The average C-suite search takes about 90 days (or 12 to 13 weeks) when you have a structured process for finding and hiring the right executive for your organization. Without a solid framework, businesses often inadvertently rush the process or unnecessarily prolong it, which is why engaging a retained executive search firm makes good sense as they typically have a well-developed executive search process.
As you compare the executive search processes of different firms, look for these key steps, which are essential to hiring the highest performing executive possible.
Phase I: Building a Search Foundation (Week 1)
Immediately upon engaging a search firm, expect it to help you address the most pressing issue:
- Filling the immediate leadership gap:
If your departing executive’s direct reports aren’t capable of managing the day-to-day financial operations of the business, or you are spearheading a significant initiative that requires specific experience, a full-time interim executive can typically be identified and placed within 10 days, which allows you to fill critical gaps and drive vital workstreams while you focus on hiring the right leader for current future goals.
The firm should also promptly schedule an introductory meeting in order to collect key information about your business, its goals, and your expectations for the leadership position. As it takes the lead initiating the search, it should guide you through each of these steps:
- Identifying the search committee and its leader:
It’s important to keep the committee to a manageable number of key decision-makers who will be involved in the hiring process so that it isn’t bogged down with too many unnecessary steps. In addition to the current head of the organization, other influential and thoughtful members of the C-suite and board make great members of the executive search committee. The committee also needs a strong internal lead who will coordinate between the committee and the search firm.
- Clarifying your company’s mission and vision and planning how to convey it to candidates:
You need a cohesive and concise organizational vision centered around what your business wants to accomplish so that you can sell it to candidates throughout the hiring process. It should be something that rallies the troops and leads them in your desired direction. This is especially important in candidate-driven markets when you need to sell the company and leadership position as much as the candidate needs to sell themselves to your search committee.
- Assessing your environment and developing and agreeing on a position profile:
This includes outlining the educational and industry experience prerequisites along with the core competency requirements for the ideal candidate, discussing the target list, and narrowing it down to a realistic profile of the leader who possesses your most critical requirements. An astute search firm will advocate for a good balance of qualifications for the profile because an overly exhaustive list of requirements often narrows the executive field too much, which can eliminate a candidate who is the best fit. These questions can help with this step:
- What are the vital responsibilities/tasks that need to be performed on the job, which should be prioritized in order of importance and by the percentage of time they are expected to take?
- What skills, specific knowledge, experience, and abilities are needed to perform the job effectively, which should cover any gaps identified with the outgoing leader?
- What values and attitudes are needed for the job, which should also cover any gaps identified with the outgoing leader?
- What’s the composition of the executive leadership team and what qualities should the incoming leader possess to complement it?
- Defining the search process:
Leadership candidates should be considered using several different criteria, but requiring too many steps can cause bottlenecks that slow down the search process. A search firm should help you decide how many of the following steps a candidate should have to go through and in what order, while also situating steps that mark elimination points early in the process and making suggestions on where to consolidate steps, such as limiting the number of committee members who need to meet with each candidate or opting for panel interviews:
- Application/resume review
- Initial pre-screen interview
- In-depth structured interviews, ideally held virtually
- Case studies/work samples
- Third-party C-suite assessments
- Finalist interviews, ideally in person
- Non-business setting meeting for finalists
This is also when a search firm should discuss which interview style—behavioral or situational—will best help determine candidate motivators, behavioral outlooks, leadership and management styles, and personal skills, such as decision-making and resiliency.
- Building a candidate scorecard:
A candidate scorecard keeps the process as objective as possible because it helps committee members to accurately document their assessment of every candidate’s technical skills, specific knowledge, prior experience, values, and attitudes. A search firm should create one for you that weights your selected criteria based on their level of business importance.
- Developing structured interview questions:
According to Schmidt & Hunter, structured interview questions are 51% predictive of a candidate’s future workplace performance. Using the candidate scorecard, the search firm should collaborate with you to create a list of such questions you’ll ask every candidate because that will help the search committee more easily and impartially assess and compare them.
Under functional competencies, the questions should cover the following areas:
- Strategy development and implementation
- Interaction with senior leadership
- Finance and technical expertise
- Operational experience
- Transformational change management
- Experience in building teams, processes, and systems
- M/A and private equity experience
For interpersonal competencies and cultural fit, the questions should relate to the following:
- Motivation and drive for excellence and performance
- Collaboration, team building, and other interpersonal skills
- Buy-in of the company mission and vision
- Core values
- Defining compensation and equity guidelines:
Putting together a compensation package is as important as creating a position profile. A search firm can help you create a package that will attract the type of candidate you want and need.
- Creating a data repository for good information flow:
With multiple candidates and various committee members involved, the search team needs one fully accessible location to house all interview documentation and data points. Look to your search firm to provide a client portal in which to house and organize your data.
- Spreading the word about the C-suite opening:
Work with the search firm to develop a position specification to be shared with your committee members enabling them to reach out to their network contacts to help identify appropriate candidates.
- Considering the market or season and adjusting accordingly:
If it’s a candidate market, a search firm should work to shorten and refine your hiring process to ensure you can attract the best candidates and successfully compete with other companies recruiting the same candidates, who may be using abbreviated hiring processes or particularly advantageous offers to lure top talent. Conversely, if it’s an employer market, you have more leeway. A search firm can also help factor in availability requirements for interviews and the start date if you’re hiring close to the end of a fiscal period, especially year-end.
After creating a solid foundation, a search firm should conduct an official search kick-off to make sure everyone is on the same page before moving into Phase II.
Phase II: Selecting Candidates (Week 2-10)
To keep the process moving forward throughout this important phase, expect the search firm to provide access to its client portal for all search committee members and to schedule weekly update calls to discuss the latest developments related to the following activities:
- Conducting candidate outreach (Week 2-5):
The search firm begins active recruitment to identify and attract viable candidates who fit your profile. As applications and resumes come in, it researches them and develops an initial list of prospective candidates to be presented to you with their background information.
- Developing an approved list of candidates (week 6-8):
- Initial interviewing: The search firm interviews candidates greenlit by the committee, reviewing their resumes and gauging their interest level, availability, and personalities.
- Narrowing the list: The search firm eliminates ineligible or less viable candidates.
- Checking references: The search firm evaluates discrete references as possible.
- Scheduling the next steps: The search firm schedules your interviews with candidates, as well as any case studies or assessments that need to be completed. It also makes sure that the expected time commitment from candidates or committee members doesn’t create an undue burden on them by either using panel interviews or dividing and conquering interview topics (functional versus cultural) between committee members. Unless you have a very small pool of candidates and committee members, requiring every candidate to interview individually with each committee member will bog down the process and potentially cause you to lose the candidate of your choice.
- Interviewing candidates by clients (week 9-10):
As search committee members conduct interview rounds one and two with candidates, the search firm solicits feedback and makes sure that interview notes are added to the client portal.
Phase II: Closing the Search (Week 11-13)
As the search nears its completion, expect the search firm to work closely with you on these steps:
- Selecting finalists:
After all the candidates have completed the required interview steps, the search firm helps you narrow the list to two to three finalists using the candidate scorecard.
- Beginning reference investigations:
Once the search committee has narrowed its list, the search firm starts conducting a complete reference check, including the best practice step of asking finalists to compile a 360-degree reference list. Performing reference checks with the people provided by each candidate offers objective assessments and can elicit additionally important information from a full range of people they’ve worked with, including subordinates, peers, and superiors.
- Scheduling final meetings:
The search firm helps you decide if it makes sense to invite each finalist to a meeting outside of the office to confirm the mutual fit and interest, such as hosting a dinner with the candidate and their spouse, if possible. A non-business setting generally facilitates more interpersonal interaction and relaxed dialogue, which often helps to further substantiate the committee’s assessment of each finalist’s personality and attitude. It can also reveal previously undetected issues that might indicate a poor match with company culture.
- Ranking the finalists:
Again, using the scorecard, the search firm helps you decide which of the finalists is the committee’s top choice and helps rank the remaining finalists from there.
- Presenting the job offer:
Once the search firm presents the offer to the top candidate, it helps you negotiate the following terms:
- Start date
- Deadline for offer acceptance, which is typically about 48 hours
- Compensation package
- Reporting structure
If the candidate declines the offer or you can’t agree on terms, you’re able to move down your list of finalists.
At Focus Search Partners, we build teams that grow companies, which includes navigating countless clients from a diverse set of industries through our proven C-suite hiring process. Our efforts yield a 94% hire rate for search assignment and a 95% year-one candidate retention rate.
By Heather Johnson, Managing Director at Focus Search Partners