Executive search firms – when to hire and what to look for

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If you’ve ever served on a search committee or were assigned the role of hiring manager, you may have wondered when it’s advantageous to hire a search firm. Having partnered with various talent acquisition firms in my 25 years as an internal executive serving under provosts and deans (as well as my experiences as a candidate), I had a mental sketch of what recruitment firms delivered. However, this past year “on the other side” as a Tyler & Company search consultant has rendered a 3-D perspective of the value a search firm offers.

When to consider hiring a search firm partner

  • It’s a senior-level or leadership position. In terms of numbers, the higher the rung on the ladder, the fewer the candidates. These leadership positions require more resources, networking and channels to fill efficiently and effectively. Reach is broad, generally nationwide vs. local.LinkedIn has risen to the forefront in providing a professional social network from which to source, however, limitations exist in terms of representation and qualification. That is, not everyone has “LinkedIn” and many profiles merely skim the surface in terms of listing accomplishments. Other sourcing avenues must be leveraged. While promotion campaigns (including targeted advertising) capture executives who are actively looking for new opportunities, the majority of leaders need to be alerted and motivated. These passive candidates are found via primary and secondary research, networking and referrals, and fee-based and proprietary databases, to name a handful.
  • The role requires experience and/or a broad skill set. The needs of your organization, physician group, school, etc., create the silhouette of the ideal candidate – those who have “walked the walk” or have the potential to fulfill the vision. These candidates must be properly vetted to ensure they have the experience and background required to be successful – whether it be financial turnaround, implementation, unification, growth, consolidation, outreach, reputation, charisma – you name it.
  • The position is mission-critical. If this position is required to transport your organization from point A to point B, the cost of a mis-hire is that much greater. In addition to assessing candidates’ technical skills and experience, their behavioral competencies (e.g., emotional intelligence, communication skills, personality) must also be considered in light of your culture, mission and values. Phased reference checks and behavioral assessments aid in this effort. By partnering with an experienced search consultant, you capitalize on the insight he/she has gained in placing similar leaders at multiple organizations.
  • Reorganization is underway. The right leaders can ease the unrest that comes from change and uncertainty. Sometimes the best ambassador sent to attract and motivate an executive, physician leader, provost, dean, chair, etc., is a third party.
  • There is a search committee and/or discord about the role. A direct correlation exists between the time it takes to complete a search and the number of people (and personalities) involved. An external consultant not only serves as a peacekeeper, but also keeps the group on task and on schedule. Combined with knowledge about your organization, physician group or medical school, a consultant’s expertise in recruitment and the market can help a group reach consensus on the role, reporting relationship and compensation.

When comparing executive search firms for leadership positions, consider:

  • Contingency or retained – A contingency firm is compensated when a placement is made. As such, it races to present a prospect to as many clients as possible to increase the odds of the candidate being hired; oftentimes, no exclusive agreements exist. Compensated throughout a search, a retained search firm engages in exclusive agreements with its clients. (A prospect is presented to only one employer.) A retained search firm takes time to learn and understand its clients. Its process also calls for a thorough assessment of each candidate recommended for consideration. These differentiators allow a retained search firm to facilitate the presentation of the most qualified candidates given the job specs and organization’s culture. A contingency firm may be a good choice for lower- to mid-level positions, while a consulting-oriented retained firm is better suited for sourcing, assessing and enticing passive executives.
  • Expertise and experience in your vertical and role – Do(es) the consultant(s) have experience working in your healthcare niche? Has the firm successfully completed similar assignments? By continually sourcing, search firm consultants enjoy a vast network that enhances their market knowledge and value.
  • Your culture – The right leader impacts the success of your organization; since no two employers are alike, it’s vital to find the right candidate who aligns with the given mission, vision, values and culture. A retained search firm acts as an extension of its client. Seek a consultant who understands your organization and who you feel comfortable in serving as an ambassador and problem solver during difficult negotiations. Having gained the trust of both sides, this “transaction broker” ability becomes invaluable during courting and closing.
  • Ample resources – Does the search firm have the capacity to carry out a timely search? Are experienced, strategic, recruiters involved in reaching and motivating candidates? Review search firm offerings, time tables, staff and value-adds in addition to fees.
  • Good reputation – Healthcare executive search firms vary from one- and two-person shops to gallerias. Some are specialized boutiques while others have wings extending into every vertical. Assess your needs and reflect on what is important to you. Conduct reference checks; has the firm gained respect in its state, region or nationally? Are its consultants well networked in their trade associations? In addition to respecting its clients, has it earned the trust of its candidates? Is it thorough in its process? Does it deliver on its promises? Is it a member of the Association of Executive Search Consultants, and does it abide by its Code of Ethics? Overall, do you get a good feeling after talking with your potential partner.

This past year has been refreshingly eye-opening in learning the number of ways in which Tyler & Company sources talent and the sensitivity involved in revealing candidates’ interest in a particular position. It caught me by surprise how personal being a search consultant is – toward clients and candidates. Given the impact a successful leader can have on an employer and the resources and knowledge it takes to find the right match, it’s worth investing the time to research search firms to find the best partner for you.

Alan D. Johns, Vice President, chairs the firm’s Academic Medicine and Health Sciences Leadership Practice. His career spans more than 25 years, primarily in higher education administration at major private and public universities. His specialties include medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, public health, allied health professions and cancer centers.

Reach Johns at 770-396-3939 or ajohns@tylerandco.com.

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