David Nosal, Chairman and Managing Partner, San Francisco, USA

July 2022

Seven Questions to Ask When Selecting a Search Partner

Selecting the right search partner is as important as selecting the right candidate when filling a key senior role in an organization. These are the fundamental questions to ask an executive search firm prior to engaging with them on a project.

1. Will the partner who is selling the search be the individual doing all of the outbound recruiting for us, or will they be leveraging the work down to an associate or a senior associate?

If the search firm says that the partner does the calling, let them know that you will ask every candidate if that search partner actually called them initially and if they do not, they should put a clause in the contract that says that search firm will waive their search fees. 

Oftentimes, a search firm will indicate that the search partner is doing the work but in reality, 99% of all the outbound recruiting comes from a junior associate in the firm. 

Having a senior partner represent your business and the hiring opportunity that is available is the best way of attracting senior candidates that are most suitable for the role, particularly those that are ‘passive’ (not actively looking to move).  

2. Do you have any off-limits companies for this search, and what are those companies? 

Once the search firm agrees on the target industries they want to recruit from and the specific companies within those industries, they should provide within 24 hours an accurate list of companies that are off-limits to them should they be selected for that search process. 

Sometimes search firms will say that they have access to the best talent from all the target companies, yet we hear over and over from clients that when working with these firms, they tend not to see candidates from companies that are direct competitors to them. They may ask the question why. Often, the reason is the search firm that is hired (typically the bulge bracket firms) are blocked from a significant number of target companies that clients want to recruit from.

3. What percentage of candidates will come from cold research versus your database? 

More often than not in the major search brands, the research teams just bubble up candidates from the database that has been built over 40, 50 or 60 years. This is a very easy process for a search firm to do. What clients should demand of the search firm is that they target fresh research and candidates on each and every search. Only by doing that will you make sure that you have the broadest range of candidates in the search process for an assignment.

4. What percentage of diversity candidates are on each and every assignment? 

A search firm may indicate that they gave it their best as it relates to trying to recruit a diverse slate of candidates. But more importantly, it is essential that the search firm’s own philosophy embodies diversity - starting with their own search firm leadership - because only then will they have a philosophy of driving diversity within their own search processes for their clients.

5. Are you willing to put hard deliverables into your fees structure? 

The days of the bulge bracket firms insisting that they should be paid on a time-based model needs to end. Why in the world should a client pay a second and third invoice oftentimes with no performance by the search firm they hired? 

Ask them if they are willing to tie in hard deliverables into their second and third invoices to assure that the search firm is going to stick with the assignment when at times it can get very difficult. 

Too often in this industry, search firms are on to the next search once they have invoiced the entire fee out because their contracts insist that a client pay them based on time versus performance. This is a critical question.

6. What is your specific experience in the industry and function that we are looking to hire?  

These are critical elements in understanding the search firm’s track record in hiring similar individuals in similar kinds of companies and/or functions. It will provide you with a clear roadmap as to their understanding of what it is that might be needed for their specific assignment.

7. How will you best develop an understanding of our culture so you can best align a candidate for values fit? 

Your search partner should be assessing not just the technical and business competencies of a candidate but the true cultural fit. So often, search firms just look at the technical and business experiences versus understanding what the true culture of an organization is. In my mind, this is one of the most critical dimensions that a search firm needs to understand in starting an assignment for a company.

David Nosal
San Francisco, USA

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