MLT Blog

How to Engage with an Executive Search Firm

By: Amber Richardson

Akiba Smith-Francis is a Consultant at the advisory firm Egon Zehnder. Akiba helps organizations secure executive talent and tackle a range of leadership challenges. Here, Akiba describes how candidates can prepare for successful engagements with executive search firms, and shares insights on how organizations might develop and retain diverse talent.

Akiba Smith-Francis photo for Management Leadership for Tomorrow Blog on working with an executive search firmQ: How do executive search firms identify strong talent for their clients? In other words, how/where do you find executive talent?

We often start a search by sourcing trusted advisors in the industries we are working in, looking for senior leaders at organizations and in roles related to the search, and meeting leaders at conferences or events that we host, like CFO dinners.

Q: At what point might someone “get on your radar” as a potential fit for one of your client organizations? What level of experience or leadership track record are you looking for? 

At Egon Zehnder, we are hired by clients to find senior executive leaders and non-executive Board directors. We are introduced to potential candidates at that level, or even when they are at the VP or equivalent level. Senior leaders looking to transition or to get on the radar of search firms often research the search consultants who are most relevant to their goals, and reach out to us directly.

Q: How can a candidate prepare to shine in an interview with an executive search firm like yours? What are you looking for when you interview candidates?

The best way to prepare is to understand what is required in the role and for the organization. It is also important to share your narrative in a way that connects with that — and do so succinctly. Sometimes people share details of their experiences that are not relevant. When an interviewer has limited time, which is always the case, you want to make sure that you share what is most important. We are looking for experience that is relevant for the role in addition to strong leadership skills, which includes ethical leadership. We are also looking for authenticity — to see a real person, rather than their formal representative. You should be a little vulnerable if asked what you struggle with or what aspects of your role you like less than others. When we hear people painting a picture of a perfect person, which doesn’t exist, or someone with no preferences or challenges, it demonstrates either a lack of self-awareness and reflection, or lack of openness. These are things that make strong leadership challenging.

Q: Let’s say someone is currently employed but seeking a change. How can they signal to executive search firms that they’re ready to transition, and do this without jeopardizing their current position? 

We are often introduced to executives who are looking to transition from their current role, and we always keep that confidential within the firm. People should feel free to share that with us. We are in the business of discretion.

Q: Can you outline the executive search process from the candidate’s point of view? (From being contacted to the initial interview to interviewing directly with the client to placement and beyond?)

Typically, we reach out to schedule a call to get to know a potential candidate for a role and share more about the opportunity. If it is a confidential search, we will ask that they sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before we can share the company and position. Assuming the person is interested and a good fit, we schedule a longer interview to get to know more about them as a person, their experience, how they work, and what interests and concerns they have about the role. This is in order for us to more effectively present them to the client.

Once we do that, the client decides whether to move them forward in the process for their own interviews. We sometimes sit in on interviews to see the dynamic between candidate and client and provide feedback. We facilitate the interview schedule and may become involved with compensation negotiation. Of course, we take references and do an educational background check. We also provide support with integration into the new role and organization.

Q: Are there ways that executive search firms continue to support the client and candidate after placement, to encourage retention?

We sometimes support candidates through Accelerated Integration, which actually begins before they step into the new role, helping them think through and develop their plan for how they will enter into a new organization well. Even if we are not engaged in a formal Accelerated Integration program, we stay in touch with the candidate — now new executive — and hiring manager, informally, throughout their first year in the role.

While we are perhaps best known for our executive search work, we are a leadership advisory firm and support clients on many aspects of their talent and human capital needs. We do team effectiveness work, succession planning, executive assessment and coaching, among other things. In addition, along with our partner, Mobius Executive Leadership, we design and lead transformational development journeys for senior leaders, particularly new CEOs and their successors.

Q: What are your top 2-3 pieces of advice for “telling your story” in an interview for a senior position?

Be concise and focus on what matters for the role and the company. This requires doing your research. Show passion for the opportunity! You want to demonstrate that you want that particular job, not just a new job. Be specific about your accomplishments and how you achieved them. The old adage “show, don’t tell” is very applicable in interviews.

Q: What can clients do to both attract and retain top diverse talent at their companies? 

This is a very big question that a lot of organizations are trying to figure out. In terms of attracting diverse talent, organizations might consider assessing candidates for their potential. For instance, if you are looking for a CEO and only look for candidates who have already been in the C-Suite, you will, by definition, replicate the population that currently tends to occupy those roles, which will not provide the diversity of experience and perspective you seek. In addition to assessing candidates on experience, we also leverage our potential model, which provides insight into a person’s intrinsics and gives us an idea of what they are likely to be able to do if given an opportunity. Hiring someone who has more potential than experience compared to the previous leader may be a risk, and will require courage, patience, and additional support as the new leader integrates into the business and navigates the learning curve.

Assessing talent based on potential is also helpful in promoting and retaining current employees. Companies can leverage the measurement of potential to invest in the development of diverse talent, accelerating their progression and helping them feel supported. Of course, this should also be done in conjunction with career mapping and an organizational assessment of the rating and promotion process to illuminate and guard against organizational biases that may exist.

Q: Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to be sure our readers know?

Do your research and ask the questions you need to ask in order to be comfortable with the role. If you are thinking of taking a new role, be really clear with yourself and your family about whether you are truly ready to leave your current job. If a new role requires a relocation, this is particularly important. Talk to your family early and often about what that would mean for them and how it fits into your career and your larger collective goals as a family.

When a search executive reaches out to you, respond. It should go without saying, but be polite. Even if you are not interested in the role, I suggest you get to know the search professional. This is the easiest way to get on the radar of a search firm. Share your experience as well as what you are interested in. I would also suggest that you stay in touch over the years as you progress in your career and attend any events that they invite you to.

Q: Can you share with our Rising Leaders one final piece of advice or encouragement that you’ve carried with you throughout your own career? 

It’s a small world and you’ll have a long career. Make an effort to stay connected with people. Be a friend before you need a friend.

This post has been edited for brevity and clarity.