How to Hunt for a Headhunter

Experts and finance chiefs supply tips about paying recruiters, retaining them, and choosing between the boutiques and the big names.

Most CFOs leave the job of finding prospective search firms to the human resources department for the more general finance positions, such as controller. But when looking for specialists, such as vice president of tax, many turn to word-of-mouth recommendations among fellow CFOs and industry experts.

That’s how CFO Robert Doyle settled on Spencer Stuart in a search for a chief information officer search for Coinmach Service Corp., a provider of coin-operated laundry services which took in $539 million in revenues for the fiscal year ended March 31. After interviewing several prospective search firms, Doyle checked references independently — “not the ones they provided,” he stresses. He compared notes with industry colleagues who had experience with similar searches. “The name Spencer Stuart just kept coming up,” says Doyle.

He believes he made the right choice. What the firm had going for it was an ability to evaluate personalities to find a candidate who would complement the team at Coinmach. “I wanted to hire someone that fit into the organization,” says Doyle. Representatives of the recruiter visited the Plainview, New York, headquarters several times to get to know the company and its culture even before proposing candidates. Ultimately, Spencer Stuart presented the candidate Coinmach hired, which Doyle considers one of the best hires the company has made.

Although it seems like an obvious move to pick a big-name search firm like Spencer Stuart to help fill a key position, that may not be so. “The best [recruiters] I’ve worked with have not been big names,” notes Wine.com’s Belchers. “Small and boutique-y is sometimes better.”

Nanosphere’s Wasko agrees: “All a big recruiting organization brings is more contacts and [therefore] probably a somewhat bigger resume pool.” While such an advantage can be helpful in a search, the CFO says, he’s skeptical that it’s enough to outweigh the benefits of a smaller firm.

A boutique can deliver more personalized service because of a lighter volume in assignments, some feel. Belchers says the search consultant he works with checks in with him regularly, even when there isn’t a search going on. That gives the consultant an understanding of the company that helps him present the most appropriate candidates when the need arises.

Ultimately, though, users agree, the quality of the search doesn’t hinge on the size or reputation of the search firm but on the efforts of the individual recruiter. While Doyle worked with Spencer Stuart, a major-league search firm, he advises: “Make sure the people you interview are the specific recruiters on the search.” When they do such interviews, experts say, they should look for certain qualities in the recruiter:

Industry experience. You want a search partner who understands your company and your business and has a comprehensive pool of contacts.

Original thinking. Belchers notes that he doesn’t want a recruiter who will bring him only the usual suspects from within his company’s industry; he likes a recruiter with ideas for fresh prospects. Fresh ideas and an address book to match are, after all, largely what you’re paying a headhunter for.

Good references. These should be checked out even if the prospective search firm is a big gun. “Don’t just rely on reputation,” warns Jonathan Schiff, who runs the Institute for Finance Training and Development. Have the recruiters really completed the searches they claim, or are they exaggerating their experience?

Top-quality service. Wasko say the three key measures of service quality are “timeliness, response, and organization of response.” Musts to avoid, on the other hand, are recruiters who wait for clients to call for an update, are passive and not proactive, and are not fully engaged in the search. For example, says Belcher “I would not hire a recruiter who doesn’t ask to meet the rest of the management team.”

A firm grasp of the client’s culture. “A good recruiter discerns what’s not on paper in the job description; he’s a good judge of fit in the intangibles of the search,” says Wasko.

No conversation about finding the right headhunter is complete without mention of networking. “Ask around,” says Belcher. “It’s important to find someone who’s a good fit for you.” He should know about networking for a search partner. The recruiter he retains is the same one who placed him in a previous CFO position.

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