3 Ways to Safeguard Against an Executive Search Failure

Having the right leadership team in place is essential for private equity firms in “normal” times—but during a pandemic, leaving an executive position vacant for an extended period of time can be devastating to the continued success of a portfolio company and detrimental to its employees’ morale. And the cost of hiring the wrong candidate can compound the already significant hard and soft costs of leaving a position open too long.

The costs associated with failed searches include lost time and expenses due to onboarding and training; extra time and energy spent managing poor performance; a drain on productivity from disrupted projects; stress and negative impact on team morale; risks of diminished customer service; and increased risk of legal fees from unlawful termination or discrimination claims.

At Madison Gunn, we’ve heard too many stories of failed searches from new clients who come to us feeling frustrated and out of options. Fortunately, it’s possible to turn a bad search around—and with the right knowledge and resources, you can prevent one altogether.

The majority of the time, an executive search fails for one of a few different reasons. Below, we break down the most common reasons executive searches fail, along with our advice to help you mitigate the risk of running into these issues in your own searches.

1. A lack of experience in finding the right fit.

An executive search can deeply suffer when the search associates responsible for sourcing executive talent lack the experience needed to identify the right fit for a client. Many firms task their very new or junior-level search associates with talking to CEOs or CFOs of Fortune 500 companies, rather than seasoned search professionals with the necessary skillset and knowledge to ask the right questions, understand the needs and pain points, and effectively and appropriately manage these often complex conversations. In addition, many firms don’t have the experience to know the markers of success (or failure) in executive candidates, and aren’t factoring in both hard and soft skills, emerging skills as a result of the pandemic, and culture fit with a particular organization.

When this happens, real opportunities to identify and engage the right executives for a particular role can be missed, and either a candidate who isn’t the right fit will be recommended for the role—or the search will come up empty.

The remedy:

Avoid this pitfall by instead putting your executive search in the hands of seasoned professionals with extensive market knowledge. They’re committed to taking your story to the farthest corners of the market on a full-time basis and they’re engaging with the best executives in your targeted talent pool often, and in a variety of creative ways. Finding the right staffing firm to showcase your opportunity and handle the intricacies of executive conversations throughout the course of the hiring process can mean the difference between success and failure in your executive search.

The firm’s associates should be experts in search and have extensive experience working with the C-suite. They can ask, and answer, executive candidates’ tough and honest questions about their potential employer and are able to have necessary conversations with candidates. They’re also able to determine any candidate or client issues that may stand in the way of success, and remove roadblocks whenever possible.

At Madison Gunn, our relationships are at the heart of everything we do. We act as an extension of your business, and we treat our clients’ searches as we would our own. Our search experts’ extensive research and planning to find the best candidates for our clients and the best roles for our talent has led to long-lasting relationships built on mutual trust. Madison Gunn has access to a very large population of talent across the functional roles that we support, including CEO, CFO, CIO, CSO, CRO, CMO, and CHRO.

All of our search associates are seasoned experts, who have more than 22 years of consulting experience and 20 years of retained search experience combined. Our clients don’t worry about who their C-suite candidates are talking to—because they know they’re in the best hands.

2. Delayed and slow executive searches.

When a staffing firm is slow to start a search, it’s often due to a failure to gather necessary information about what the client is seeking or the firm’s lack of time, interest, or experience—or both. Does it seem like the search firm you’re working with is invested in the process and committed to finding you the right candidate, or do you feel like you’re low on their priority list? If the latter is true, it’s time to seriously reconsider your partnership with them. It’s said that time kills all deals, and that’s often true; waiting too long will delay your search further and lead to more lost costs and a much longer time to fill your open position (or a dead search).

Large firms are often overloaded and have limited capacity to give their clients personalized service because they’re simply spread too thin with their client load. Placing candidates often becomes a numbers game, which results in an impersonal and transactional experience. Because of the lack of time and care put into the search, a large conglomerate often presents the wrong fit. This either slows down the process entirely and forces the client to start from scratch, or results in the firm rushing the client and persuading one or both parties into a match they aren’t satisfied with. Completing a search in a pre-determined timeframe doesn’t solve a client’s hiring needs if they’re matched with a poorly suited candidate. A search must be time-efficient, as well as spot-on in terms of skills and culture fit, to be truly successful for a client.

The remedy:

You deserve to be your search firm’s first priority. A boutique search firm is able to establish personal relationships and a level of trust that deepens through time, honest conversations, and proven placement success. Your firm should be involved and engaged in all aspects of the search and hiring process from the very beginning, from defining the search parameters to candidate integration and onboarding. With a solid and extensive network of highly qualified candidates that’s been built over time, they can quickly access their network to produce a selection of the right candidates. This is important, as moving aggressively generally improves the odds of success. If the right steps are taken upfront, including the creation of a detailed job description and an ideal candidate profile, both parties will have a clear and specific understanding of what the client is looking for, and you’ll likely avoid many of the bottlenecks that delay a search that hasn’t had the important information laid out upfront.

At Madison Gunn, every client and candidate we partner with is a true priority—and they’re supported in that capacity. Clients know they can go to anyone on our team, and that each team member can pick right up where someone else left off. We’re familiar with a candidate’s fit for various types of clients, and we communicate with our executive network frequently to understand any changes in their job status or skill set. And because we’ve built strong relationships with our candidates and clients, we’ll likely already know someone perfect for the job when a client approaches us about an executive hiring need, saving both parties a lot of time and minimizing or eliminating the chance of any potential delays.

3. ”No touch” policies.

Though at first glance it may seem like large household-name firms have access to the greatest number of candidates, the opposite is often true. Many larger firms are often limited to the talent they can tap into because of a number of conflicts. “Off-limits restrictions,” or “no touch” policies, can adversely affect your search and severely limit your pool of available executives. These restrictions prevent the firms from recruiting candidates from private equity firms or companies that are already their clients.

These limits can eliminate many potential candidates from your pool and have a detrimental effect on your results. Specialist search firms are especially limited in this regard, as they only cover a small slice of the market. When a firm is working with multiple clients in the same industry as yours, the market can easily get oversaturated with similar clients all vying for the same pool of candidates, and some of the best candidates will be shared with other private equity firms first. Because of off-limits restrictions, if yours happens to be the fifth search that they’re conducting for the same pool of candidates, candidates from the first four ongoing searches may never become eligible to be included in your search, unless the clients before you have all decided to pass on them.

The remedy:

A true search partner owns the process and drives for success on behalf of the candidate and the client, helping to ensure a result that helps both parties reach their objectives: a better or more well-aligned position or career move for the employee, and a desired business result for the client. Finding a firm that only takes on a select number of clients at a time—and that doesn’t engage with similar clients simultaneously—is a sign that their team is made up of professionals who are able to give you their undivided attention and truly care about matching you with the best and brightest talent.

By partnering with an executive search firm that has your best interests at heart, has the time, energy, and interest to make you a priority, and is able to find you the best-fit executives in a timely manner, you can avoid the common pitfalls that some private equity firms run into. By putting the right steps in place for a successful search, finding the right executive will be a seamless experience.

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