Research Strategies of Retained Executive Search Firms

Two Strategies

In the final analysis, there are two schools of thought on identifying executive candidates.  You can go the traditional route and use the bulk of public resources which have successful helped fill conventional positions; or, you can go the private route, staying out of the public eye.

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Neither method is necessarily correct or definitively incorrect, but many hold strong opinions on the techniques.  The single largest argument against the public technique is that if you are looking for a CEO (for example), this could cause a significant change in the stock value.  Investors can welcome or fear the change which likely to create instability in share prices until the final decision is made.

The argument against the purely private approach is that you’re confined to a smaller pool of candidates.  You may miss a great candidate who would jump at the chance, if they knew about it.  Could Lee Iacocca (now age 92) have saved GM’s SATURN line of vehicles when it started to lose popularity in the late 1990s?  We’ll never know because no one asked him.

The Public Arena

Of course, you could place an advertisement, and that method might work well for a young start-up looking for new, unrecognized talent.  Older, established, and publically-traded firms would be likely advised to avoid something so blatant for high-ranking executive candidates.

Discretion and Strategy

Instead, the most common answer is a Retained Executive Search firm.  They work entirely behind the scenes, using resources that don’t ordinarily come to the attention of media outlets and financial reporters.

They begin with a launch meeting to discuss your specifications and to create a search strategy.  This requires market analysis, utilizing key factors such as scope of operations, geographic location, corporate culture, and how successful the company is compared to others in the same field.  Soon they will be able to return with a list of target companies which are most likely to harbor the talent you are looking for.

This is your opportunity to eliminate companies from consideration; perhaps due to relationships where you do not wish to risk ill-will.  Once everything is agreed upon, they will work on producing a list of potential candidates, which will eventually be narrowed down to one obvious choice (and perhaps one or two alternatives).

The key is that they do all the preliminary research passively, utilizing information such as preexisting market analysis data, so that it doesn’t draw any undue attention.  Your search goes essentially unnoticed until you’re ready to make a public announcement.

Generally speaking, as long as you do not need the approval of common stockholders, it’s best to present your high level executive changes as a fait accompli.  Stock prices and company valuations will fluctuate for a relatively short period, and settle at a quicker rate.

Low Profile

Fairly strong arguments conclude that you are unlikely to find a great candidate in the public forums.  The reason for this is that individuals who would ordinarily make premier candidates for your position are involved in their tasks; they enjoy their challenges.  They keep their heads down, and noses to the grindstone.

These candidates may not necessary be actively checking their LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter profiles (providing they have them), as they may not be welcoming such interactions and solicitations.

These are the individuals who likely “live and breathe their jobs”, so to speak; and they are not looking to make a change.  They are so dedicated to what they are doing that you would have to go to much greater lengths to even earn their attention.

What tools do executive search firms use?

The primary tools, of course, are their own networks.  Not only will they have contacts throughout the business world, but they will have recommendations and specific referrals from previous clients, business journalists, and professional associations.  Combined with their existing databases and research data, they’re already off to a great start.


Passive searching does not mean ineffectual, however.  There are clues in the daily news, if you know where to look.  You’ve undoubtedly heard about The Top 30 Under 30 list, naming the most accomplished 600 people (30 in 20 different categories) of the year that are less than 30 years of age.  There are dozens of similar lists, and recruiters take note of them.  They read the Professional Announcements section every day, too, and stay abreast of features about professionals.

Executive recruiters subscribe to services such as TalentBin, a data-scraping tool that searches the Web, collating information about what people post, what they participate in, and then building profiles about their talents and capabilities.  There is BlueSteps, a database of senior executives, free to access for AESC (Association of Executive Search Consultants) members. There is also SwoopTalent, which uses Big Data from the Web and integrates it with your own corporate employee data to cover both the external and internal talent pools, assuring that you’re not overlooking something right under your own nose.

Using All of the Tools

No tools are ignored, even if they are somewhat banal.  Social recruiting applications, such as Facebook and LinkedIn can play their part. An often overlooked, yet tedious trick on Google is to search using the intitle: or the inurl: command to search résumés.  It’s not for the faint of heart; a great deal of material will be returned.  Knowing how to search using Boolean operators to narrow the field and eliminate false positives is a chief skill for recruiters.

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The Takeaway

As management or general business leaders, the odds are that you don’t have the time or the specialized skills to search for, identify, cajole, and hire the executives you need.  That is what retained executive search firms are all about—and that is why they need to be one of the resources in your toolbox.

Related:  Understanding Retained Executive Search Practices

Fred Coon, CEO

Stewart, Cooper & Coon, has helped thousands of decision makers and senior executives move up in their careers and achieve significantly improved financial packages within short time frames. Contact Fred Coon – 866-883-4200, Ext. 200