Excutive Search Consulting Demystified by Keith Kulper

First of all, here is a brief working definition of executive search consulting: Executive search consulting is a professional service provided to companies and organizations that need to attract, hire and develop leaders who will hold responsibilities that are key to achieving planned and evolving ‘actionables’ of the client company or organization. The service is paid for by the client company or organization–not by the hired job candidate. Potential job candidates are identified, qualified and presented to the client company or organization by the executive search firm based upon degree of alignment with a written or verbal Job Specification developed in conjunction with the client representative(s). Assessing degree of potential fit of the candidate with the job specification is a key “deliverable” for the search firm since the most common reason a search consultant is engaged by a client company or organization is to save time and effort involved with identifying, qualifying and reviewing potential candidates for specific leadership positions.

It is commonplace for a potential candidate to be identified by the search firm by way of telephone call. Opportunity knocks..sometimes at the most interesting times! Often the phone call is the result of a recommendation from someone inside the existing network of the search firm. Quality oriented search firms work hard at cultivating and continually updating their network of contacts so that when a search assignment is awarded they will be ready to start qualifying potential candidates. Another key way to identify potential candidates involves search firm “research” —contacting targeted people in specific companies who appear to fit the job profile in some logical manner. Some of the best candidate referrals come from people who could be candidates for the job themselves but for any number of reasons are not interested at that particular time.

A good thing to understand about the etiquette of search is that the person being called will appear much more sophisticated, in the eyes of the search consultant, if he or she tries to be of help to the search firm even if that means that there is no apparent immediate personal benefit for doing so. Like in all things in life the “golden rule” applies—what goes around comes around—so try to be generous and helpful, as it will eventually come back to you at some point. If you help the search person calling you there is a distinct possibility that the next time the search firm calls it could be to tell you about an opportunity that you will want to follow up for yourself…so, practice the “golden rule”.

CONTINGENT and RETAINED SEARCH: useful definitions
When a search firm operates on a contingent basis it means that the firm will only earn a fee for service rendered if the firm is responsible for identifying and presenting the hired candidate to the client. A contingent search may or may not be structured contractually with the client. Typically, the fee is 100% “back end” loaded based upon a percentage of the hired candidate’s first year cash compensation. In contingent search there is no exclusivity to the arrangement; the client is free to work with other search firms or source candidates on his or her own, which explains why more than one Contingency Firm may be calling you about the same assignment! Contingent search tends to be less oriented toward candidate assessment and “fit” and more about getting the potential candidate’s job resume in front of the client so that the client can make his or her own assessment. “Headhunting” is a euphemism most often associated with contingent search because the bulk of the effort is spent on finding potential candidates and getting them in front of the client as quickly as possible. Usually, in a contingent search, the job

specification tends to be less structured–more fluid– allowing for a greater breadth of candidates who could potentially “fit”. More effort though, is expended by the client in assessing fit with the job and other aspects such as reference checking. The danger for a mismatch can be high in contingent search due to a lack of clarity on what the client really wants, the degree of “fit” with the position spec and candidate understanding of what it takes to be successful in the position. Be very careful if you decide to respond to a contingent search firm since you may be get a verbal description of the job by the recruiter that ultimately differs with what the client really has in mind. This sort of situation can result in a good candidate getting hired for the wrong reasons..in this case, nobody wins.

Retained Search means that the search firm has structured a contract signed by the client defining what will be provided in the way of outcomes and responsibilities for both the search firm and the client. The contract in a retained search typically calls for exclusivity for the search firm much the same way a company might expect to experience when retaining an accounting firm to perform an external audit or a law firm to handle a particular legal matter.

In retained search the firm and the client strive to ultimately achieve a very clear understanding of what the job is about as well as the attributes, style and work experience of potential candidates who will be a good fit in the current or developing culture of the client company. The Search Process is highly structured—see attached KULPER & COMPANY “SEARCH PROCESS” for more details about how the search is actually conducted by our firm Repeat business from existing clients assignments is the goal of the firm; key to making that outcome happen is the development of mutual respect and trust from working together on the assignment. We like to think that this comes about from real teamwork and great outcomes, (i.e.) a hired candidate who is happy in their new assignment meeting/ exceeding expectations
! The real objective is to attract a hired candidate who will be happy and productive in their new job because he or she knows what it takes to succeed in that specific position–be it at the CEO, Director or any other level. As a result, the ability of the search consultant to correctly assess fit of the potential candidate is a key skill that the client rightfully should expect and rely upon. We believe that the lead search consultant is best evaluated by asking about hiring outcomes as well as Client Satisfaction and Candidate Satisfaction ratings. In essence, the search firm has to be “referenceable” in the marketplace among people who the client can easily call; at KULPER & COMPANY we provide both clients and hired candidates as our references because we want our prospective clients to get a full picture of what it is really like to work with our firm.

When speaking with prospective candidates, an experienced retained search consultant will be eager to share detailed information about the search assignment–including client name–planned compensation and other salient facts– once it is determined that a potential candidate may be a fit with the job specifications. Typically, the search firm will provide a detailed Job Specification to the potential candidate because the search consultant is looking for an in-depth reaction to the opportunity from the potential candidate. It is very important for the potential candidate be scrupulously honest in all his or her responses to questions posed during the qualification process; particularly with respect to work history details supplied on their resume. The purpose for doing this should be obvious by now: the client only wants to meet with candidates who are highly qualified for the position and the candidate should only want to seriously consider and accept a job offer that he or she has very good shot at successfully fulfilling—truly a “win-win” scenario. The adage of client saying: “don’t worry –just show me candidates—I will know a good one when I see one” is something that we do not endorse; for the same reason that “blueprints” are required when attempting to construct a sound structure. We believe in the importance of good “Search Process” (so much) that we have become an ISO 9002 registered search firm—the first in the State of NJ to do so. For more information about our SEARCH PROCESS visit www.kulpercompany.com

Candidate Interviews and Reference Checking

In retained search the consultant usually will meet face to face with potential candidates and provide a written assessment of degree of match of candidate with the job specification to the client. In addition, the search consultant will also complete in-depth reference background checks after receiving written permission from the candidate to do so. References are very important because they provide a real picture of the behavioral pattern of the candidate. It is our experience that a person’s behavioral patterns change very little over time–good or bad–so a great deal of stock ought to be placed on the information gathered from references about the potential candidate. Interestingly, we have found that hiring managers are sometimes overly skeptical about the information contained in Candidate Reference Reports since

there is often the perception that a candidate can somehow skew or “game” what is being said by their references. It has been our experience that if we speak with three or more listed reference contacts provided by the candidate and ask “open ended” questions in a friendly manner about the candidate’s personal character, the nature of their working relationship, examples of problem definition and solving ability, ability to drive change, etc., a valid picture of the candidate’s preferred work style and true ability to get things done –does in fact emerge. We like to then compare these findings with what is presented on the candidate’s resume or what we have heard from the candidate during the interview process. We have found that the story about the candidate that emerges from this cross checking process does represent information that is highly reliable and helpful in painting a clear picture that is often predictive of the how the candidate will behave and, ultimately, perform in their new job. A solid reference check is a reason for KULPER & Company’s strong hired candidate track record —and of course high client and candidate satisfaction ratings.

Making the Job Offer

Once a decision to hire is reached by the hiring manager, the lead consultant communicates the verbal job offer to the finalist candidate so that any bargaining/haggling can be handled by the search firm and take place at “arms length” between the client and candidate. Once the verbal job offer is accepted, the client prepares a written offer spelling out compensation terms, any contractual arrangements, start date and the like which the candidate acknowledges with his or her signature. The search assignment is now complete and the real work for the hired candidate and hiring manager begins! Generally, a retained search should take about 90 -120 days to be completed; sometimes the process moves much faster. We have found that the process moves the fastest when the hiring manager and team are closely aligned on their expectations about what they really want to see in the hired candidate—so a good position spec that everyone supports and endorses at the outset is crucially important.


Executive search consulting can be a valuable professional service for clients and potential candidates to understand and benefit from in a very meaningful way. Time and opportunity cost savings for client companies/organizations and career development for candidates occur regularly for clients and candidates who learn how to effectively utilize and work with executive search consultants.

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