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Executive Recruiting Through Retained Search

Can you imagine never failing at executive recruiting? What type of retained search formula would do the trick? No need to use your imagination: We’d like to give you insights into our tried-and-true retained search model for executive recruiting.  

We assume you already have some idea of the value of using retained search as a model for executive recruiting. The alternative, contingency search, is tempting since recruiters working on contingency aren’t paid unless you hire their candidate. In theory, shouldn’t these arrangements always work out in the employer’s favor? You only pay when you hire the right candidate, which means recruiters will work diligently to present top-notch talent. In reality, recruiters who work on a contingency basis are often entry-level, and instead of running searches with surgical precision, the process could resemble throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks.

The approach can work well for non-managerial positions or large-volume hiring, but it’s not appropriate for executive recruiting. Thousands of candidates listed in common databases may be blasted, and job boards may be flooded with your opportunity from multiple sources (which can diminish the exclusiveness of the opportunity for top executive candidates). In short, the “no win, no pay” structure often rewards speed and volume more than due diligence.

Retained search, on the other hand, is increasingly critical the higher up the chain of command that needs filling. For executive recruiting, it’s imperative. Research suggests that 50% to 70% of new executives fail within 18 months. That’s too many in any given year, but especially right now.

Reputable firms build retention right into their retained search model, and retained recruiters can take time to ask the right questions, assess skills, check references and more. It’s a specialized area that not all staffing and recruiting firms can provide (or get right).

What Makes It Effective for Executive Recruiting

Successful executive recruiting firms have their own proprietary recruiting processes for finding C-suite candidates. It’s not a matter of listing a job on multiple job boards, weeding through hundreds of resumes, and administering skills assessments. Executive recruiting is a unique art form, from start to finish, with the following steps along the way:

  • Assessment: Do you need the type of leader you think you need? Is your work culture and mission what you say it is? Is your timeline realistic? What about diversity at the top? Board expectations and attitudes? To hire successful executives, your organization needs to take an honest look at itself and be open to critique and evolution.
  • Recruitment: C-suite executives don’t apply to jobs. They’re almost always passive candidates with a critical need for confidentiality. And they can be recruited from anywhere in the world. It’s these factors that turn recruiters into headhunters: Through a combination of AI search tools, deep-dive research, discrete networking, and expert-level persuasion.
  • Screening: While more line-of-business searches can turn up dozens of interview-ready candidates, executive search screening is ideally so precise that it will result in far fewer candidates to interview. By this point, you can expect that candidates have already passed certain cultural and personality evaluations.
  • Hiring: Salary negotiations and preventing counter offers are critical steps to winning over top executive candidates. Executives will also decline job offers due to poor response times and unclear company vision and goals. In the end, nearly half of in-demand candidates have turned down a job offer due to a breakdown in the recruiting process. It may be close to the finish line, but much can happen between the job offer and the first day in the executive chair.

Now for the REAL Secret Sauce

The above points are a standard recipe for a solid retained search engagement, but reputable firms with proven records, like The HT Group, have even higher standards and proprietary processes. We can’t give you all our secrets here, but we can outline a few elements that go into our winning formula.

First, it’s essential to use executives to recruit executives. This peer-to-peer relationship is critical in the executive recruiting process because these high-level recruiters can:

  • Better engage with fellow executive candidates, clients, and other stakeholders (a board of directors, for instance).
  • Consult and bring potential issues and opportunities to light before the search gets underway.

“In a tight labor market with keen competition for talent, I wanted to make sure we presented our job and organization in the best possible light to attract capable candidates,” says Texas Municipal Retirement System (TMRS) Executive Director David Wescoe, who recently tapped The HT Group to find the agency’s very first Chief Information Officer (CIO). One of the biggest surprises Wescoe experienced during the process was the level of recruiting talent assigned to him. “They were professionals themselves who had experience in business, thereby bringing more to the search process than a typical recruiter would,” he adds.

This level of attention should also come with a finely honed process that filters candidates with precision. That process should include research, research, and more research.

“Our retained search process includes significant prep work to understand the organization, its culture, and the team that the role will be a part of,” explains The HT Group President Chad Macy. The result?

“HT met with our staff and acquired an in-depth understanding of the job, organizational culture, benefits and fit,” says Wescoe. “They then delivered an excellent summary description of the position and organization to use in recruiting.”

The HT Group then uses that information to expertly vet candidates. “We generally interview 25 to 30 candidates and narrow those down to a top three to five before the employer interviews begin,” says Macy. “Those top candidates are presented with candid assessments including our notes, rankings, yellow flags—whatever information the client wants to be armed with.”

While the process may seem like it could be daunting and long-winded, it truly saves time in the end. One of the best touches? “We can help pre-close the candidate before the interview and at the offer stage to eliminate surprises for both parties,” Macy says.

“In the end, The HT Group exceeded my expectations with regard to the quality of the candidates and the speed with which they identified them,” Wescoe adds. “My only lesson learned is that next time, I’ll be calling them sooner.”

During a time when 40% of execs admit they’re ready to quit their jobs—with Gen Z, the youngest among them, wanting out at even higher levels (58%)—executive recruiting through retained search will be a key tool for organizations moving forward. And it’s OK to have high standards and expectations from the firm you chose to help you. With so much invested, you should feel assured that the job will be filled in the best way possible.