Choosing the right executive search firm

14 Aug 2019

Choosing the right executive search firm

Leading executive search firms have the network and know-how to attract high-caliber candidates with relevant expertise into vital leadership roles.

It’s far from easy to find people with the right skills, experience, and values to fill vital senior executive positions. Some roles are simply so important that you have to invest in identifying and recruiting the best individual.

Retained search firms such as Odgers Berndtson, which offer a far more in-depth and wide-ranging service than contingency recruitment agencies, are expert partners in this process. But how do you set about choosing an executive search firm?

To begin with, you need to look for a well-established business with a reputable name. That will certainly help in opening doors.

Strong name and solid reputation

“Leading executive search firms have a strong name and reputation that really helps in acquiring and securing candidates,” says Michaël Mellink, Senior Partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Amsterdam office and Head of its Life Sciences Practice.

“Market knowledge and a strong network of contacts is advantageous in securing the best candidates – with an excellent network among board members very valuable for the more senior positions.”

The best firms have a strong grasp of the special qualities required to fill C-suite positions and other senior leadership roles. Moreover, they employ a team of consultants, backed by specialist researchers, each of whom has carefully cultivated a wide network of senior-level contacts, providing unparalleled access to the best talent.

Look for a firm that has the expertise and a track record in your industry. Ideally, the consultant who specializes in your sector will also have in-depth knowledge of the functional role you are aiming to fill.

Providers of insight and advice

A select few search firms will be able to provide you with market insight and advice on relevant subjects like governance trends. They will also be able to help you define your hiring strategy.

“It’s our job to help clients think about their organization’s talent and be an objective advisor,” says Susannah Crabtree Head of the Odgers Berndtson, Ottawa, Canada office.

“So ask us for that information. Ask us what’s happening in your industry, who’s moving where and what’s driving the marketplace.”

“A search firm can be a bellwether and can provide a lot of insights for developing your talent strategy.”

Some roles are highly specialized and can only be filled by candidates with a rare combination of skills. If that’s the case for you, check that the search firm has the know-how and track record to discover these hard-to-find individuals. 

Absolute discretion

Discretion is a non-negotiable prerequisite. Candidate search usually involves approaching executives who are still in position elsewhere. You may have very good commercial or strategic reasons for keeping your search quiet. So make sure you opt for a seasoned firm where subtlety and sensitivity come as second nature.

Discretion is all the more important where the search may extend to candidates working for one of your direct competitors or for a company with which you do business – such as a key supplier or customer. Clearly, it’s wise to avoid undermining an important commercial relationship. 


Find out what clients look for in executive search firms: latest survey.

Find out more


Driving diversity

Diversity and inclusion has rightly become an increasingly significant factor in executive searches, in particular for board-level positions. Organizations have increasingly come to appreciate that having many different voices around the board table enhances the probability of success.

A well-rounded search firm will itself champion diversity and be actively engaging with internal and external diversity networks on an ongoing basis.

Consistently delivering diverse shortlists in practice requires a continual, proactive commitment and diligence to tracking talent – as well as a bold stance with clients.

Odgers Berndtson makes a point of challenging preconceptions and exploding unconscious biases, for example, anonymizing profiles to enable greater objectivity.

Clients should look for firms with this degree of professionalism and thoroughness when selecting a search partner.

Global reach

International capability is another key point to consider. Does the firm have a global footprint? Is there strength in depth in important international locations? This is important for several reasons.

It may be that the ideal candidate for your role is based in another country. Or perhaps you have a requirement in one of your international offices.

Always look for a firm that takes the trouble to audit its assignments, including how candidates were treated. Gathering feedback shows they care about the service they provide and will likely carry on making improvements. 

Sound out other clients

Ask to speak to a handful of the firm’s other clients. Here are some useful questions you could put to them:

  • Did the search lead to the appointment of a candidate who met your requirements?
  • Was the process fast and efficient?
  • Were all the shortlisted candidates of consistently high quality?
  • Were the consultants transparent and truthful – and easy to get hold of whenever you wanted an update?
  • Were there any drawbacks to the process and did you encounter any problems along the way?

Mark Freebairn, Partner & Head, CFO Practice in London, adds some further questions clients should take on board: “How advisory were they through pitch/briefing? Did they present difficult truths, no matter how little the client wanted to hear it? Does the firm’s reputation mean their calls will be taken and advice listened to? Have they done work in this area or can they evidence how they will connect to the candidate population?”

Some of these are challenging questions. Yet that’s very much the point.  In choosing a search agency to help fill major executive roles within your organization, you must make sure you are entrusting that important task to a partner who won’t let you down.

Find out more about how Odgers Berndtson executive search can help your company.

Find out more

Odgers Berndtson provides executive search and leadership services from over 60 offices in 29 countries.