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Making Search Effective

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 12th November 2021. Revised 17th June 2022.

7 min read

Telescope Lake daniel-lerman-fr3YLb9UHSQ-unsplashExecutive search and recruitment agencies abound. The industry is vibrant but unfortunately that doesn’t mean all of the players are good at search. Search needs some careful planning and thought and plenty of time – and mostly that’s not done by the present players. It’s not just about dipping into databases and advertising on jobs boards.

Here we set out three key issues where agencies need to improve.

First, we argue that search criteria need to be developed from a quality job description provided to the search firm by the hiring firm. In today’s search firms, that just not done.

Second, we consider that bias should be guarded against so that transferable skills and diversity are embraced. The way search agents are tasked naturally narrows searches.

And thirdly we argue that the time for which a vacancy is open, and the number of hours spend on search, has a major bearing on the numbers and quality of applicants. Search agencies are just not remunerated towards the right outcome.

Recruitment agents will typically call their client for a brief. Often, they will assemble the brief by interviewing the departing incumbent and the line managers to whom the job reports. Those interviews will be full of bias and will lack structure. Incumbents will give their personal view, rather than the focussed organisation view.

What a job is to achieve over the coming years is something that demands careful analysis and thought. And that’s not something that should be done on an hour’s telephone call with the agent. Modelling is the best approach. The job model can then be circulated and agreed before any agent gets involved.

Often agents ask lots of questions about what sort of person the organisation needs. They get in return a layman’s interpretation. Unless they are skilled in psychology, those layman’s terms are needs like ‘self-starting’ and ‘highly motivated’. Whatever those mean!

Because Your People MatterLay terms like ‘highly motivated’ can’t be searched for. The more one thinks about the term, the more absurd it becomes. At the search stage, surely everyone is ‘highly motivated’ – or are we leaving the search agent to apply their bias in sifting?

The missing link here is the job description (JD). A good job description will determine the responsibilities and accountabilities that define the job. An organisational psychologist will then be able to determine from those responsibilities and accountabilities the competencies and behaviours needed to do well in the job.

Once the JD data is available, it can be analysed to ask, ‘where do we look for someone like that’, and ‘what search terms should we use’?

Search terms are developed from the competencies and behaviours. For example, we could surmise that a management accounting qualification, or experience in lieu, might be necessary to set up and manage a budget. Likewise, we might surmise that several years at section head level responsible for significant group of people might qualify someone to be able to lead a team. Of course, there’s nothing certain about those claims. That’s why we use the term, ‘surmise’. That’s all to be proven at the selection stage. For now, we just need to know where to look and what to search for in CVs.

Here’s a set of search criteria for a CEO job as example.

• Have built strategies.
• Have built plans and programmes.
• Have adjusted plans and taken corrective action.
• Have domain knowledge
• Have hired and dismissed people.
• Have developed people.
• Have led a senior management team.
• Have worked in a customer-facing environment.
• Have managed significant numbers of staff.

These can be matched to claims on candidate CVs. There are no pseudo-psychological terms there. Just tangible terms allowing the search agent to ask, ‘have you…’. If the answer’s yes, the search target might be a viable candidate.

The search agent can then add more tangibles like geography, salary, domain qualifications and likely necessary experience. Again, things like domain knowledge can be left as a claim at the search stage. There’s no need to verify. That comes later.

That then leaves the search agent with two huge questions: where and how do I search?

Let’s deal with ‘where’ first.

There’s so much said about transferrable skills. There’s also so much said today about the desirability of diversity. Yet, when dealing with search agents, bias is prevalent. If the search agent neither understands nor believes in transferrable skills, the search will focus in the client’s domain alone. Likewise, if the search agent can’t identify their bias and if they apply their own beliefs there will be no diversity. They must ignore their beliefs. They must only use the data in the JD.

It’s always easiest for a bonus-driven search agent to go after what they know rather than use the JD to develop a unique, objective search. However, if the search agent can focus only on the person needed to do the job as determined by the search criteria from the JD, transferrable skills and diversity will be enabled. If bias is blocked, all sorts of candidates from all sorts of sources will emerge.

And now the crunch. How should the search be done?

First, there’s the time for the search and adverts.

There’s a simple analogy to illustrate the issues here. On a summer’s night, if you were to leave a light on in a room and open the window, bugs would come in and dance round the light. The longer you leave the light on, the more and bigger diversity of bugs you’ll get in.

Likewise, in search, the longer you search and advertise, the more candidates you’ll unearth and the better chance you’ll have of finding good candidates. Unfortunately, the search agencies get paid a percentage of between 10 and 15% of the job salary, and generally that only allows something like 30 hours of search for an operative job, rising to 70 hours for a senior job. And that’s if all the fee goes to fund the search.

Unfortunately, search firms work on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. If the search agency is successful in one in three assignments, the available hours must be factored. That means just 20 hours available for a senior job – and that is in no way enough. From experience, we consider that around 200 hours is needed to search to find candidates for a CEO role.

Translated to elapsed time, and allowing the search agent to be multi-tasking on three or four searches at once, that allows that proverbial window to be open for just three weeks. Again, this is in no way long enough.

The way search agencies are remunerated unfortunately acts against getting an adequate number of good candidates. Search agents are typically paid commission or bonus to get the job done quickly. And that’s just nuts.

So adequate time must be allowed with adequate search hours. And ‘adequate’ needs to be determined and costed from the outset. Many firms identify this issue. As an example, to find good candidates, many progressive firms run continuous search. They genuinely always have jobs open and are continually interviewing.

Continuous search takes more than 10-15% of salary for a single job, but then many firms consider that the return on investment is worth the real cost paid.

There’s so much wrong with the current search industry. However, the three issues we discuss here are easily resolved. Quality, objective search criteria come from a good JD. An understanding of, and agreement from the outset on, diversity and transferable skills will ensure the widest candidate field. And a change from percentage no-win, no-fee to cost-based pricing will maximise the number of good candidates.

Success comes if the hiring firm drives the search and doesn't just take what the search firm offers.