Are You As Good? Why Retained Search Often Wins

Paul Smith, the EVP of marketing at XYZ Company, placed a call to Jeremy Jones at around 5:00 p.m. on a Thursday. Jeremy was a long-time acquaintance and ran a successful retained search business focused on marketing and sales executives. Paul had been searching for a new VP of marketing for the Western U.S. for several months without success. His in-house recruiters had brought him a handful of resumes that looked pretty good, but when he contacted the prospective candidates he quickly found reasons to be unhappy. Some of them lacked the specific skills he had indicated were required, some were well qualified by experience but just didn’t have the verbal skills he thought the position required, and a few others were skilled and seemed competent but just didn’t make Jeremy very excited. He had been through this a hundred times with the internal recruiting team and with his golfing buddy Mike, who also happened to be the VP of HR. In fact, that past Saturday they had discussed the poor results he was getting and he had told Mike he was going to go outside. Mike hadn’t really been able to argue against it. Paul knew, however, that Samantha, who headed up search internally, was going to be very upset. But he couldn’t hold off on filling this position much longer, and he had little faith in her ability to all of a sudden perform better than she already had. Samantha had been given this search over 60 days ago. She had initially had a short meeting with him to go over the job description, but neither of them has felt the need for much in-depth discussion. Paul was confident that she would get him a couple of good candidates within a few weeks, given the current job market and the number of layoffs he had heard about. But he didn’t actually set any specific timelines with Samantha and she never mentioned when she would have candidates for him. They never talked about how hard or easy it would be to fill the position, either. Paul’s retained search friend Jeremy, on the other hand, spent about an hour on the phone with Paul and seemed eager to get started. They set up a meeting for the next morning. Jeremy looked over the job description and asked questions that defined the position better. One of the things that Paul always liked about working with Jeremy was his thorough questioning and his knack of getting him to think differently about the position. In fact, he realized during the conversation that he really didn’t know how important several of the skills he had indicated as important were to being successful in this job. He had indicated that written communication was essential, but after being carefully probed by Jeremy he wasn’t so sure. Of course, the person had to be able to write, but they certainly didn’t need to be Steinbeck or Hemingway! Maybe he had put too much emphasis on that, as well as on the verbal communication. The main focus of this position was strategy, long-term trend identification, and the ability to hire good marketing and salespeople. He hadn’t really nailed that down until this meeting with Jeremy. After about an hour and a half of great conversation, where he learned that the job market for these positions was actually pretty hot, they agreed to a deal that would get him three qualified candidates within the next month. He agreed to interview these candidates promptly and get back to Jeremy with concerns or feedback within 24 hours. In the meantime, Jeremy was going to interview the other two VPs of Marketing that had responsibility for the Midwest and the East to see what their backgrounds were and get their opinions about this position. This was something Samantha had apparently not done, but that Paul felt was a very smart move on Jeremy’s part. By the following Thursday, much to Paul’s amazement, Jeremy called and said he would like to present two candidates to him the next day. He said it was urgent, as one of them had a tentative offer from a competitor but actually was more excited by XYZ. Paul went over the resumes of both candidates and was impressed. These people both met his requirements and had the necessary experience. In fact, the one with the tentative offer looked really great. He made room in his schedule for the two interviews. By the next Wednesday he had extended an offer and was about the happiest guy in XYZ Company that day. What Samantha Could and Should Have Done What happened? Why did this story unfold this way? What did the internal recruiter, Samantha, do or not do that led to this very predictable outcome?

  1. Samantha needed to spend more time with Paul and probe into the skills and competencies that were really necessary. Jeremy spent time, made a special trip over to Paul’s office, and actually engaged in a conversation with Paul that helped him see the position a bit differently. This led to a better ó more specific and real ó job description. She never talked about the job market or gave Paul any sense of the ease or difficulty in filling this type of position.
  2. Jeremy called the other VPs of Marketing and got their input. Although we can’t tell from this case whether their input changed the description, it gave Paul even more confidence in Jeremy and raised his belief that the new qualifications they had determined were accurate.
  3. Samantha did not move quickly enough. She either did not have a talent pool to tap into or she had too many other priorities. The initial candidates she brought set the stage in some ways for her failure. They were off-base enough to shake Paul’s confidence in her and probably led him to more critically judge the other candidates.
  4. Samantha did not negotiate a service-level agreement where each party agreed to do certain things (e.g. interview promptly, get back within 24 hours with feedback, etc.), and that set the stage for time delays and uncertainty that fed Paul’s discomfort and lack of confidence. By setting the expectations upfront, Jeremy ensured his client’s happy surprise by performing better than that.

What the folks who do retained search do is an example for all of us in recruiting. All the good retained search people that I know do the following things well and consistently:

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  • Both the hiring manager and the recruiter have a clear and precise job description that can hold up to the scrutiny of peers and other executives.
  • Both parties understand the market and the amount of talent that may be available, and they agree on timeframes and set expectations.
  • They both understand their mutual commitments and make sure that they each knows what is expected of the other.
  • They keep their side of the deal. The recruiter brings good candidates to the manager, and the manager is fair and prompt in interviewing and hiring them.

If you do these things as a corporate recruiter, you will be as successful at recruiting as retained search professionals like Jeremy are.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


8 Comments on “Are You As Good? Why Retained Search Often Wins

  1. Thank you Kevin Wheeler for this no nonsense review of internal vs external recruiters.

    It certainly makes me re-think what I am doing and how I can do it better.

    Funny how common sense makes more sense when you read it!!

    Thank you again…

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  2. This was a great article which shows why some internal recruiters are not effective enough to help management at Corporate America companies. More training and assistance courses are needed for internal recruiters! The Kick-off meeting with the hiring manager should be the place to get all the facts the recruiter needs to do the job right! If this meeting falls flat and no dialogue gets exchanged, something is very wrong!
    It is all not the recruiter’s fault, the hiring manager who has the position should pursue questions to prompt open discussion and give the recruiter the important skills required for the job. Reading a job description does not cut it!

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  3. Kevin – You are always on target! Thanks for the article. The suggestions on how to become more like ‘Jeremy’ are easy to understand and implement….so why don’t folks catch on?

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  4. Thanks Kevin –

    With the volume of material we read, it is indeed refreshing to enjoy a ‘story’ or actual incident, ala Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes fame. Being in this game a while, reading volumes of material, I bet the retention rate is many times greater.

    Thanks also for this Forum – and remember, we provide a real service. Like, company recruiters are going to call 70-100 of their competitors, trade organizations, do boleen searches to find talent, right?

    ‘Nothing but good things’


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  5. Kevin – great article. Many corporate recruiters, who formerly worked for search firm principals like me, are trained to do many of the things Jeremy did. However the retained recruiters do have that years of experience and C-level relationships to really get to the heart of the matter – strengths and weaknesses of that division or prior person in that slot, the personality traits of hiring manager, ideal candidate, and co-workers he/she will be working with, corporate culture, redefining skills and expertise that is ‘really’ needed, perforeming hypoethical and situational interview questions, etc. Perhaps if internal recruiters would spend the time to actually build relationships and learn from retained recruiters who specialize in their niche, they may find that the fees paid – in the long run result in better internal recruiting. I have often helped companies in both retained search assignments as well as hepling the internal recruiter on better techniques in sourcing planning, relationships with hiring managers, effective pre-screening and assessment techniques, etc. Better for me and better for the client when I end up working with an internal recruiter at the company who ‘gets’ it.

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  6. Kevin,
    You do not mention how much experience Samantha has. Is she a paper / ATS sorter or someone who is paid well for having the ability to navigate corp politics (yes the do exist!) and sensitivities around comp ratio, internal equity etc plus source, screen, present, sell and close candidates. Is she equally / thought more of than the HR folks she works with?


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  7. Good reminder by Wheeler to those of us corporate recruiters and sourcers doing internal executive search what we (should) know by common-sense but don’t always take the time to do. To what degree we follow through on these steps varies by time available and/or comfort with the hiring manager that lulls us into not treating their search like an agency hungry for a 25%+ placement fee would. For the most important 20% of searches–which are usually at the executive level–we need to devote 80% of our efforts.

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