Choose the company carefully.
Search agencies have different networks and different specialisms. Michelle Delcambre, operational partner at Felicis Ventures, recommends working with highly specialized firms. Look for search partners with a rep search list — a track record of recent searches they’ve completed — that are as relevant as possible to your company’s search query.
“Most startups have their own network, or they have investors who have a network,” says Delcambre. “If they’re using executive search, it’s for access to a wider network and for someone who understands the market.”
Plus, the right recruiters can help top talent consider a new job, Delcambre said.
The going rate for a search at most companies is 28% to 33% of the executive’s first-year salary, and it’s increasingly common for search partners to ask for equity. Not all companies want to give shares, so decide if that’s a deal breaker when evaluating companies.
Finally, don’t get too tied down on a search company’s fee, said a VC talent partner: If the right sales manager can take your company from $500,000 to $25 million in revenue, does it matter that you have $50,000 more paid for a search company with a better network or more relevant expertise?
Tune expectations early.
By communicating openly and early about the process, clients learn what they’re getting into and recruiters know if they can meet client expectations.
Talk to the recruiters about the market, role, compensation, and other expectations related to the search. That conversation should take place before the contract is signed, Delcambre said.
“The better we do that, the more we avoid situations where the client is not satisfied with the level of candidates they are getting,” said Mike Foley, regional managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Technology and Services practice in the Americas. “Having that partnership and relationship to be able to provide hard feedback in both directions, I think is helpful in coming to the right conclusion.”
Check in all week.
Treat your search company like a partner, not just a supplier, said Frank Cumella, a partner at search company Daversa Partners.
“This is your search partner, your strategic advisor, because we all agree that this is the most important part of your business: your people, your talent,” said Cumella. “It’s not a relationship of checking in once a week.”
According to Cumella, founders should exchange “constant feedback” with their search partners through media such as text and Slack. Holly Rose Faith, executive talent partner at Greylock, recommended calling the search partner immediately after meeting a candidate to provide feedback.
“The sooner you are able to provide feedback as well as receive feedback, the more beneficial it will be for you to end your search,” Faith said. “Bring” [search partners] as close as possible to the search will ultimately yield the best result for you.”
Feel comfortable with feedback.
Founders must both be able to trust their search partners and expect some backlash if they disagree, Cumella said.
Be prepared to give your search partners negative feedback about candidates — and to receive the critiques candidates pass on, Faith said.
“Our human nature is that we are sensitive to the way we give feedback,” Faith said. “The best thing you can do is create that open line of communication so you get both the positive feedback, but then you also get the critical feedback.”
That can help improve your search and application process, improve the way your company is presented to candidates, and refine the way you evaluate potential employees.
Know what you want, but keep an open mind.
Be clear about how you define success. Being clear with recruiters about what the role should look like will speed up the process, Delcambre said.
But sometimes clients have an overly prescriptive vision for the executive they seek, Foley said.
“Don’t get me wrong, that’s our job, to find that,” Foley said. “But beyond that, I think – especially in this market – they need to be open to looking at different avenues to solve the quest.”
That could go from being a regional leader to a global leader, or considering an executive at a much larger company, Foley said.
While your search partner doesn’t know your company as well as you do, you don’t know the talent market as well as they do — and they have the perspective of hundreds or thousands of past placements. Some founders have never even hired a leader, and the job of the search partner is to serve as an advisor.
Try to be patient.
Everyone wants to find the perfect candidate as quickly as possible. The same goes for recruiters: executive search contracts are typically paid in three 90-day installments, giving recruiters an incentive to complete the search as quickly as possible.
But search companies are brand conscious, and in some cases recruiters will spend six months or even a year working on a difficult search, Faith said. There is a range of how long a search takes: a company may only need to meet four candidates before it finds the right person. In other cases, it can take 30 intros, Faith said.
Delcambre advised clients to optimize for hiring the right executive, even if it takes longer to find them.
“Of course it makes sense to do this one as soon as possible,” Delcambre said. “But it’s a very tight talent market. Talent is really thinking about moving.”
If you’re not satisfied, say so.
Subpar search partners can’t hide in this talent market: With so many opportunities, it’s harder than ever to reach top candidates.
A VC talent partner said she had seen three companies walk away from search firms in the past year because of low-quality work. Good candidates didn’t move forward, too many bad candidates came forward, and the search partners didn’t manage the customer relationship well.
In one case, the research firm agreed that the work was so bad that it refunded the entire fee. A second company received a partial refund. A third company, a Series B startup looking for a VP of Engineering, heard objections from the search partner about how tough the market was — but when that company moved to another search firm, it was introduced to a steady stream of candidates.
On the other hand, companies that don’t close the right candidates can blame themselves, Delcambre said.
“It is the duty of companies to be the kind of company that talent wants to work for,” said Delcambre. “The best executive search firm in the world will help you find talent, but they can’t make you a better or more attractive organization.”
Think long term
Executive teams evolve over time as companies grow. Talent partners at VC firms can help advise on how companies should plan at different stages, Delcambre said.
“The roles, the motivators, the results, the expectations are changing on both sides — both for the company and for the person you put in that role,” Delcambre said.
As founders look ahead, they can be more proactive in filling key roles without a sudden time crunch.
“It’s valuable that companies and founders understand not only what they need today,” Delcambre said, “but also what it will look like in a few hundred million more revenue or in a few years.”