Strategic Recruitment: Finding the Executive Search Firm that’s Best for Your Business

by | Sep 8, 2023

Most effective startups have a forward-leaning leader with vision and just enough resources to execute. According to Harvard Business Review, 48% of organizations fail to meet their strategic targets. For companies who didn’t meet their strategic targets in 2022, leaders cited low organizational agility and workforce limitations as their primary reasons. Workforce limitations can be limitless with the right leaders, planning and talent partner in place.

The right talent partner could be your in-house talent acquisition team or a retained executive search firm who brings industry and functional expertise. If you select a search firm, select one that understands your business strategy, talent gaps and workforce goals.

Consider that your forward-focused strategy depends on your people. Selecting your talent partner will directly influence your talent strategy and talent outcomes. Our suggestions to you: (1) Ensure you have a workforce strategy that maps to your business strategy; (2) Ensure you retain and recruit the right people for your goals ahead; (3) Avoid the anchoring trap – the tendency to make a decision that perpetuates the status quo. How companies build a “workforce” is evolving quickly – select a talent partner that challenges status quo and delivers value beyond the hire.

Partnering with the right executive search firm can help you make strategic decisions that will have immediate and far-reaching implications for your business. To equip you to make this critical decision, we’ve outlined how we’d vet an Executive Recruiting Firm (as an Executive Recruiting Firm).

8 Must-Haves for Your Executive Recruiting Firm

1. Industry & Functional Expertise

Every business strategy needs the right people to see it through. When hiring for mission-critical people, consider not only who you need to hire but how you’ll find the best hires for your goals ahead. You can gain a competitive advantage with recruiters who bring industry and functional expertise.

They’re the ones primed with your competitive landscape, technologies, industry disruptions and trends. As a result, you’ll see more precision and efficiency in your talent pipeline. The value isn’t just in the outcome (hire) but the approach at large, ie: greater ease in talking shop and troubleshooting hurdles. Furthermore, recruiting partners with insights on relevant talent and companies beyond your own org can uncover fresh perspectives and hiring possibilities.

Ask questions: How would you approach this search? Can I speak to the recruiters who will be running this search and representing my company to potential employers? What success have you had in recruiting for our industry and functions to-date? What is your expertise in executive recruiting for this specific industry? Can you describe your assessment process?

2. Expertise with Companies At Your Stage

At the “pre-seed” round, your company might be a handful of founding members preparing to get operations off the ground. You may not have hiring processes, systems, or HR in place, but you have clear business goals and hiring needs. Engage a firm that can bring light-weight infrastructure, hiring processes, and standards. One with real-world experience recruiting for early stage companies. They should understand that your funding future, long-term vision, and ability to explain ‘a day in the life of’ are quickly evolving. They should also push you to think ahead about who you’ll need to hire, what success in the role looks like, and what culture you’ll want to co-create with your hires.

A Series B startup may have HR in-house and simply need a retained firm to augment their recruiting efforts at-large. The recruiting firm with industry, functional, and stage experience looks beyond the hires who you can get through your own network. They engage the talent who may not even know your company exists yet; offering an amplified talent strategy who can work in-hand with your in-house team.

Regardless of stage, startups and high-growth companies need to maximize their resources and prioritize relentlessly. A firm that can right-size the support beyond “the candidate” will give your company an operational lift. Think mapping out the interview process, coordinating schedules, tracking candidate pipelines, and feedback loops. Your recruiting firm at this stage should be “on it”— meaning they’ve thought of everything necessary to make the best hire with strong integrity and brand credibility. That includes things like: setting expectations continuously, offering best practices in hiring and offer negotiations and contributing to equitable pay structures and strong culture.

3. Credibility and Connections

When investing in a recruiting partner, vet their credibility and look for connections of both candidates and clients—you should see long-term impact and a demonstrated track record of success.

Look for a firm that has a trusted and deep network; but be cautious if they tout their network as “the solution to your hiring problems.” A firm’s network speaks to their credibility and integrity. Sure, your hire may be in their immediate network, but there’s no guarantee—does their network align with your pay range, niche expertise needs, and culture? Maybe, but there’s no magic bullet. Credibility and connections come from doing credible work in a fair and valuable way. Look for that, and consider it a bonus if their network holds the key to your end hire.

Now you’ve got industry and functional expertise, familiarity with your company stage, and a partner proven to bring credibility and connections. The result is a comprehensive understanding of your needs and a hiring strategy that’ in capable hands. Take advantage of your recruiting firm’s broad exposure to talent and hiring.

4. Well-Defined Executive Search Process and Strategy

Filling high-level leadership positions requires a well-defined, flexible, and strategic approach. Successful executive search firms combine latest technology with their craft in engaging and evaluating talent – it’s a true example of art and science. You want a firm that can outline a process and strategy that’s intentional and flexible enough to tailor to your company.

Ask questions: Does the search firm focus solely on executive recruitment, or do they recruit candidates from all levels? How does the firm create a go to market plan, and hwo do they help reduce time-to-hire? Does the firm have partnership models with mutual accountability and fair pricing structure? Where does the firm secure their talent from? (ensure it’s a multi-pronged approach). What are they vetting for and how are you, the business leader, kept informed along the recruitment journey?

5. Proven Commitment to DE&I

As more companies diversify their executive teams, more data backs what we instinctively know: diversity is good for business. Hire a firm that understands this. Hire a firm who brings specific perspectives and methodologies to equitable, fair and inclusive hiring practices.

Companies whose leadership teams match the diversity in their workforce, communities, and customers are better positioned to excel. That’s why many companies are actively embracing a diverse C-Suite, and looking for executive recruiting firms that have the experience and networks to connect them with high-quality candidates.

Disclaimer: Take caution of firms that have an AI-dependent approach to diversity recruiting in 2023/2024. AI should be a part of every business toolkit, but select with caution. Using AI without reservation (or human oversight) poses an unacceptable risk of empowering bias. The tech is compelling, but not fully capable of removing biases or building talent pipelines equitably.

Ask Questions: How does your firm define diversity, and what experience do you have working to close diversity gaps within a comapny or team? What is your approach to recruiting diverse pipelines and why? What tools and tactics do you use to recruit under-represented talent?

6. Full Transparency into the Talent Search Process

Your executive search firm will be representing your company. Clear, straightforward communication and transparency help build relationships and strengthen networks. Ensure the firm you partner with emphasizes transparency and is upfront about their process and metrics.

Ask Questions: Does the firm showcase their recruiting efforts during the search? Do they have a proven track record of success in the functions and industries that matter to you? Can they speak to challenges and mistakes they’ve made; or are they protective of their cracks along the way? You want a firm that brings you into the wins, challenges and learnings alike.

7. Value Beyond the Hire

Hiring the right executive talent acquisition firm can help your company’s trajectory continue skyward. Partner with a company that delivers operational excellence and value beyond the hire. Your executive search firm should provide more than qualified candidates. They’re job market and industry experts, they’re their client’s biggest advocates and trusted advisors.

Your executive recruiting firm should understand your vision for your business. They deliver market intelligence that goes beyond the immediate hiring need. They should work to see the road ahead, anticipate your business’s needs and elevate your company’s hiring processes, practices and philosophies at large.

Ask Questions: Why do clients work with you? What is your client retention rate? Where can you bring value during the process vs. purely by delivering the hire?

8. Ability to Grow with Your Business

An executive search firm should be agile enough to grow with your business. A company that’s looking to hire a CTO this month could need to find several more high-quality engineers by the end of the year. Partner with a firm that has a comprehensive understanding of your industry and your business model. Partner with a firm that has elastic pricing and partnership models – One that can help predict the needs your trajectory will require.
Look for a company with a well-established pipeline of high-level industry experts and thought leaders. The value there goes beyond “the hire”; ie: an exploratory call with an industry leader keen on sharing wisdom and lessons learned. Engage a firm that’s forward-looking and anticipatory in nature – they’ll focus on the immediate search while keeping the future of your workforce in mind.

Executive Talent Acquisition Firms Build Businesses

Startups and scale-ups have different challenges than more established companies. Many are defining their future and operating with relentless resource prioritization. Early-stage co’s need the right talent to reach their next milestone. Meanwhile, they want the talent MAMAA wants and those golden handcuffs, healthy stock options and future retention bonuses make for some tough hiring competition!

Take these 8 considerations in mind to vet and select an executive search firm that suits your needs in a sustainable, high-impact way. When your talent partner can help reach your short- and long-term business goals, you’ll reap the reward of having the right people at the right time.

Call Digital Knack for guidance on executive and cross-functional hiring needs.


Written by Marcia Needels