17 Questions to Ask Executive Search Firms Before Hiring One

Consider the Following Questions to Determine Which Executive Search Firm Is Right for Your Organization 

Selecting an executive search firm is much like choosing a right-fit candidate for an executive-level position. You must conduct research, create a shortlist of firms, schedule meetings with each and interview them. By meeting with the firm – either virtually or in-person – you can gain an understanding of how the firm will work and communicate with your team. During the initial consultation, it’s important you ask questions that will get to the heart of what you really need to know:  

  • Can this search firm find the best-fit candidate, provide a smooth transition and ensure long-term success? 
  • Will this executive search firm be a trusted advisor for current and future assignments? 

When choosing the right search firm for your organization’s executive-level assignments, consider the following 17 questions to determine if the firm is the right fit for your organization and assignment: 

1. Is your firm an AESC member? 

By confirming an executive search firm’s status as an AESC member, you are also confirming that the organization meets a strict set of ethical standards and commits to the AESC’s Code of Professional Practice. AESC members also commit to a client promise, which outlines what clients can expect when working with an AESC member.  

You can expect: 

  • An accurate and candid assessment of the firm’s capabilities. 
  • Meetings and information about the client team.  
  • The firm to develop a deep understanding of your organization and its hiring objectives. 
  • Regular progress reports. 
  • A shortlist of qualified candidates who meet your criteria.  
  • Onboarding and integration assistance. 

2. What solutions does your firm offer?

Your organization may need more than just executive search or leadership consulting. Ask about the firm’s additional or complementary solutions to determine if they offer what you need. Do they also provide assessment services, board services, coaching, competency modeling, culture shaping, employee engagement, employer branding, performance management, organizational mapping or more? 

3. Does your firm specialize in a specific domain or does it have a more general focus? 

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Every executive search firm has deep expertise in the executive market and is able to provide comprehensive advisement no matter the field. However, there may be several reasons you want to choose a general firm over one that specializes or vice versa. Consider your organization’s needs when asking this question.  

4. Who will be working on the search? 

It’s important to learn about and meet with the team who will be working on your organization’s search assignment. You may also want to request that the team disclose the resources that will be used to support the sourcing strategy and assignment.  

5. What business model or methodology does your firm practice? 

There are two distinct business models recruitment firms typically follow. Some firms specialize in advisory services for a few executive-level placements to ensure the proper time and attention is given to each, while others recruit candidates at all levels and take on as many assignments as possible. The former is referred to as the executive search methodology, while the latter is known as a contingency recruiting model. 

Read our article comparing and contrasting the two major business models for a more comprehensive comparison to help you determine which option is best for your organization.

6. How many searches does the team take on at once? 

You want to know how much time and attention will be dedicated to your assignment and selection process. The business model and firm methodology typically predict the number of searches a firm will take on at once.  

With executive search firms that take on more of an advisory role for high-level placements, your assignment will be one of few the team works on at that time, working with you on an exclusive basis. However, if your organization chooses a recruitment firm that works on a contingent basis, there is a higher likelihood your assignment will be one of many.   

You will typically receive a more thoughtful, strategic and high-impact approach with an executive search firm as they will have focused time on the assignment, deep industry and functional knowledge and access to diverse candidate pools with candidates who are not actively looking. A strength of an executive search firm is persuading high-performing executives who are already making a big impact at other companies to consider a move to your organization.  

Because a recruiter who follows a contingent method works on so many assignments at once, and because their candidate pools are often made up of candidates who are actively looking, it will likely not be the best solution for your critical, most senior roles, but may be a good option for middle management positions where there are many candidates in the marketplace who could be a good match. 

7. What is your firm’s approach to candidate care? 

When an executive search firm engages candidates on your behalf, they are an extension of your brand and company. With that being said, it’s important all candidates are treated with the same level of care and professionalism, ensuring all candidates walk away from the experience with positive feelings about your organization.  

AESC member firms have committed to a Candidate Bill of Rights, which ensures full disclosure, exclusivity, confidentiality, open communication and professionalism throughout the search process. 

8. Can you describe your firm’s search process? 

As part of candidate care, you may want to understand how the firm will source and identify qualified candidates. Ask about the step-by-step process by which you and the firm will partner together to achieve your goals.  

9. How does your firm ensure a fair and equitable search process? 

At a time when diversity, equity and inclusion are at the forefront of most companies’ hiring strategies, it is important to understand how the executive search firm ensures a fair and equitable selection process. Are they using validated third-party assessments? Are they asking all candidates the same questions and putting them through the same qualifying processes?  

Diversity and inclusion are pillars of AESC’s Professional Code. Due to their commitment to combat, racism, prejudice and discrimination, members do not support targeted search assignments that exclude any candidates but commit to diverse slates of candidates, including a shortlist. AESC member executive search firms worldwide have signed on to the AESC Diversity Pledge. For any firm you are considering, be sure to ask them what is their approach to DEI and what is their track record.

10. Is there an off-limits policy available? 

In certain instances, you can add an off-limits policy to the agreement. This policy ensures the search firm will not source employees from your organization, or specific teams within your organization, for a certain period after the engagement.

11. What is your organization’s client communication protocol? 

It’s important to understand how the executive search firm will communicate with you and your organization throughout the search process–and how your team will communicate with the search firm. This will ensure your expectations are aligned.  

To learn more about how the firm will communicate, consider inquiring about the number of meetings to be held, when candidates will be presented and how candidates will be presented. It is critical that your organization express any expectations you have regarding transparency and communication to ensure the search firm can meet those goals.  

12. How will your firm ensure a seamless onboarding process? 

Some firms offer additional solutions such as onboarding assistance or coaching to ensure the new executive is set up for success. Consider asking questions about such services, onboarding assistance and follow-through timeframes.  

13. How will you handle an unexpected situation? 

Unexpected situations may arise. Ensure you and the search firm are prepared to handle such situations by having a clear understanding of the process and procedures for changes should something arise.  

14. What is your average placement time? 

Executive search is an art and science. Each assignment is different; however, the process is always based on the clients’ criteria and the end result is key. There are several factors that may impact placement time such as confidentiality or candidate pool, so gauging average placement time can be difficult.  

If there is an urgency for the candidate, ensure this is clearly communicated to the search firm, along with your ideal deadline, so they can do their best to meet it.  

15. Can your firm ensure confidentiality? 

Common for senior executive roles, organizations will require a level of confidentiality when approaching candidates. If your organization requires a confidential and secure search process, inquire about the executive search firm’s protocols. 

16. Can you provide testimonials, case studies and references for your firm? 

First-hand accounts – whether a testimonial, case study or direct reference – will give your organization additional insight into how the search firm conducts itself throughout the selection process.  

17. What information can I provide to you? 

The executive search process is an exclusive partnership between your organization and the search firm. An executive search firm can only do its best work if you provide them with all the necessary information for the assignment. Ask the team if they need any additional information about your company or criteria.

Working with an AESC Member

Asking several of the aforementioned questions should help you gauge which executive search firm will assist in your organization’s short-term triumph with current assignments and long-term success with future assignments.  

To ensure success, work with an AESC member. The Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants is an exclusive association for executive search firms that are leaders in executive talent and leadership advisory solutions.  

Our members are vetted to rigorous standards, committed to strict professional practice codes, share a commitment to the profession and its future, deliver a variety of solutions and provide clients with confidence, credibility and security.  

Engage an AESC Member Today