Search Firms: Big or Boutique? Flash or Function?


I believe that a constant in our society is that Talent drives innovation and execution. Talent is the key ingredient in all successful companies. Every successful venture has either a single talent or a group of talented people behind it. I don’t know many people who would argue this point.

My question is, “Why don’t more companies and HR types consider the talent of the prospective search consultant in their equation before they hire a search firm? I have observed that many companies take the “easy” way out and hire a search firm based upon a name brand alone. I have to laugh every time that I hear another company announce the hire of another major “international search firm” to conduct their search. One of my guilty pleasures in life is getting the call from the VP of HR asking if we can do a search that one of the “big-boys” has had for six to nine months with terrible results. They fell for the “pomp and circumstance” that the big firms can do during their board room presentation. Here’s the routine: send in the ex-CEO and an SVP or two to pitch to the board and close the deal. If that were all they had to do, bravo! Unfortunately, that is the easiest and most predictable part of the whole process. The real meat of the process happens behind the scenes and more than likely, the people who sold the deal have no exposure to it. There are a bunch of “greenhorns” who do all the candidate sourcing, recruiting and vetting. The original “pitch partners” have nearly no exposure to the most important aspect of the search. After you’ve identified the potential executives, selling them on the opportunity and getting them to the point of willingness to explore a new opportunity is the most elusive part of the search.

So, what are these companies paying for if by signing on with a big firm, they have underlings doing the majority of work? I would guess that they pay for the high salaries of the guys who close the deals and then of course the large overhead of that organization and its stock holders of course.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy coming in and saving the day and doing the clean up job. I just can’t help but wonder why these HR types can’t figure this out before they waste a full fee on one of these failed searches.

Alright, so let me offer the HR folks some advice. Do yourself a favor and don’t fall for the flashy presentations put on by these “stuffed suits.” They will wax eloquent about the process, but more than likely have very little to do with it. Ask very specific questions about what happens beneath the bullet points on their “proprietary process” slide. Who will conduct each aspect of the search from candidate identification to recruiting calls? Who is the one who will “sell the dream?” And before you take their answers as truth, understand that they are not paid to do the grunt work.

Let’s face it, even though it isn’t necessarily the best approach to the Executive Search process, there is comfort there and little perceived risk in going with the name brand. If it fails, at least they can say that they went with on of the big boys. I wonder why more HR executives don’t take a more hands on approach to vetting the search firms? Perhaps I’ll never know…

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3 thoughts on “Search Firms: Big or Boutique? Flash or Function?

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. I used the “big boys” in a past life when I was looking for senior managers for my business, and was very disappointed. The “Consultant” came in with the pitch and handed it down to some bright graduates – but 2 things happened:

    1. They didn’t brief the grads well enough and they went off in slightly the wrong direction.

    2. The grads didn’t have the life skills or experience to engage the people with the gravitas I was looking for.

    In the end, it all took far too long and was a mess. No feedback unless I chased and no deadlines or milestones. In hindsight I shouldn’t have touched them with a barge pole, but it showed me where the opportunity was when I started headhunting.

    Boutique every time. Usually faster, hungrier, smarter, lower cost base and the person who sold the job is doing it.

    You may have inspired me to write something on my own blog……..

  2. In my 30 plus years as a manager in sales at all levels of the organization, I can say that never once did I use a name brand, big box firm. I think this is because when I was a new manager, my boss pulled me aside, and had the conversation that basically said, ‘we use people who understand our business, who will respond to us on a moment’s notice and who will think outside the box on how we want to interview and hire. ‘ They ( the search firm) shared in our risk /reward concept. It is a concept that I carried with me through out my executive career…and with great success I might add. ( At least I think the result were pretty good).
    Wy do HR managers behave the way they do? My answer is two fold…they were never trained any other way and it is safe. It takes them off the hook for being held responsible for results or lack of results …it can always be the search firms fault. The second part of the answer is they ( HR) is more concerned with the process rather than the results…which explains many things…but that discussion is for another day…

  3. Greg, Thanks for your input on the subject. “we use people who understand our business, who will respond to us on a moment’s notice and who will think outside the box on how we want to interview and hire.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself. You are also right that to answer the question about Why do HR managers behave this way would require a lot more time and attention. I’ve worked with a few good ones, but they have been the exception to the rule. I’ve struggled to figure out the reasons, but I think the primary reason is that HR people are first and foremost, “Administrators” and recruiting requires “Selling Skills.” They also seem to feel like their job is to be the “adult in the room.” By this I mean, they tend to be the one focusing on why NOT to hire the candidate? They look for the gaps and don’t have the creativity to see the potential impact that a new hire can make. They keep score of the pro’s and con’s and the con’s carry a lot more weight than the pro’s. They are also really good at concocting reasons not to hire, ie. energy, clothes, any other visual or non-visual stimuli.

    It’s never “always” or “never,” but I have observed this trend.

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