How to Choose the Right Executive Recruiter

Choosing the right executive recruitment partner to help you grow your business can be challenging. The prospect of building a kickass team is exciting, but the potential for errors is high. In the early stages of an organization’s growth, a hiring mistake in a key growth role can seriously derail progress—a bad product manager can stall the release of a key feature, and the wrong sales rep can sour the market against a company before it even gets started.

When you’re gearing up to expand your team, keep the following tips in mind as you select the recruiting partner that will help you attract and land the top talent that will accelerate your growth.

1. Weigh the needs of the role against your internal resources.

Are you hiring for a role that requires specialized skills and experience? Or, are you looking for someone with a common background in your area? What will your process be for qualifying applicants and conducting interviews? Doing all the administrative work associated with hiring is time consuming—who will be taking that on?

If the profile you need is relatively common and you have in-house recruiting capacity, you can likely fill the role using either your own recruiters or generalized recruiting firms that work on contingency. Note however that these firms are often resume shops—they will post your ads, scour their databases, and present you with a high volume of potential candidates that likely haven’t been screened against your needs for the role.

Things get trickier as the profile of your ideal candidate gets scarcer, especially for key senior roles. If you’re looking for a rockstar product manager with a long track record of building software that users love, or a salesperson who can build both your playbook and your team from the ground up—there’s a good chance that those folks aren’t going to just stumble on your LinkedIn ad. Furthermore, they may know nothing about your organization or the role even if they happen to hear about the opportunity. If there are only a handful of people in the world who have the experience you’re looking for, then the work of finding, attracting, and retaining them will be much more complex.

The rarer the profile, the more difficult it will be to find, attract, and qualify the caliber of candidates you need. And, the more instrumental a successful candidate in this role will be in the overall growth of the organization, the higher the stakes will be. For these challenging and critical hires, you’ll want to invest in using a retained search firm.

2. Look for reputable executive recruiters in your niche.

Recruiters sometimes get a bad name—and honestly, it’s often for a good reason. Some firms deal exclusively in volume, firing out resumes until they exhaust their database, and then disappearing as soon as it becomes evident that they won’t be making an easy placement. Some firms do the very bare minimum—posting job ads on your behalf, and then sending you all the resumes they receive without qualifying them. Working with a bad recruitment firm can be both more expensive and more time consuming than simply doing it yourself.

However, a partnership with an effective recruiter with expertise in the industry and the role in question can be an investment that pays dividends for years to come. Look for boutique firms that specialize in companies of your stage and size, as well as type of industry and role. The more niche the firm, the more targeted they will be in their outreach to potential candidates—simply put, don’t hire a generalist to do a specialist’s job.

There are a number of benefits to working with a specialized recruitment firm. They have the ability to reach passive candidates who are currently achieving exceptional results for their current employers. You can leverage their deep understanding of the market to help you design the role and craft a compensation package. And, their understanding of the specific requirements of the position will mean they can effectively qualify candidates and present only those who truly meet your needs. These firms will often work on a retained basis, which allows them to dedicate resources to finding you the perfect candidate for the role.

3. Learn about the recruitment firm's process, and screen for mutual fit.

Once you’ve identified a recruitment firm in your niche, it’s smart to spend a bit of time getting to know the people that you’ll be working with, and the process they use. An initial conversation should include them getting to know you and your business, learning about the role and your ambitions for the position, and a discussion about the way they approach each search. Ask them for details about how they will present the opportunity to candidates, how they will pre-qualify people before sending them to you, and what kind of support you can expect throughout the interview and job offer process.

Look for signs of curiosity, engagement, and genuine interest in your organization—they should be inquisitive and knowledgeable about your industry. The best firms are focused on being consultative partners with their clients and candidates, and will take the time to understand the unique needs of each and every search. Should you decide to engage their services, they will be responsible for selling your vision and evangelizing on behalf of your company in order to attract candidates who don’t yet know they should consider a change—so early in the process you should get the sense that they understand your business and your needs, and that they have a clear process in place.

During an initial consultation, the recruitment firm is likely looking for their own set of clues that the relationship will be productive for all parties involved: factors like having a clear vision for the role, being willing to invest in value (both in their fees, and in the compensation that you’ll offer to candidates), whether or not you’re open to feedback on the interview process, and their level of access to the hiring manager for ongoing updates and discussions.

Niche recruitment firms are, by definition, selective about the clients they work with. They don’t want to take on searches where they know there’s a slim chance of them filling the position. Taking assignments that are wildly outside of their circle of expertise can monopolize resources that would be better spent on other search assignments. Your success is their success, so look for signs that they are invested in your vision.

Choosing an effective partner who can advise and support you through exciting times of growth is an important decision for your business that should not be taken lightly. We know as well as anyone that the recruiting industry doesn’t always have the best reputation—often for good reasons. We’ve also seen how swiftly the right person in the right role can accelerate growth, and how damaging it can be to hire the wrong candidate in a key position in an early stage company.

Much like the process for interviewing candidates, you should engage in a discussion with potential recruitment firms to ensure that you’re right for each other. With some deliberate screening, you will be able to find a true partner who will work tirelessly on your behalf to find the talent that will drive your business forward.