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Executive Search: Why Size Can Be Deceiving

The Association for Executive Search Consultants (AESC) reports the overall search volume at executive search firms increased by 9 percent from 2013 to 2014, pushing current demand back up to the all-time peak of 2008. Despite this demand, employers remain as mystified as ever on choosing the right executive search firm for their specific needs. For instance, when conducting a retained search for tech talent, should you work with a significant Silicon Valley search firm? Not necessarily.

Right here in Austin we have growing companies who are working with executive search firms located outside of the state—on the other side of the country, even—to recruit candidates. Most often they don’t realize they can retain competitive executive search resources locally, or they don’t believe the resources are as good as the biggest firms. In both cases, they’d be wrong.

According to the AESC report, assigned searches for positions above $300,000 in compensation are the perceived sweet spot for executive search firms in order to add value in areas such as confidentiality, cross border reach, market knowledge, objective assessment, sensitive candidate handling, negotiating and consulting advice. But, also at this level, a paradigm shift can happen that may actually tie the hands of larger firms.

Off-limit provisions

Executive search firms will often adhere to an “off-limit” provision with clients, meaning the firm will agree to not recruit for a certain length of time out of a client’s company where they’ve placed a candidate. As you can imagine, this approach can greatly reduce the candidate pool of a large firm especially if that firm is a predominant one in your industry and/or geographic area.


Similar to working with a large accounting firm or a large real estate office, when you work with a large executive search firm, the bulk of the work is often passed down to more junior recruiters.  It’s important to find out who will be representing your company when it comes to the actual recruiting process. Once you are comfortable and confident with a senior recruiter, you want to be sure they will be the one who will personally reach out to candidates on your behalf.

Conversely, many recruiters who have gotten their feet wet at larger, multi-national executive firms go on to start or lead their own smaller firms. So, when looking at a track record, consider the resources and experience of the recruiter leading your charge, not just the age of the company’s sign on the door.

Global connections

One might assume that a global executive search firm with multi-national offices would be the best option for conducting global searches, but that’s not necessarily the case. Smaller search firms may actually provide you more agility and a potentially wider net. Smaller firms can have very strong global networks, providing the value of a boutique agency with a nearly borderless scope.

AESC offers a list of questions to ask any firm you choose for global searches, including:

  • Who will conduct the screening of candidates?
  • Will videoconferencing technology be used?
  • Will there be a lead consultant who will see all short-listed candidates?

What is most important to you?

With these other factors being equal, there’s one more factor that can push a local executive search firm above the “big guys.” That factor is community. We covered this area in a previous post (see “Selling Texas: Recruiting Specialists Reveal Their Top Tips”) in which we discussed the importance of using recruiters who live, work and give back to the communities to which they’re drawing candidates.

When it comes to recruiting executives, what’s most important to you? Is your current executive search firm fulfilling that wish list?



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