Maximizing Search Firm Success

Last December (2006) we tried something new. Rather than rehash techniques and tips on recruiting that have been masticated hundreds of times before, we instead provided a handy manual that could be immediately downloaded and redistributed by recruiters to help educate their candidates about interview blunders. By doing so, we created an item of value that could be immediately put to productive and hopefully financially rewarding use.

Our “Top Ten Interview Blunders and How to Avoid Them” became the most popular request for copies and electronic downloads by, with search firms nationally still requesting it one year later.

Here are two comments representative of numerous accolades we received after it first appeared here for TFL readers:

In catching up on some Fordyce issues over the past week, I ran across your article about the “Top Ten Interview Blunders.” I have gone through many of these issues with candidates in prepping them. I’m struck by the depth of information and how logically it’s provided by you. I thank you very much, my candidates thank you very much, and I honestly believe my clients will be grateful as well. – Bob Bishop

I have been in the recruiting industry since 1970. I have read all the books and listened to all the tapes, but I can unquestionably say there is more meat in your Interview Blunders to share with candidates than in all the books and tapes put together. Thank you. I intend to email this to my current and future candidates! – Roger Linde

As a holiday gift to TFL readers, this month we unveil portions of our latest instructional manual, titled:

“Maximizing Search Firm Success – Why some companies fail to obtain results from search firms . . . while others consistently succeed year after year.”

This manual includes our latest list: The Top Causes of Search Firm Failure.

At the end you will find a link where, should you be interested, you can download the manual, including color graphic and table of contents, as it appears in its complete and unedited form.

And now for the excerpted manual.

“Maximizing Search Firm Benefits – Why some companies fail to obtain results from search firms . . . while others consistently succeed©”

Understanding Search Firm Relationships

Contracting with an executive recruiter is not unlike hiring an expert fishing or hunting guide. Such a guide knows which waters hold certain types of trophy bass or trout, what lures and bait should be used depending on the specific type of game sought, the best times of day to make your casts, and precisely the rate of speed at which you should reel your line back.

The process of recruiting is similar in many aspects. It may, on the surface, appear simplistic. After all, one might think, is it really more than making many phone calls, sending emails, and initiating dialogue with prospective candidates? Yes, it is. In the hands of a well-trained, dedicated expert team, the process unfolds much like that of a symphony orchestra under the leadership of an eminent maestro.

While a search firm can assist tremendously in increasing the percentage of trophy fish that will bite your baited hook – just as a fishing guide would be able to do – it inevitably becomes the company hiring authority’s responsibility to correctly reel the fish in and ensure that it does not flop out of the boat before you’ve had a chance to have your photo taken (or bring it home to grill).

Many of the complaints regarding search firms often stem from a breakdown in this “handing off” process. There are other reasons why search firms may fail to produce despite their best efforts. The most common reasons are outlined in this manual.

What you are about to read distills hundreds of millions in recruiting project management expertise to identify the most critical breaking points.

Our list compiles some of the most common factors contributing to breakdown (failure) after a search firm is engaged by a company hiring authority.

Top Ten Most Common Causes Of Search Firm Failure

1. Fee Attitudes: Expense or Investment?
2. Stalling with Feedback
3. Passing the Ball to the Wrong Team Member
4. The Search Party Posse Strategy
5. Excessive Authority in the Wrong Hands
6. Cutting the Recruiter Out of the Loop
7. Too Many Chefs Seasoning the Soup
8. Overselling, Underperforming Search Firms
9. Requesting References
10. Cleaning House

Now for a discussion on each item listed.

1. Fee Attitudes: Expense or Investment?

Many consider search fees as expenditures. It is a line item to be placed under the debit column. Yet no one ever bothers to speak to managers across town or state lines to find out what financial impact may have resulted from the service.

This connection is rarely made. Yet a quick analysis of just one Fortune company our firm services has uncovered that even the lowest-level analyst/trainee can be worth $1 million in added revenue on that person’s first full calendar year. One Million Dollars.

Try investing 15 or 20 thousand dollars (assuming the lowest-level salaries and fees) in the stock market and let me know what your chances are of gaining one million on that 15 thousand dollars during the following year.

While hard-nosed fee negotiations may be appropriate with a new car dealer whose lot is bulging with excess inventory or at the weekend flea market, the circumstances have no correlation with engaging a professional search firm well known in its field.

While you may relish having secured a low fee and enjoy being able to boast about it, having no hire to show for your vacant controller, IT director, network administrator, national sales director, or CFO position while millions of dollars are being sidelined or neglected during the search makes little sense.

Yet this is precisely what happens over and over again with searches around the country.

2. Stalling with Feedback

Providing essential dialogue and reactive feedback at a glacier pace negates all the hard work and effort put forth by your recruiting partners. Once a candidate expresses interest, a certain forward momentum must continue to maintain the interest that was piqued as a result of your recruiter selling your company’s and position’s benefits.

Put your search firm through more than one or two lost candidates, and they will most likely render your search unserviceable.

Meanwhile, you may be left wondering why your position remains vacant many months later.

3. Passing the Ball to the Wrong Team Member

I have experienced many cases where the search was sufficiently mission-critical for the chairperson or CEO of a multibillion-dollar company to conference directly with our search team, only to close the conversation by instructing us to “deal with Jennifer from here on.”

To our chagrin, “Jennifer” (name used as a placeholder for any low-level recruiting coordinator) often turned out to have been with the company for barely one year, with little to no previous experience.

Jennifer was rarely available, didn’t quite care, and did not view the project with the same urgency the chairperson did. She was often overworked, underpaid, never available during lunch, and never available one minute after 5 p.m. local time.

Besides these minor short-comings, human resources coordinators such as Jennifer are usually very nice people.

While weeks elapse as hard-working candidates struggle to fit a telephone interview into human resources’ schedule of availability, which is narrower than the eye of a needle, candidate talent is squandered as they lose interest.

*NOTE: We elaborate on this critical issue much more in the complete version available on

4. The Search Party Posse Strategy

This is a classic scenario that has unfolded thousands of times in searches nationally:

1. Search firm A is hired under a contingency arrangement.

2. Search firm A is perceived to not be delivering results quickly enough (pick any of the reasons outlined in this list as the underlying cause), so therefore . . .

3. Company signs another contingency contract with search firm B. After all, it does not have to compensate anyone to enter into a second contingency agreement (in most cases – however, many search firms are changing their procedures because of this practice and requiring engagement commitments).

4. When search firm B realizes that A has already contacted many of the same candidates and the problem exists not with candidate availability but with company protocol, search firm B places the order on the back burner.

5. Company now has two firms it views as “unproductive,” so it invites search firm C and possibly D to join the ever-expanding search party posse! Sometimes a retained or other renegotiated approach with the original firm would have been far smarter than starting all over again. With each new search firm that gives up, the company incurs an increasingly negative public relations dilemma as word spreads that “there must be something wrong with that position.” If any search project position presents a realistic probability of concluding in a successful hire, then one and only one search firm should suffice.

5. Excessive Authority in the Wrong Hands

In contrast with item number 3 above, extending too much authority to one centralized corporate recruiting representative can also backfire.

National hiring or candidate selection control for a specific product line or business segment relegated to one individual can result in “absolute authority, corrupting absolutely.”

This can result in premature candidate rejection. Or rejection for the wrong reasons (such as favoring one search firm over the other) as well as other egregious abuses.

6. Cutting the Recruiter Out of the Loop

Whenever a hiring executive tells me, “It’s okay, Frank, we have it all under control,” this is precisely when I brace for disaster to strike. Overconfidence almost always backfires with a candidate rejection or other problem in the late stages.

By cutting the recruiter out in midstream, you are only preventing yourself from learning invaluable “inside knowledge” the candidate is inclined to share with the neutral recruiter that he or she is not revealing to you, the hiring manager.

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A paramount attribute of a skilled recruiter is to get candidates to feel completely at ease in opening up and sharing their thoughts during an interview process. By shutting the recruiter out, you are preventing yourself from obtaining the very consulting portion of the service that comes along with the recruiting aspect.

This might be why some designations such as my own refer to “Personnel Consultant.”

Sometimes such information could save you from spending thousands on unnecessary perks you mistakenly assumed were needed.

Other times a serious misunderstanding can lead a candidate to resign without obtaining all the facts, leaving the search firm potentially liable even though you have prevented them from performing their due diligence by acting on your own.

Would you ever retain a Realtorâ„¢ to sell your house, have them invest for months in a marketing program, and then start calling potential buyers that came to your open house directly?

Would you hire an expensive attorney and in the middle of courtroom litigation tell her, “Sit down. I can take it from here” and proceed with arguments and case law recitation on your own?

There are accepted industry-practice standards that seem to go by the wayside when it comes to personnel recruiting and executive search relationships.

7. Too Many Chefs Seasoning the Soup

Just as too many search firms invoke the law of diminishing returns as happens with the Search Party Posse Strategy, the same diminishing returns apply to hiring managers involved in the hiring decision.

Limit group interviews to only the most critical and necessary team leaders or members. The more company hiring representatives that must participate and agree in unison on a particular hire, the more likely the chances are of a “hung jury” syndrome.

One or two is fine. Three individuals – maybe. Once the hiring decision rests on the shoulders of four or more individuals, you will have a better chance of winning the lottery at a local deli than obtaining a mutual group consensus.

8. Overselling, Underperforming Search Firms

Quite simply, you may have picked the wrong search firm.

This breakdown occurs when the recruiting organization cannot deliver on the promises made. In such instances, the recruiting bench strength did not live up to the account acquisition strength. Too bad.

This problem surfaces in all types of businesses, including hiring contractors, lawyers, landscapers, investment advisers – you name it.

You may think for a moment that, on this one point, blame is finally pinned on the search firm, where it should lie. True, in this example, the search firm may have over-promised and is now under-delivering.

Yet the same responsibility rests on the shoulders of the company. Just as you would ask for references when hiring a candidate, you should conduct due diligence and ask for references of the search firm. This is not as easy as it seems, however, when big egos interfere. This leads us to failure number nine.

9. Requesting References

Here lies the rub: Very few executives would actually call a reference even if a stack of them were left on the table. That’s okay. At least ask for some information, which is better than not asking for any reference material at all.

Also, keep in mind that many searches have “non-compete” or “confidentiality” clauses, which prohibit advertising who was placed where. As a result, it’s not as easy to get references in the search industry as it is getting client information from a public relations or advertising firm that regularly boasts about their clients and shares their logos in print.

One comparable analogy is that of the driver who would prefer to drive around a city for hours rather than stop at a gas station to ask for directions.

At the very least, you should ask for whatever reference material is available or a track record of searches filled even if hiring managers must be omitted.

10. Cleaning House

Savvy real estate sales professionals know that proper house staging can lead to important advantages in selling the house – even while neighboring homes remain unsold.

If the adage “location, location, location” holds true when it comes to real estate investing, then “presentation, presentation, presentation” are the next three most important factors.

When it comes to vocation, presentation becomes a highly important deciding factor. You are not just offering a job but providing a home away from home where that employee is expected to spend most of his or her daytime (and in many cases, nighttime) working life.

When a candidate is greeted by a frumpy, unkempt, cluttered, or outgrown office environment, it will create a negative first impression. This will become ingrained in the candidate’s mind and be difficult to erase, regardless of what the job has to offer.

I’ve been asked to visit clients and help them understand “why we can’t fill this position despite trying for more than one full year . . .”

Often these companies have used one, two, or three search firms over one or even two years, off and on. They have reached the point of desperation.

My suspicions are often confirmed when I visit the actual office building.

In one case, I walked in through a lobby, had to go up a staircase that had not been painted in perhaps 10 years, containing scuff marks, holes, and what appeared to be a hole from a boot kick. I would not want to work anywhere where people kick holes in the wall.

Upstairs, the carpets were loosened from the wall, bubbling, and snaking (they had long outlived their purpose). The lack of attention to aesthetics continued when I walked into the controller’s office and noticed an herb garden that was overgrown and spilling over shelving like something out of Little Shop of Horrors.

The place was one step away from being classified as a boardwalk fun house, let alone presenting an acceptable office environment.

Written by Frank G. Risalvato, CPC, author of the “Top Ten Interview Blunders and How to Avoid Them.” Frank G. Risalvato has been a staffing and recruiting consultant in the search profession since 1987. He has contributed hundreds of articles to various publications, has appeared on TV and radio, and has been called on by state and federal agencies for expert testimony. His recruiter training services, books, and kits are found on Call (973) 300-1010 for an exclusive one-on-one experience with his training style. His new Charlotte, N.C., direct telephone is (704) 243-2110.

Frank Risalvato made the plunge into the search industry in 1987. Within two years he was earning fees on a monthly basis that were comparable to his entire previous annual salary. Today he specializes in the low to mid-six figure hires and manages multiple openings each month. Although he didn't invent recruiter training, he views himself as someone that improves, perfects, and enhances pre-existing techniques. His new book is "A Manager's Guide To Maximizing Search Firm Success."


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