Executive Recruitment Best Practices Across the Hiring Life Cycle

By Michael Lemmer

2020 has been a challenging year for many — a global pandemic, increased calls for social justice, and let’s not forget that climate change is still an issue! While some organizations have thrived, others continue to struggle. It’s clear that having the right executive leadership team in place is more important than ever if you want your company to survive.

As a result, executive recruitment has taken center stage in a new way this year. And now is a great time to ensure you’re equipped with the most up-to-date knowledge to hire the best leaders.

Since I’ve been working in the executive recruitment space for 13 years, I wanted to offer a few tips to help anyone looking to strengthen their approach. This blog will cover:

  • How executive search differs from regular recruitment.
  • Tips for excelling in executive recruitment, and
  • What the future of the field looks like.

But first, let’s start with the basics and define what executive recruitment is.

What is executive recruitment?

Executive recruitment is focused on attracting highly skilled and experienced senior leaders to fill strategically important roles within an organization. The types of roles that typically fall under an executive search include CEO and other C-suite titles, presidents, general managers, vice presidents, and directors.

What you need to know about the executive recruitment lifecycle

While executive recruitment may seem like any other search — where you focus on finding the best fit between talent and an organization’s needs — the steps you take to arrive at an accepted offer are quite different. To break it down, I’ve contrasted the differences in a search throughout each step in the recruitment cycle:

1. Preparation

The preparation or intake process for an executive search can be more involved than a non-executive search. There is often less focus on job-specific details and more discussion around company outlook, overall business trends and strategies, and long-term forecasts.

That isn’t to say that fundamental role requirements are ignored — they are still very important — but they are given proportionally less time during the course of an intake meeting. Instead, prospective candidates will want to know what the bigger picture looks like when evaluating a new opportunity.

Whereas with other roles, the focus is typically only on the direct manager, with executive leadership roles the rest of the leadership team is really important too. The makeup of the rest of the exec team, the board of directors, and/or advisory board will be a significant talking point. You need to be able to speak to each of those individuals, their background, approach, outlook, and the role they play in the business.

2. Sourcing

When sourcing talent for an executive search, you will rely heavily on your network of senior connections, and you may even employ a researcher to help with identifying individuals at target organizations that could be suitable matches.

It’s important that you are targeting the correct individuals, as you want to make sure not to waste anyone’s time by contacting them with inappropriate opportunities. Otherwise, you can do some damage to your organization’s employer brand with this important talent segment, which is not what you want to see happen!

Be prepared to spend a little more time on sourcing for these types of roles. This is pretty normal since the volume of suitable candidates for an executive search is significantly lower than for non-executive roles, so the research and sourcing step is much more time intensive.

At ML6, we often fill our executive roles through in-network referrals that we’ve developed over many years working in the talent acquisition world. To help facilitate these referrals, a significant part of our sourcing strategy involves sharing the story with our network and asking them if it sounds like a business and role that would resonate with someone in their broader network.

3. Interview and Selection

The interview and selection process for executive searches often involve more steps, because candidates will likely need to meet with leaders from cross-functional areas throughout the business. In addition to an expanded interview process, they also often include leadership, psychometric, and sometimes even medical assessments (yes, that’s correct) in order to help determine the best candidate for the role.

Because executive recruitment is such a time consuming process for our clients, we want to ensure we’re only presenting them with candidates who we have already thoroughly pre-assessed.

At ML6, we often have several conversations with a prospective candidate before determining whether they should be included on the shortlist presented to our client. These conversations allow us to fully confirm a candidate’s interest in the role, answer questions that pop up (from the candidate, the client, and us), and ensures no stone is left unturned before we make the recommendation.

This due diligence process often pushes the process out by several weeks.

4. Offer

Executive offers are quite complex compared to non-executive roles. This is generally due to the expanded compensation and benefits plans that are exclusive to executive level roles, such as signing bonuses to account for unpaid bonuses or forfeited equity, enhanced severance clauses, as well as very thorough non-competes.

It’s not uncommon for these negotiations to take several weeks — or even months! There are also factors like career progression, transformational projects, and short- mid- and long-term objectives that are discussed, and must be agreed upon, prior to an offer being accepted.

5. Onboarding

Sometimes, an executive onboarding plan outlines what the entire first year for a new hire will look like. There is so much more to learn and become familiar with when ramping up for a role that oversees an entire business unit (or multiple units), that it’s not uncommon for a new executive to take up to a year before they are operating at full capacity.

Our team often supports organizations with the development of these onboarding plans and ensures that all objectives outlined during the intake process are captured by a comprehensive integration plan. While we do the same for non-executive hires, the ramp-up period is typically 90 days for regular hires versus 365 days for executive hires.

Using an internal talent acquisition team versus an external search firm

More and more, we’re seeing that executive recruitment is being handled by external search firms. This is because with the heavy reliance on networking and research, it can often be quite tricky for an internal TA team to dedicate the amount of resources required to effectively complete executive search assignments, in addition to the high volume of other specialized roles they likely have on their plates.

Some organizations do have dedicated internal executive TA teams, which is a step in the right direction; but, in my opinion, it still doesn’t provide the same ROI as partnering with external search partners who specialize in senior talent. However, what’s great about ML6 is that our model is to operate as a strategic partner — like an extension of our clients’ teams. We don’t exist to compete with in-house TA teams, we’re here to lessen the load to ensure they can focus on other high-value tasks and hire as efficiently as possible.

Another consideration which I believe is adding to the increase in the use of external partners for executive search is that executive roles can also be sensitive.  Outsourcing to a trusted partner ensures that your executive searches remain confidential. External partners can also tell a client’s story and generate excitement before revealing the client’s name. On the other hand, if an in-house recruiter is conducting an executive search, it’s clear upfront which organization they’re coming from. 

This also has employer brand implications if your company doesn’t have the best brand on the market currently. With an external partner, an executive candidate is  more likely to respond and you can position the opportunity to get them excited before revealing the organization. This means you can control the narrative and counteract any negative preconceived notions that might exist. In other words,a search firm can dispel rumours, focus on the organization’s future rather than the past, and build excitement with candidates who may have otherwise been uninterested!

3 quick tips for executive search newbies

And lastly, if you are keen to take on an executive search yourself, but don’t have a lot of experience recruiting for this level of role yet, here are a few quick tips I’d recommend to succeed here:

Newbie tip #1: Identify what unique value proposition you have to offer

Executives are busy, and the fastest way to turn them off is to waste their time — so make sure that you have something that is worth their while. That could be several different things: insight into industry/market trends, access to an exclusive network, career advice, potential future opportunities, or current opportunities.

Newbie tip #2: Be your authentic self

Very few people make it up the ranks into an executive role without being able to “suss out” when someone is putting on a façade to sell something. They will see right through you and will quickly break down your walls if you can’t back up what you’re pitching to them.

Newbie tip #3: Be prepared to have tough conversations

Don’t brush off your concerns or doubts about a client or candidate. Making a career move is a big decision and as you progress in your career, there are fewer roles, so the decision is heightened and is never taken lightly by the client or the candidate.

Executive search (and recruitment in general) is an incredibly exciting space to be. There are very few jobs out there that give you such broad exposure to so many businesses and industries. Not only do we learn about all these businesses, what makes them tick, how they monetize their product, etc.; we also get to peel back the onion and see the inner workings, the human dynamics at play, and what it takes to be successful.

As mentioned though — as rewarding as executive recruitment can be — for many organizations it doesn’t make sense to execute on this senior-level search in-house, because of capacity limitations or confidentiality issues. If that’s the case at your organization, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. We’d love to act as an extension of your team and guide the strategic recruitment of your next all-star leader.

About ML6

ML6 is a recruitment and talent advisory firm located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). We provide customized solutions to support our clients throughout the employee lifecycle. We help our clients attract and retain talent by advising on people programs, processes, and best practices.