40% of Executive Searches Fail

recruitersForty percent of manufacturing products fail quality control – “no concerns.”
Banks happy as 4 of 10 of their loans default.
Software only works 60 percent of the time – tech industry says “good enough.”

Naturally, this is ludicrous and unacceptable, however, all of these types of companies appear to be at ease with the fact that 40 percent of their executive searches fail! These are the searches for the highest echelon of leaders of these companies – the top one percent – yet business executives, board directors, and shareholders are apparently not concerned… or is it that they are just not aware?

Our organization, ESIX (Executive Search Information Exchange), has studied and surveyed corporate executive search practices over the last two decades, and our experience tells us over and over again that, of those searches where the hiring of an external executive was the ultimate goal, 4 of 10 searches fail when no one is looking. This does not mean that an external executive was hired and did not work out – that is a whole different can of worms. No, this means that, even though the company, and most likely an external executive search firm, had the best of intentions of hiring an external leader, the search went awry along the way; took so long that the company ended up hiring an internal leader into the role, probably changing the level or scope of the role to fit the hire; or, the company canceled the search completely and restructured to smooth over the cracks.

However, before we get comments from agitated executive search firm leaders assuming we are criticizing or blaming executive search firms – let us be clear that this is not the case. Instead, we believe – based on data gleaned from 14 years of benchmark surveys and over 200 membership meetings – that the client company is to blame for 70 percent of these failures. In other words, searches fail when executive search activity is not being properly and actively managed by the hiring organization. Without good management, even executive searches that succeed with a placement can take an average of six months. This is as frustrating for the external executive search firm as it is for the client.

Over the years, we have found that organizations which actively manage their executive recruiting activities, the way our ESIX members do, can cut failure rates in half, and reduce cycle times by a third.  While there are a number of best practices we have learned over the years, just as in real estate where everything depends on location, location, location, it is the same in executive recruiting – when boiled down, many of the best practices involve “communication, communication, communication.”

For instance, though we might think of them as rudimentary, two of our best tools are those we sometimes seem to short-change the most - the kick-off meeting, and the position description. The kick-off meeting is the first stage of the consultative relationship, a critical opportunity to get everything on the table and set everyone’s expectations – yet in so many cases we don’t capitalize on that opportunity for a variety of reasons:

  • Some level of fear holding us back from telling truth to power.
  • Too much time spent trying to show value, and not actually adding any value through good consultative questioning.
  • Or, some other reason that we’re not fulfilling our mission of being the true “trusted advisor” that we are expected to be.  (Yes, credit goes to David Maister here).
  • And sometimes, all three.

Similarly, the position description is either given scant attention by everyone and is just another item to check off and shelve, or worse, the client is allowed to shirk their responsibilities and gets the recruiter to do it all, because it’s chalked up as “one of those HR processes.”  Essentially, the position description is the project contract, and if done right, it:

  • Outlines all parties’ understanding of what the role is all about, and is then a discussion guide for the whole interview loop to get on the same page
  • Sets out the top five criteria for the successful candidate, upon which the recruiter builds their candidate comparison grid
  • Describes what success looks like for the candidate themselves, so they know what they are to be measured on

At the same time, let’s be clear that no-one is being paid by the word here, so 10 pages is not better than five. The amount of times I have seen position descriptions written as if executives (hiring managers and candidates) have all the time in the world to read a six-chapter brief to me is excessive. The key is “concise and precise,” especially these days when most things are read on a small screen.

To be clear, I know that I have been at fault of rushing through a kickoff meeting and not holding the client responsible for truly clarifying what the business needs, or been guilty of writing a “VP of War and Peace” position description that misses the most important parts. I have learned my lessons the hard way at the end of a very, very long search, and realized that sometimes we need to revisit the basics.  Properly managing all the aspects of an executive search does take some careful thought, constant oversight, and solid execution which will translate to value and impact for the hiring organization’s shareholders, board, and CEO. 

Image courtesy of www.failepicfail.com

Simon Mullins

Simon Mullins

Simon Mullins facilitates ESIX: Executive Search Information Exchange (www.ESIX.org), a corporate peer networking group with more than 65 member organizations from multiple industries and geographies, whose representatives meet regularly in various cities in the world to build and discuss best practices around executive and leadership recruiting.

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