Engaging an Executive Search Firm? 4 Helpful Questions to Ask First

BlogPost 7459343333 Engaging an Executive Search Firm? 4 Helpful Questions to Ask First

My experience in speaking with CEOs and Founders of Toronto tech start-ups has taught me that not everyone is ready for the services of a 3rd party executive search firm.  

I've realized there are 4 important questions CEOs and Founders should be asking themselves to help determine if we are a good fit to help them solve their business problems, or whether they are even ready to seek out a search partner for a critical hire or scale up.

1) What's holding you back from doing the search yourself?

There are a number of reasons why a company should bring in a search firm—and the particular reason will affect the type of firm you partner with. Here is a list of common reasons why you may need an outside recruiter:

  • Your HR team is small, and is more focused on internal process than recruitment—they don’t have capacity to coordinate the search.  

  • The role is too senior or too specialized for the generalized recruiting function that you have in house.

  • Timing is everything: you need someone in the position ASAP, so you need a partner actively recruiting for the function to shorten the search timeline.

  • You value the market knowledge generated from research and expertise of a 3rd party. We see this as most critical when hiring for net new roles (the 1st product manager in an organization, for example), or for strategic leadership roles, where the pool of viable candidates is small.

Getting clear on the reasons why you need external support for a search early in the process can help you tailor your conversations with recruitment partners, and ensure that the firm you hire is well-positioned to solve your problems.

2) What type of a relationship do you want to have with the selected search firm?

Looking at your answers to question #1, you should start to get a sense of what kind of recruiter you’re looking for. Next, think through what kind of relationship you want to have with that partner:

  • Are you seeking a consultative partner relationship, or just to add a vendor to your list?

  • Are you willing to be open to feedback—about your interview process, the compensation you’re offering, the state of the market for the kind of talent you’re looking for?

  • Are you looking for someone to send a high volume of candidates for your internal HR to work through? Or are you looking for a targeted shortlist of qualified candidates?

  • Who will be the contact point within your organization to the search firm?

Different recruitment firms have different models and approaches. If you’re looking for a more consultative partner, be aware that their fees will be higher than those who simply fire out high volumes of resumes.

3) How will you determine whether a search firm you contact/speak with is one you would choose?

What are your criteria for selecting a partner? There is a wide range of recruitment firms out there, from generalized resume shops to niche recruiters who work on retained searches within particular industries and functions. Your answers to questions #1 and #2 will help prime you to ask and answer these questions:

  • Will your first question be "what is your fee structure?" Or will your first question explore their experience recruiting for companies at a similar stage as your business?

  • Is recent search experience for the same function important to you?

  • Are you interested in seeing a volume of resumes or fewer resumes with greater accuracy to the requirements?

  • Will you want regular conference calls for search updates and market knowledge transfer?

As you begin to answer these questions for yourself, you can start to target search firms who will meet your unique needs for the role.

4) Are you in a POSITION OF READINESS to attract the profile you need?

My colleague Heidi Ram recently wrote about why it’s so important for organizations to be in a position of readiness before beginning a product manager search—her advice is spot on, and I’d argue that it’s relevant regardless of the function of the role. You’ll know that you’re in a position of readiness if:

  • You understand 2019 is a candidate's market.

  • You have created efficiencies and removed roadblocks to ensure the search is a business priority, ensuring interviews can be scheduled within the week of a candidate being presented.

  • Each interviewer has been debriefed on their step of the process and the outcomes they are looking for.

  • Each interviewer is prepared to "sell" the company.

  • You are prepared to pivot and accelerate your process if you meet someone you want to hire who is in a competitive interview scenario.

Making sure that your organization is in a position of readiness will help you to maximize the return on your investment in an executive search firm—you’ll be ready to interview candidates as they come in, ready to provide feedback about candidates to the search firm, and ensure that all parties involved are on the same page about the requirements for the role.


I spend my days speaking with CEOs, Founders, and executives at some of the most innovative software companies in North America, to help them scale their businesses. Personally, I’m happiest when I’m acting as a consultative partner for our clients, providing insight and feedback, helping them get to the heart of their business challenges, and introducing them to the talent that drive them forward. It’s rewarding and challenging work. It also means that I’m not particularly interested in being just another name on a vendor list, or in being the recruiting firm that fires over a ton of unqualified resumes.

Recruitment firms often get a bad name: many companies feel that they should be able to attract the talent they need on their own, and then if they do hire a recruitment firm, they select a partner based on cost alone. They work with recruiting firms that deal in volume, end up getting flooded by unqualified resumes, and find that it costs them more in time and money than it would have to do it themselves—and get rightfully frustrated.

Instead, I recommend that companies looking to engage an executive recruiter dig into these 4 questions, to make sure they are selecting a firm that will truly help them solve their business problems, and attract the talent they need.


Book a meeting with Andrew to learn about how he’s helped Founders and CEOs solve their business problems with a critical hire or scale up.
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