key managers in headquarters. Otherwise, the search might get biased towards one side’s views. The painful consequence of such a misalignment could well be that even the “best” person identified runs the risk of falling foul of the other side for no fault of his/hers.


2. Line Managers not adequately involved: The Line Manager is arguably the person most interested in ensuring that the best candidate is hired. After all, a bad hiring decision will only add to the Line Manager’s supervisory workload and raise stress levels because of team dynamics leading to dips in performance. Quite often, however, the Line Manager does not engage adequately, beyond perhaps providing inputs to drafting/reviewing the brief for the search. This lack of involvement can impact the search process and outcomes at multiple stages.

At the start of the search process, limited involvement by Line Managers means that tacit knowledge about the role, success factors, expectations etc. may not be transferred to the search consultants involved. When the search firm delivers a long-list of potential candidates, the Line Manager must invest the time and effort necessary to study the profiles and offer feedback on what s/he likes and just as important, what s/he does not. This allows the search team to go back to the drawing board and come up with a different set of names. This involvement also allows the Line Manager to informally gauge the team’s views on hiring from certain organizations (or even specific individuals); this is useful when shortlisting candidates.


3. Agreeing on clear timelines and managing them: Although both the client and the recruitment firm know how the executive search process works, it is in the interest of both sides to agree timelines for each stage and overall timelines. This helps both sides identify critical dependencies and pin down critical tasks (e.g. if the search firm is expected to submit the longlist of candidates by a certain date, then the client too needs to review the list and get back to the search partner within say a week of receiving the longlist, so that the search firm can close the loop with the candidates and move on). This will also help the search firm clearly convey to candidates that they need to get back by so and so date.

Agreeing on realistic timelines upfront helps achieve superior outcomes, besides avoiding needless heartburns and accusations. It also fosters a sense of accountability in all stakeholders (including candidates, who often think they have unlimited time because they are in demand).


4. Not casting a wide enough net: Some search firms may rely too much on known candidate databases. While this is of course a good place to start, certain positions may need the search firm to look beyond their databases. A thorough briefing by clients upfront allows the search firm the opportunity to pick up nuances in the hiring manager’s expectations that may not always be documented in the brief. In the absence of this, the search may be limited and consequently, the longlist presentation may shock the stakeholders present from both the client the search firm.

Everyone knows that “due diligence” is essential to identifying and hiring the right candidates; what is key is the ability to gauge the right level of “diligence” that needs to be exercised in each search. This is based on a mix of factors including the client organization, the market, the role, the skills needed and any special experience or expertise required. I speak with an average 97 candidates when conducting a search to ensure that we really have a good set to choose from.


5. Lack of Speedy decision-making: Good candidates are usually in great demand. While this is generally true across industries and roles, it is especially true for people with expertise in emerging areas such as Digital and Analytics that potentially transcend industry sectors. The ability to hire such candidates requires decisions to be made quickly at every stage of the executive search process. Some decisions need to be made by the client, while some by the search firm. Not doing so could lead to consequences ranging from losing a candidate (to some other company or due to a higher offer that was made earlier) to the client organization and the search firm losing credibility and reputation (which could impact future searches). But remember that speed in decision-making should not come at the cost of doing what’s best.


6. Secure the search firm’s commitment: In theory, all service providers (search firms included) claim high levels of commitment to their clients. But commitment comes at a price- literally. There are many pricing formulae and contracting models out there for executive search services. Each of them intrinsically has a different level of commitment associated with it. In our experience, the retained search model works best in terms of encouraging the search firm to go beyond their call of duty. This therefore increases the odds that clients get to pick from a set of candidates who are truly the best potential fits for their organizations.


You can learn more about our Executive Search Process here.