The Biggest Misconceptions about Executive Search

I’m starting to think I am in a profession that almost no one understands.

 

Sixteen years ago, my partner, Sally Stetson, and I started a retained executive search firm. The field existed long before our entry into it and the essential service offering has changed very little. Employers retain us to find the best talent available to fill critical roles in their companies.

 

That’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed. Most of our clients now have substantial internal recruitment functions so that they can fill as many jobs as possible without outside help. As a result, we tend to be tapped for more senior level assignments or to fill positions that are particularly vexing for some reason or another.

 

Another big change is the internet of course. In 1996, when we opened our doors, we did research using various directories and reference books. We still have a few of them lying around, but I can’t find one dated after 2004.

 

How about email? When we started, the phone was everything. Of course, it was sometimes tough to get past the secretary who answered it – but that person has gone away, as well, by and large. With email, we can contact people directly and discreetly – and they can respond when and if they wish to.

 

In 1996, air travel was a lot easier and videoconferencing was just gaining traction. People tended to work in their offices and not their homes. Now, they may or may not even have an office. I run into people every day who work in one city and live in another. I no longer blink an eye when those two locations are three time zones apart.

 

So, given all of these advances in technology, access, information and flexibility, I guess I should stop being surprised when people expect that we can assemble a slate of top-notch talent for a senior-level position in about a week — at the most.

 

I think the belief that we should be able to assemble candidate slates at lightning speed is grounded in a few major misconceptions about our business. The biggest of these misconceptions, far and away, is the impact of the internet on executive search.

 

Most people believe the internet and social networking sites such as LinkedIn make it easy to quickly locate great candidates for search assignments. These tools certainly help, but not as much as you might think.

 

First of all, we are not just looking for people who are in the job market – we are looking for the absolute best people available for the job. Many of them are not even looking to make a move and may or may not have their profile “out there.”

 

Second, when we find those people who are exactly what we are looking for (sometimes with the help of the internet), we often have to convince them to speak to us and take some time to consider a potential career opportunity. They are busy, successful, well-paid people. It’s not unusual for us to have to chase them down over several days – or even weeks – to get a few minutes of their time. The idea that “posting” a position online will produce quality candidates is largely a fantasy. We rarely do it.

 

And once we find someone, another part of the work begins. Our clients don’t pay us to evaluate people based on their resumes and online profiles; they can do that. They pay us to truly and deeply evaluate people. What motivates them? How is their energy? Do they have that intangible skill called leadership? Why are they really interested in making a move? Are they blowing smoke about relocation and compensation? The list goes on and on.

 

And of course, there is that most elusive of evaluations – will they be a strong cultural fit with our client? Before we can answer that question, we have to really get to know our clients. That doesn’t happen by reading their corporate profile on Hoovers or by visiting their website. It happens by spending time with them – in person – in their offices, plants, loading docks, labs etc.

 

The internet has made it a lot easier to find those locations (I LOVE Google Maps), but I haven’t yet found an online tool that gives me the full experience of walking into a client’s office and spending the day. And I don’t think I am going to find that tool anytime soon.

 

In a world obsessed with faster, cheaper, better, I am in a business in which faster and cheaper often leads to disaster.

 

Finding, recruiting, evaluating and selecting talent doesn’t happen overnight.