Identifying, selecting, attracting and hiring the right executives for your organizations (small start-up or large corporation) are imperative to long term success and growth of the company. It’s important to not only utilize an outside resource, but the best 3rd party executive search firm when outsourcing this task. An executive search firm should coach you through every step of the talent acquisition process from identification to offer acceptance. Below we will highlight what to expect from your executive search firm partnership but it’s important to acknowledge that this needs to be a partnership. No executive search firm will be able to “sell” the company and career opportunities like the internal employees and internal leadership from the company looking to hire. Participating in the creation of the job description, elaboration on the total compensation package and upside will be critical in identifying the most highly qualified and sought after candidates. The demand for talent is much higher than the supply, in STEM skill sets in particular, so it’s a candidate driven market and it takes a partnership between hiring company and executive search firm to make the talent more interested in your opportunity than responding to one of your competitors.

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Before You Sign: Here are The Top Questions Enterprises Should Ask an Executive Search Firm


1. What is your average turnaround time?

Depending on the level of position (for example a Chief Executive Officer or a Chief Scientific Officer will take longer than a VP or Manufacturing or an Executive Director of Process Development), an executive search shouldn’t take longer than 75-90 days. This could vary if there is a relocation involved or specific commitments that need to be met before the executive can leave their incumbent employer. Viable candidates should be identified and presented within the first 30 days, with the candidate pool dwindling to a shortlist between days 45 and 60. Strong candidates should have other opportunities or offers being made to them, so extending this process any longer than the time frame above (6-9 months for example) will tell the executive you are not interested or organized enough to move forward with them in a timely manner for the role.  

2. Will you write the job description?

The executive search firm should absolutely assist in writing the job description. They should be able to provide example job descriptions from previous searches within the same industry that should help to create a foundation for the job description. This should be a collaboration between the decision makers/hiring managers and the executive search firm. When initiating a search for a Chief Scientific Officer, for example, the company will be involved with determining the technical qualifications and questions to ask in order to find a viable candidate (as the search firm likely isn’t qualified to make these decisions).  

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3. What role do you play in the interviewing process?

The executive search firm should run all initial interviews with viable candidates. Often they should have already interviewed the candidates and will simply have a follow up call from their initial conversation verifying the opportunity at hand is one of interest. 92% of GTS Scientific’s recruiting comes from past connections alone.

A second interview should be completed by the search firm prior to presenting the candidate for the hiring managers interview. This second interview should provide the candidate at least 48 hours to do further research about the opportunity, confirm the logistics and geography of the role are in alignment, and they should have already considered and confirmed the total compensation package before the profile is submitted for consideration. This second interview decreases candidates’ likelihood of backing out during the interview process, as well as decreases rejected offers.

The company’s decision makers should conduct their own initial and final interviews, and provide feedback to candidates within 3-5 business days on a determination as to whether or not they will be considered for the final interview.


4. What are your payment plan options?

Executive search firms can structure their fees in a number of different ways. The most consistent aspect of the fee is that there is an upfront cost to start the search. Many firms will split their fees in thirds, with one third of the fee required to initiate the search, one third of the fee due when viable candidates are scheduled for their interviews and the final one third of the fee due when the candidate starts for their client.

Search firms may be flexible with these arrangements and percentages, as they could break this down into only two fees (the retainer, and the rest of the fee when the candidate starts). A retainer to initiate the search should always be paid to show the sign of commitment/partnership between the client and the executive search firm. However, the firm should be able to modify the retainer and times that payments are due. If the search firm is inflexible, the client may want to explore a few other firms that are more willing to accommodate the client.


5. Have you worked with my industry before?

The executive search firm should absolutely be an expert within a certain industry vs a generalist. That being said, if you are a life sciences company you may want to use two different firms, for example if you are looking for a Chief Scientific Officer and a Chief Financial officer. Just as a search firm will have an industry of expertise, they will likely have core skill sets that they network and recruit within.

6. Can you send me a handful of case studies?

If your executive search firm can’t provide applicable case studies or testimonials from recent clients this might be a red flag. Executive search firms leverage their previous placements when targeting future clients. A search firm that is guarded about their client base citing “privacy” should impact their credibility.

7. May I speak with your references?

Just like checking a reference on a leader before making them an offer for a critical role in your company you should be able to ask your search firm to schedule a phone call with 1-2 of their recent references.

An executive search firm that has provided exceptional service for a previous client should have already asked that client to be a reference for them for future endeavors. It’s the same to say for a candidate who lacks strong references as a search firm lacking references, if they are good why isn’t anyone willing to speak on their behalf? No references should say the same as a bad reference.


8. What are your methods for outreach to candidates?

To start, your executive search firm should work within an Applicant Tracking System to keep up to date records from conversations and provide a clear legacy of information. Outreach to candidates should be done via phone calls, text message, emails to both personal and work email addresses as well as social media correspondence via LinkedIn messages.

Executive search firms should also be attending industry regionally focused events. The introductions made at these functions should warm up future correspondence from the search firm to the potential candidate. With this in mind, your executive search firm won’t be able to attend every industry event nationwide or globally.

The executive search firm needs to have command of boolean logic as well as x-ray searches for advanced internet research. These innovative research methods identify pertinent authors of publications. These searches help to identify talent as well as keynote speakers or panel members for pertinent topics at industry specific events to generate relationships with subject matter experts.

9. How do you assess and qualify prospects?

The executive search firm should run a DMIC to generate a list of technical, situational and leadership questions pertinent to the search. Information should be taken from previous interviews with viable candidates. These notes should exist within the ATS that we mentioned earlier and is a tool to make sure the current interview catered towards the requirements of the client with the opening.

The executive identified for the opportunity should be tested for their enthusiasm about the opportunity alongside their hard skills. The executive search firm should educate and inform their candidates about why the client has a good opportunity at hand, but if the executive isn’t doing their own research and following up in a timely manner; their interest in the opportunity should be questioned prior to interviewing for the role.

10. How do you ensure the candidate is a cultural fit for our company?

The best example to make is the difference between the culture at a large (500-1,000+ employee) company, vs a mid sized company (50-500 employees) vs a smaller start up (sub 50 employees). Foundational conversations with leadership about the culture they are looking for in their next opportunity is key which should then be captured in your ATS.

Cultural preferences as well as geographic preferences can change for leaders over time. As these preferences change, the executive search firm should validate the reason for that change to ensure they are on the same page with their candidates.

11. How do you guarantee a competitive offer?

Talk total compensation as early as possible. This diverts back to the cultural fit question. A larger company might provide leaders with a tangle amount of RSUs which are easy to calculate a fiscal value for, vs a pre-IPO start-up could have a “phantom stock” plan which is vague and hard to calculate.  Understanding the leaders total compensation package versus just discussing base salary is the best way to determine how willing they are to make a move and if the offer that would be made to him/her would be of interest.

Make certain to validate what the leader thinks they would be walking away from. If the candidate has a seemingly large amount of equity, but that equity doesn’t have a significant fiscal value then it might not be all that important to the candidate. Conversely, the candidate could have vesting equity or bonuses that they wouldn’t be comfortable walking away from without a sign on bonus to level things out. Transparency about total compensation on the front end should guarantee the executive search firm to present the candidate to their client with an accurate idea of what the candidate will need in order to make a move. If the client doesn’t think they will be able to meet this total compensation mark or they don’t think the candidates skills are commensurate with their financial expectations, they shouldn’t conduct the interview process without addressing the finances with the search firm.

Planning for the Unexpected

12. What if the candidate verbally accepts the offer then cancels before signing?

An executive search firm, just like an internal talent acquisition team, is going to have candidates back out of an opportunity. There are a bevy of reasons from location, to counter offers, to competing offers that an executive could verbally accept only to ultimately decline the offer. The majority of these reasons should be avoided on the front end with the candidate before their initial interview with the client. Candidates who initially won’t make the time to interview or who consistently reschedule times to do so is an early indication of a lack of overall interest in the opportunity at hand.

The executive search firm should create deadlines for candidates to ensure that the candidate is hitting said deadlines and expressing an overall interest in the opportunity. If a candidate seems to only have vague interest in the opportunity (indicated by slow response time or missing timelines all together in the interview process) this should be a sign they have a low percentage chance of accepting an offer and ultimately of being a good long term fit.

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If you’re looking for an experienced executive search firm to support your scientific recruitment efforts, we’re here for you. Connect with us today to discuss how you can work with a firm to find and hire top talent. Contact us.