Sterling Strand

How to Choose the Right Retained Search Firm

I know search. I’ve hired search firms, I’ve been placed by search firms and now, I run a search firm. Over 11 years, I’ve also spent time in-house, recruiting for companies such as Flatiron Health, Citadel and Bridgewater, earning my way from Recruiting Coordinator to Head of Recruiting. I’ve personally run and participated in executive searches across industries, including medical, finance, operations and tech. Across my career, one astonishing item has become abundantly clear: there are very few best practices when it comes to identifying and selecting a retained search firm. 


And this is a super high risk decision — not only are you putting all of your eggs in one basket to make a critical hire whose success or failure will no doubt have ripples throughout your organization, but you are paying up front with little financial recourse if you make the wrong choice. Yet, the vast majority of these decisions are made by brand and reputation alone. Then, when searches fail, we end up frustrated and reluctant to use search firms in the future, even when the right search partner would add tremendous value.


How about we change that? This is Volume 1 of my series Lessons from a Talent Leader: How to Choose a Retained Search Firm.

First, it’s important we establish what good looks like and I think this where the main problem lies – most folks don’t know what they want or need in a search partner. People think it’s about candidates alone, and if that were true, I would say just hire a sourcer. Finding candidates is table stakes for any search firm or recruiter for that matter. Instead, hire a retained search firm whose opinion and judgement you can fundamentally trust and rely on. You may not see it now, but I promise when unforeseen challenges arise, you’ll need an all star in your corner. This is what makes a search partner worth their weight in gold and here is how you choose the right one:


1. Source and evaluate ~4–5 firms (minimum of 3).

Just like interviewing candidates or hiring a mover, you have to get calibrated on the market. Source firms by asking for recommendations from peers at similar companies or by asking your investors, board members or advisors.


2. Filter by experience:

  • Look for search firms with experience in difficult and wide-ranging searches who have proven their ability to fill roles at companies with similarly high bars
  • Be skeptical of any search firm whose sole draw is their “network” or “speciality”

The first point is critical. This demonstrates their ability to grasp different concepts and ability to pivot and dig in on your unique role. It also proves they have served other companies known for being equally uncompromising on their talent. Ask for a search list and see how it stacks up. If you like what you see, ask for those folks as references (see below). However, if their focus is extremely narrow and/or you’re not impressed with the other brands, be very skeptical.

On the second point, I’d be wary of any firm that says “we know everyone in this space.” I know this goes against everything we’ve been told about search firms, but as someone who has hired *thousands* of people over the years — I assure you, this is true because here’s the big secret no search firm wants you to know — finding great candidates usually has nothing to do with “network.” 

If you don’t believe me, look at who actually runs searches at the name big, brand name firms — Associates who are 1–3 years out of college. Now, this wasn’t always true – years ago, when sourcing was all done over the phone and at power lunches and organizations were manually mapped by word of mouth, building a network was critical for success. But things have changed. Today, the “network” is LinkedIn (or other databases you can purchase) and that, combined with hard work, grit and high quality reach outs — network just doesn’t matter anymore, (with, perhaps, the exception of “famous” level candidate searches or where folks aren’t on LinkedIn, like some legal/medical).

More importantly, amazing and underrepresented talent will slip through the cracks if sourcing is based on speciality or network alone. I once chose a search firm solely because they had placed people at big name companies in both of the two industries we wanted to target. And yes, the candidates the firm introduced were from both of those industries. But the firm wasn’t thoughtful about fit and didn’t put in the legwork to find and persuade new or underrepresented candidates. Their candidates were totally average, non-dynamic, B players — carbon copies of each other — and were clearly lined up from previous searches from the firm’s existing “network.” They weren’t right for us. So if you pick a firm who relies heavily on network, you’ll see all the usual suspects and low hanging fruit, but you may miss out on the perfect candidate for your team and underrepresented candidates that aren’t part of their “network”. 


3. Dig in and don’t rely on brand. 

Someone from a big firm told me they don’t have to pitch and fight for searches. The partner is “the guy” in the space and works at “the firm” and the searches fall into their lap. This person also told me this partner spends no time on the searches themselves, just closes new clients and sometimes candidates. For the amount a retained search costs, you deserve an experienced, accountable thought partner who is going to help you solve this business critical problem and is going to be in the trenches with you until it’s done. So, regardless of brand, speciality or network, do your due diligence on the firm and your specific liaison or partner. Interview them — ask about the team vs. their role in the process, ask how much they will be involved. And if they tell you “people take our calls, because we are xx”, be wary – because, today, candidates respond based on the quality and presentation of the opportunity (ask for examples!), not the name or brand of the person sending it. If you don’t believe me, think of a time you have been recruited – have you ever replied to a message just because of who sent it? I certainly haven’t.


4. Hire a firm that can provide value where you need it

  • Assess knowledge and judgement
  • Do not hire a “yes” person. Hire someone smart, scrappy and concise who you want to spend time talking to and strategizing with.

As I mentioned above, you want to hire someone whose judgement you trust on everything about this search. To assess that – ask them about your actual hard problems such as:

  • How they determine compensation that is competitive externally, but internally equitable for a company at your stage
  • How they confidentiality if there is a person in the seat
  • Whether and how to include the team that reports to this role in the process
  • How to attract a diverse slate of folks and their experience using the “Rooney Rule”and other strategies to engage underrepresented talent
  • How they can help create a consistent, efficient, structured, high quality, unbiased interview assessment that gets you an answer you are confident in
  • How they design a custom closing strategy and negotiate an offer
  • How to ensure the broader team is bought in on your final decision

Also, hire a partner that isn’t afraid to push back and strategize with you. When I was in-house, I once worked on a search where the role was clearly under-leveled. We would have calls with the manager, and our external search partner would thoughtfully try to explain this problem. Afterwards, she always called me to strategize on how to influence the leader to up-level the role. She was dedicated to getting the leader to the right answer vs. just telling him what he wanted to hear and this is what got the role filled. This is the type of partnership we should be paying for, not the folks that just slog through candidate bios in bi-weekly search calls.


5. Align on capacity and expectations. Don’t ask how long it will take them to fill the search.

Find out how many folks will be dedicated to this search and what their search load is right now. Find out how soon you can expect to see candidates. Anything more than 1–2 weeks is a red flag on capacity. Align on what to expect in the write up and calls. To me, calls should be focused on strategizing and unblocking and discussing talent pools or pre-closing great candidates, NOT just a run through of backgrounds and next steps.

Do not ask how long it should take to fill the search, and be wary of any search firm that gives you a clear timeline. How long it takes to close a search usually has much more to do with internal factors (alignment among stakeholders, clarity of the need, etc) and candidate specific considerations (interest, availability) than the firm’s speed and volume. If you are concerned about speed and volume of candidates, ask about that in references.


6. Insist on reviewing calibration candidates.

After an initial call to provide context, ask the firm to send you 10 candidates and their opinions on them. Finding 10 perfect folks (which takes time) is less important than the firm’s assessment of the candidates. Do they understand what is good and what is bad about these candidates for you? Does their opinion match yours? This is critical and a huge indicator of success.


7. Get some proof – materials, examples and references.

Ask for examples such as spec & assessment design, example of candidate reach outs, etc. Then, perform references. Ask if the search was filled, how long it took and why (was the search firm slow to produce or was the company slow), candidate volume, quality, speed, responsiveness, partner involvement, quality of advice on issues discussed above, were they satisfied overall, and would they hire them again. Ask them to rank them 1-10 and if they don’t give them a 10/10, ask what they could have done that would have scored them a 10. Push, dig in, and listen for any hesitation in their voice.


And that’s it. Hopefully, this demystifies the search for search process and provides some structured guidance on how to make a great partnership decision. Happy hunting!