The “numbers” behind the Executive Search Process

An Inside Look at the Executive Search Process!

One of the biggest and sometimes most frustrating mysteries for business professionals is how the executive search process works.  During the last three weeks I have offered suggestions respectively on: how to identify recruiters to work with; how to go about developing relationships with search firms; and discussed the stages and timing for a typical search process.  This week I provide you with an appreciation for the “numbers” behind a search firm’s development of a typical candidate pipeline.

Typical Search Funnel 

75-120 contacts (tough searches may require 250-300 contacts) 

Yielding 20 interested prospects 

Longlist of 12-15 prospects 

Short list of 6-8 likely candidates    

Final candidate slate of 4-6 executives   

2 finalists 

1 placement

Initial search firm overtures to contacts are made through a combination of email and phone outreach. For non-confidential searches the position specification is often provided in order to educate prospects and networking sources about the particular search assignment. The search firm’s contact log (i.e. executives the firm is reaching out to) will include 75-120 individuals for a typical search. The contact log can be considerably greater for difficult searches or quite short if the search is well defined and the search firm has considerable knowledge of the potential candidate universe.

Typically the search firm will generate a list of roughly 20 executives who are declaring varying levels of interest in the position and who also possess attractive qualities in their backgrounds for the role. Through further phone screens and prior knowledge of these 20 interested prospects the search firm will winnow this list down to a long list of 12-15 prospects. The winnowing process takes into consideration factors such as – fit with the position requirements, location, preliminary references, reputation and attractability. The search firm will then present (in a report format) these 12-15 interested prospects to the client for discussion, feedback, and a resulting forced ranking of the top 8-10 prospects to be considered further.

At this stage the search firm begins to more formally vet these top 8-10 prospects. The vetting process involves the lead search consultant(s) conducting formal candidate interviews that probe for appropriate levels of experience, skill sets, required competencies, strengths and shortcomings, cultural fit, and attractability insights. Deeper referencing is conducted and a formal candidate report is prepared for the client if a decision is made by the search firm to present the executive. Through the search firm’s vetting process the prospect long list of 12-15 executives is winnowed down further to a long list of 6-8 candidates from which the top/most preferred 4-6 executives are presented to the client company as a candidate short list for face-face meetings. If the search firm and client have communicated properly and the search firm has done their job effectively this short list candidate slate typically results in two finalists. Typically, one of these two finalists will be the final placement. The client’s ultimate decision at this late stage of the search is influenced by the relative strength of the two candidates’ references, chemistry with the client organization, and the enthusiasm each candidate is showing for the role.

In next week’s blog I will share some tips and suggestions regarding how to improve your odds of making progress through the “search funnel”.


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