The Executive Search Process: What to Expect

Understanding the executive search process is fundamental in choosing an executive search firm to find your company’s next successful CEO, board director, C-suite or strategic position. Executive search firms follow this robust, step-by-step process in a strategic and confidential manner, leveraging the executive search consultant’s exclusive industry and functional knowledge, networks and connections and years of experience in qualifying prospects and placing senior executives. 

A Key Difference

Executive search consultants operate on an exclusive, client-centered basis and work on a limited number of assignments at one time. They are hired directly by the client for each assignment. Executive search firms often find candidates with diverse backgrounds and have access to candidates who are not actively seeking a new position. They are engaged in all aspects of the process, from defining the search to candidate integration. They charge a consulting fee (retainer) for the assignment, consistent with their in-depth advisory work. Executive search consultants deliver high-quality service, a slate of highly qualified candidates, and develop long-term relationships built on trust. 

The relationship between an organization and a search firm is more than just the delivery of a specific assignment. The best consultants are trusted talent and leadership advisors, providing guidance on a broad range of solutions related to leaders, teams, and culture.  

Search firms partner with organizations through every step of the executive search process and beyond to deliver value. Let’s take a look at the ten general steps quality executive search firms follow.   

A Step-by-Step Look at the Executive Placement Process 

Step 1: Client Research & Meetings 

Detailed research into your organization begins once you engage an executive search firm. The lead consultant and their supporting team will learn all they can about your organization. They will explore your organization’s history, values, mission, products, services, leadership, strategy, brand, financials, strengths, weaknesses, and company culture from an internal perspective. 

Typically, firms will schedule briefing meetings with key stakeholders in your organization to gather information about the company. Firms will also seek external market perspectives to further understand the dynamics of your organization.  

If your organization has a longstanding relationship with a search firm, you appreciate the value of working with a trusted advisor who has deep knowledge of your company, industry, markets and customer, and keeps up-to-date on your company’s latest moves and strategic goals. They also bring expertise in the evolving competencies needed for each specific leadership role.  

Step 2: Establish the Mandate & Search Priorities 

The next step is to define the mandate and search priorities. This is specific to an organization’s current and future needs, business strategies and goals. The lead consultant will work with the hiring manager and other relevant leaders to determine the qualities of the ideal candidate. 

The search firm creates a brief for the position and a candidate profile detailing the company, role, ideal core competencies, goals of the position, preferred experience, qualifications, responsibilities, and challenges for the position, such as regulatory and licensing issues.  

One of the main advantages of hiring an executive search firm with deep expertise is the firm’s ability to bring evolving market trends to the discussion in order to shape a relevant position description. Partnering with a retained executive search firm allows you to get a third-party perspective, going beyond your inward picture of the role. An expert advisor will think outside the box, searching in alternative markets and industries for candidates with transferrable skills.  

Step 3: Set the Search Strategy 

The lead consultant develops a customized search strategy outlining how they will source, identify, and verify prospects. When setting the strategy, search firms employ rigorous results-focused methodologies, exercise objective judgment and operate with the utmost integrity. This step involves two major components:

Market Mapping 

Using the meetings, research, profile and brief as a guide, the firm begins to map out the talent pool across industries and geographies. 

Sourcing & Identifying 

Search teams draw on their deep networks of industry connections to source candidate information from experts in the field. They also use cutting-edge technologies and techniques to identify a diverse range of candidates without bias. Many search firms also conduct preliminary referencing to assess candidates before speaking to them. This includes getting third-party referrals and recommendations from senior leaders in the industry. 

Typically, the search firm focuses on passive candidates, meaning high-performing executives who are already employed and making a significant impact in their current organizations. These candidates are not typically looking for a new role.  

A key value of the search firm is their ability to convince highly talented executives to consider a new opportunity at your organization. Search firms enter into a kind of “courting” relationship with passive candidates, managing gatekeepers and getting busy executives on the phone. Firms spend time speaking with passive candidates, following up, learning their motivations for a potential change, what would attract them to a new opportunity and their interest level in a role change.  

Step 4: Approach & Evaluate Candidates 

Once the search firm has built a strong list of candidates, it will begin outreach. During an initial conversation, the consultant will gauge the prospective candidates’ interest while highlighting the value of your organization and the position. Consultants work to pique interest in the position with the strongest candidates.  

Throughout their relationship with the candidate, executive search firms act as your organization’s brand ambassador, using a detailed and tailored approach to appeal to the candidate. They also provide open communication throughout the process, keeping both the organization and candidates up-to-date on the search progress.  

The best firms understand that relationships with their clients and candidates are built on a foundation of trust. They will go to every length to ensure that all information entrusted to them, from and about either client or candidate, is respected and protected.  

Step 5: Create a Longlist of Candidates

With the insight gained from market mapping, sourcing and candidate outreach, the executive search firm presents a long list of candidates before conducting further evaluation and executive assessments. The longlist is presented in the form of a report, which typically includes each prospect’s name, company, current position, contact information, resume and notes from any interactions. The search firm and the client winnow down the longlist of candidates to a shorter list of top candidates through a comprehensive interview process. 

Step 6: Evaluate a Shorter List of Candidates 

Search firms use a multi-measure assessment process that combines behavioral competency-based interview, and more to inform selection. Many firms also employ psychometric assessments to find a right-fit candidate backed by data. The evaluation step also includes a focus on understanding the candidates’ interest in the position and willingness to explore the opportunity. 

The multi-measure approach helps selection committees remove bias, enhance judgment and decision-making, and identify what the candidate has done, what they can do, and what they want to do.  

Step 7: Present the Shortlist of Qualified, Interested Candidates

The shortlist of the strongest candidates is presented to the client. Executive search firms provide clients with detailed reports on each shortlisted candidate. The report usually includes candidate CVs, assessment reports, interview reports, and a detailed analysis of fit related to the core competencies of the role. The search firm then schedules interviews between shortlisted candidates and key people at your organization. 

Step 8: Background & Reference Check Top Candidates

Prior to final selection, comprehensive reference checking is done on behalf of the client. In-depth background checks should be done for the lead candidate(s) to ensure there are "no surprises." This can be done by the client or by the search firm and should be agreed upon in advance. 

Step 9: Present the Offer & Negotiate

Once your organization has selected a candidate, depending on the circumstances, search firms will often present the offer and work with both parties to negotiate acceptance, the compensation package and any additional agreements.   

Firms are clear that they negotiate on behalf of the client, while being respectful and fair to the candidate. A skilled search firm will be able to advise both the candidate and the hiring organization on market standards to help find a fair and competitive package of compensation and benefits. Firms often prepare the final agreement with their clients. 

Step 10: Onboarding

An executive search firm’s job typically does not end with the placement. Ensuring a seamless transition for the executive is critical to set up the executive and organization for success. This support can range from regular check-ins and guidance to more in-depth ongoing leadership coaching.   

And, of course, the relationship your organization has with the search firm does not end with Step 10. The lead consultant often becomes a trusted talent and leadership advisor based on their in-depth knowledge of your organization, your culture and your business strategies, forming a long-term strategic partnership.  

How Executive Search Firms Ensure Fairness in Every Step of the Process

Executive search firms understand that diversity, equity and inclusion are key to creating an experience of belonging for candidates and building a strong culture for organizations. All individuals should have the opportunity to be their authentic selves from the initial engagement to post-placement.    

Firms committed to diversity, equity and inclusion weave tangible actions throughout the executive search process. It begins within the firm, ensuring that everyone on the team shares a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and understands their key role in the process.  

During the process, the search firm may provide guidance on creating a strong, unbiased selection process, including having a diverse hiring team to ensure a variety of perspectives, lived experiences and skills are brought to the table. Throughout the process, search teams aim to diversify their talent sources and ensure objectivity through globally validated assessments and other tools.  

Enlist an AESC Member: Executive Search Firms That Meet the Highest Quality Standards

AESC members recognize that ensuring quality requires careful processes every step of the way. But they also understand your urgency. You need leaders for your most critical positions, now. This is where experience and expertise really help: someone who knows the market, knows the functional role, and understands the evolving needs of your industry. Hire an expert who is already ahead of the game for your mission-critical assignment, who can follow a disciplined, rigorous process.  

AESC members help clients minimize risk by providing confidence, credibility and security. 

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