The Question

Decisions on hiring talent aren’t easy to make. In spite of meticulous planning, research, interviews, reference checks and selection processes, mistakes do happen. Once in a while, organisations do hire the wrong candidate for the job or position. Sometimes they hire the right candidate, credentials- and potential-wise, but the person’s acceptance by the existing team becomes an insurmountable problem within a year – leading to much unhappiness in, and regret by, the organisation.

Even if an organisation is able to absorb such mistakes for entry- or junior-level recruitment, the cost of a wrong hire does affect the organisation’s bottomline. For senior- or leadership-level recruitment, that hiring mistake can be crucial and impact the organisation fiercely. The question therefore is, how do organisations ensure they hire the right candidate for the job or position – every time?

As far as we know, there is no foolproof method, nor a failsafe strategy, that ensures hiring decisions are unchallenged by circumstances and hiring outcomes dovetail into the organisation’s plans without a hitch. Matters are complicated further when, particularly during senior- or leadership-level recruitment, it is imperative to maintain confidentiality in order to protect the interests of the organisation and the candidate(s).

Since fulfilling a hiring mandate is an organisational priority, organisations usually adopt a two-pronged strategy of (a) searching for suitable candidates within the organisation, and (b) retaining the services of external executive search firms. Organisations often choose one strategy over the other; sometimes, preferring an internal search before engaging an executive search firm.

Although an internal search for the right candidate that precedes dialogues with retained executive search firms is a fairly common practice, we look upon it as an advantage. That’s because, after an inconclusive internal search, the organisation is able to learn from it and provide a more rigorous briefing to the executive search firm. Directions are precise; mandates are clear; expectations are agreed upon. All of which helps the executive search firm in its commitment to deliver at the moment of truth.

Yet, there is a looming question that rests squarely in the centre of every hiring decision-making process within organisations: do they search internally for the right candidate or retain an executive search firm to do so?

We decided to put this question to test. Our interactions with organisations who aren’t our clients (in order to avoid bias) indicated that Heads of HR Departments are aware of this question. But, due to reasons of confidentiality, felt obliged not to discuss the topic openly in public. Fortunately for us, a few Heads of HR Departments did speak to us on conditions of anonymity.

Take, for instance, Anita (name changed on request), Head of HR for a global logistics and supply chain management company, who shared some of her thoughts with us in this (edited) interview:

YPPA:  What is your current role or function in your organisation?

Anita:  Head of Human Resources.

YPPA:  Does your organisation have a philosophy or strategy for hiring/recruitment, particularly for hiring executives at senior positions such as GMs, VPs, C-suite executives?

Anita:  As a philosophy, we believe in grooming/developing people within the organisation to take on senior positions. It is on a very rare occasion that we would hire someone externally for a senior role in the company.

YPPA:  How do you attract talent at senior/leadership levels? Do you follow a clearly-defined process for hiring senior executives in your organisation?

Anita:  In line with our Talent Management philosophy, we would first evaluate the talent pool that is available internally (across geographies). Even an internal applicant is processed through a stringent interview system to ensure that the right person is hired for the job. In case the position does not have a ready internal candidate, we would go ahead to retain an executive search firm to source potential candidates. Apart from the required competencies and strong references, we also rely on profiling tools to help us evaluate the candidate better.

YPPA:  How often do you engage executive search firms for senior/leadership level appointments? What specific benefits do you look for in executive search firms when you engage them?

Anita:  We engage executive search firms only occasionally. We look for (a) help in attracting the right candidate in terms of the competencies and culture fitment; (b) help in expectation setting with the candidate; and (c) insights and help with informal industry feedback about the candidate.

YPPA:  How do you assess executive search firms when you select and engage them? How would you define or describe the relationship that you and your organisation have with the executive search firm you engage with?

Anita:  Reputation of the firm and their past track record. We work very closely with the executive search firms that we engage with. We treat them as an extended team and expect them to have our organisation’s interest in mind. Hence, it is relationship based on trust.

YPPA:  Do you engage executive search firms purely on transaction-based assignments or also for retained services? What kind of mandates do you normally set in your engagement with executive search firms?

Anita:  We work with the executive search firm on a retainer basis. We have a very comprehensive contract in place which clearly defines the mandates of the engagement.

YPPA:  Do you engage executive search firms for tasks other than recruitment? Such as, for transition plans for senior executives, leadership coaching, succession planning, executive assessment, etc?

Anita:  At the moment, the executive search firms are engaged for recruitment only.

YPPA:  How can you derive maximum benefit from executive search firms, especially at senior/leadership levels? How do you optimise the client and executive search firm relationship?

Anita:  We believe (a) any engagement with an executive firm should be long term which will help the firm in understanding the organisation. This will help the firm in sourcing the right talent for the company; (b) the executive search firm should be able to provide advisory role and the relationship should be based on mutual trust; and (c) the executive search firm should continue to engage with the candidate even after the placement and help the candidate in settling down.

YPPA:  Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Anita.

While an internal search to find the right candidate to fill a job or position may be an organisation’s first choice of action, a retained executive search firm brings with it years of knowledge and expertise in recruitment, tools and methods that provide the best results, and an objective (i.e. unbiased) point of view to the task. For an organisation engaged in filling senior- or leadership-level positions, these are huge advantages.

Moreover, in the course of their engagement, the executive search firm helps refine the organisation’s brief and contributes to the organisation’s hiring strategies – not only to improve the hiring for the current assignment, but also to orient the organisation for the future. In such light, perhaps, the internal search versus the executive search firm question will be broken in the future. Until then, the two options will complement each other… as they do now.


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