By:  Kelli Vukelic, CEO of N2Growth

Senior leadership hires can make or break an organization.  Various studies show that the failure rate of executives coming into new companies is 30 to 40 percent after 18 months.  In a hiring market, like the one we’re currently experiencing, finding a true game-changing leader is extremely challenging.  Furthermore, making a hiring mistake is extremely costly in terms of both direct and indirect costs.  So how do you find those top performers and disrupters that can take your organization to new heights?  Internal recruiters do not have the tools or abilities to fill these critical leadership roles, their ‘open requisition’ stack is too full, and all roles get equal attention, whereas the most critical ones need a dedicated team.  Once you recognize that an external search professional is needed, the decision for which one should be solved with a different calculus than in the past.

With demand for top executives outstripping supply choosing the best search firm to partner with can have a critical impact on the future of your organization.  There are thousands of U.S. executive search firms who are looking to help to place talent in organizations.  So how do you decide on which firm is the best fit?  Should you use a large firm whose name is familiar to you because of ads and billboards?  Or should you partner with a more niche, local boutique?  Or should you consider a new emerging category of super elite boutiques that give you the best of both worlds, international reach, and creative, disruptive thinking?  “I would caution that size is not always an indicator of success, and more importantly not a risk mitigator,” said Kelli Vukelic, CEO of N2Growth.  “A small elite class of boutique search firms is achieving this, providing you all of the executive search solutions of larger firms, but with a more hands-on, better resourced approach.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution to placing C-suite candidates.  One-size-fits-one and having worked at both ends of the spectrum, here are my points for your consideration.”

Plethora of Choices
There are countless options when it comes to executive search firms.  On one end of the spectrum are the incredibly large firms, which come with big brand name recognition, high overhead, and revenues reaching into the billions annually, according to Ms. Vukelic.  “Several of these publicly traded firms have good reputations, but they have historically catered to Fortune 500 companies,” she said.  “If your organization is not a Fortune 500 company, your search can easily get lost in the shuffle or pushed down below the partner level, and placement costs can quickly exceed your price range with antiquated administrative fees that cover big overheads.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, are boutique search firms.  “You may be skeptical of these smaller enterprises, fearing that they lack the resources and experience to find the right executive for your organization,” said Ms. Vukelic.  “But these fears are often unfounded – in fact, boutique firms are often better resourced, making them a better fit for your search.”

Personalized Approach
When engaging with a boutique firm, you are more likely to deal directly with the person or team leading your project.  Typically, Ms. Vukelic notes that boutique firms create team structures to work on projects, and their “top-to-bottom” approach offers the client extraordinary attention to detail.  “They can assess a client’s unique needs and then customize their approach accordingly,” she said.  “An agile process allows time for listening, connecting, coaching, and advising.  This personalized approach allows boutique firms to place candidates who are technically, academically, and culturally additive to the organization.  This sets both the client and candidate up for success on the first go-around, saving everyone involved valuable time, money, and energy.”

By working with a boutique search firm on your C-suite placements, it is highly likely that you will interface and deal directly with the senior leadership of the company, according to Ms. Vukelic.  “Direct interaction with the leader of the firm builds trust, allows you to voice any questions or concerns you may have, and get a real-time answer from a key executive,” she said.  “A boutique firm will invest in learning your culture and talent needs.  The senior engagement leader that works with you from the onset of the search will lead the process, speaking to every prospective candidate on your behalf.  In a noisy recruitment market, where candidates have the upper hand, who do you want to tell your story and be that extension of you in the marketplace?”

By contrast, when engaging with a large firm, Ms. Vukelic explains that you may only speak with a partner occasionally as they are likely busy chasing billings and not focused on your search day-to-day.”  Larger firms often delegate key work to less tenured associates that you have never met and who have only second-hand knowledge of your organization and its needs,” she said.  “They also have limited experience, meaning they bring a narrower perspective to the candidate process.  These are the people telling your story in the marketplace.  This can result in candidates whose resumes match your specification on paper but may not align with your goals or add anything new or different to your culture.  Large firms are usually in a constant state of growth, which limits the attention they can pay to your search.  A sizable client base may be great for them, but it might no be best for you.”

Boutique search firms take the time to learn the intricacies of their client’s company culture and goals.  They operate with the understanding that trust is built every day and with each interaction, not bought with brand name recognition.

Greater Candidate Pool
“Executive search firms have an ethical and contractual obligation not to recruit from clients,” Ms. Vukelic said.  “Because large firms conduct business with so many organizations, they have significant hands-off limitations which limit their recruiting strategies.  Candidates that are active on a search within a firm are also off-limits for other searches.  With large firms, this can equate to thousands of candidates who are unavailable to your search, severely limiting the talent pool.”