What questions should you ask a retained executive search firm?

Finding the right retained executive search firm can transform your leadership team. The secret is finding the right executive search partners for the job.

While the temptation to select the firm that checks the “name recognition” box or the “affordable” box or the “boutique” box may seem like a good way to go, it’s not that easy. To find the best fit, you’ll need to dig deeper.

Retained executive search isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. You’ll want to find a company that’s big enough to have all the resources, research capabilities, and technology you need, but that is also still agile enough to provide your team with the communication and white-glove service you’re paying for. You’ll want a firm that has the strategic sophistication and the agility to get the job done.

“CEOs and C-suite executives often identify failure to attract and retain top talent as their No. 1 business issue. The key to success is having the right leaders leading in the right way. Aiding in this are executive talent search and assessment providers, who can profoundly impact businesses,” noted  Karen Greenbaum, president and CEO of the global Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants, in Forbes.

So before you pay the retainer, here are some tough questions you can ask that will help you find a high-quality, ethical retained executive search firm. 

Getting-to-know-you questions

When you work with a retained executive search firm, they will be your company’s national and global representatives. They will be reflecting your company’s values and brand to the wider public. Ask around, find out what the company’s reputation in your industry looks like. You’ll want to make sure that you speak with several former clients and candidates to develop a full picture of their process and approach.

  • Can we meet with the firm’s managing partners?
  • Can we meet the team that will be handling the day-to-day details of our search?
  • What level of position and compensation range do you specialize in?
  • Can you give us examples of similar searches that you’ve conducted?
  • Can you give us examples of searches you’ve conducted in our industry?
  • How do you help influence retention and reduce turnover? 
  • Can you provide client references?
  • Can you share the names of your last several clients?
  • Can you give us an example of a search you didn’t complete and why?
  • Do you offer a guarantee period?

Process-based questions

You may find that retained executive search teams follow similar processes. However, some firms are more transactional while others are more consultative. To get a sense of a firm’s true process, ask!

  • How do you ensure a collaborative and consultative approach to executive search? 
  • How do you assess and define the scope of the search?
  • How has your process changed over the years?
  • What kind of cultural research and analysis does your team conduct? 
  • Does your firm work in small teams or will you assign a single talent recruiter to our search?
  • Exactly who will lead the search?
  • What’s the process for qualifying the position and vetting candidates? 
  • How do you manage communication?
  • How do you assess soft skills? 
  • What kind of services do you offer during and after the search?

Expertise questions

Your retained executive search firm needs to have the expertise and connections to find the top candidate for your company. To get a better sense of their access, you’ll want to ask questions like:

  • Where do you see our industry going in the future?
  • What trends have you noticed within our industry?
  • How can you find leaders that are a good fit today, tomorrow, and five years from now?
  • How do you identify talent with the right skillset outside of our industry?
  • What are your assessment capabilities?
  • How do you attract the best talent?
  • How do you ensure confidentiality?

Capacity questions

You’ll want to make sure that they have the experience you need but aren’t so overwhelmed with work that the quality of their work begins to decline.

  • What’s your firm’s search load?
  • How many searches are in the start-up phase?
  • How many successful searches did your firm conduct last year?
  • How many searches is the primary consultant heading?
  • How has your firm changed over the years?

Metrics questions

Numbers can’t paint the full picture, but they certainly can provide some important color.

  • How many of your clients are repeat clients? 
  • How long, on average, do your searches last?
  • When can we expect to be presented with a list of candidates?
  • What’s your search completion rate?
  • What’s your stick rate or retention rate? 

Vaco offers both contingency and retained executive search services. Our team would be happy to learn more about your needs and help you identify the best search model for your business. In all of our work, we take a consultative approach to talent solutions. Contact us today. 

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