IT hiring: 5 truths about executive search firms

Looking to fill a key IT leadership role? If you're retaining a search firm for help, here's what you need to know
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So you’ve decided to use a retained executive search firm to fill a technology leadership role. Perhaps you’ve collected a list of firms to consider from your personal network, your head of HR, and your talent acquisition team.

Like many employers, you might then narrow your list to three firms, ask each one to pitch, and review each firm’s track record, processes, and fees. But this is an important hire – how can you be confident you’re choosing the right firm to partner with?

It’s all about asking the right questions. Consider these truths to help you identify the right hiring partner.

1. The person you talk to may not be the person who recruits for you

When you meet with an executive search firm, you’ll likely speak with the most senior person on the team – the partner. This will be the person with whom you’ll interface throughout the search. They will be your guide and your consultant each step of the way.

[ What skills matter now? Read also: IT careers: 10 critical skills to master in 2021. ]

But typically, there is someone else behind the scenes representing you and reaching out to candidates on your behalf. You should know that person, too. Learn how they will be representing you and how they attract and qualify talent. Ask to meet the entire search team during the pitch. How you’re being represented matters and it should play into your decision.

2. You're not their only client

The last thing you want is to pay a search firm a lot of money and feel like you’re their last priority. Ask the search team how many searches they have running and if they have the capacity to take on another client. Make sure that your position is as important to the search firm as it is to you.

3. Search firms can't recruit from their other clients

Generally speaking, search firms can’t recruit from companies with whom they work, and they sign contracts stating this. Sometimes this applies only to a specific department or function, other times the entire enterprise is off limits. This is where it gets tricky.

If a search firm tells you that they work with your competitors, they may not be able to represent candidates from those companies. Ask for their off-limits list up front. Know which companies they can’t include in the search.

4. Their track record should reflect more than titles

Over the past five years or so, many companies have starting to look for technology talent outside their industry. They view their direct competition as behind the times and want innovation.

Tech recruiting used to be a game of musical chairs – industry mattered. Not so much anymore.

Tech recruiting used to be a game of musical chairs – industry mattered. Not so much anymore. Search firms will talk up their track record, boasting of where they placed people and what their titles are. Take the time to also find out where they recruit from.

Present your role and ask for their approach: How have they have approached roles like this in the past? Also, carefully consider the questions they ask you. For example, if you’re looking for a head of machine learning, do they take the time to understand how data is organized at your firm? Do they ask about your data journey? What sort of companies would they target for you and why?

This isn’t about looking for titles. It’s about finding the right hire in a market where titles are ambiguous.

5. Recruiting diverse talent is a partnership

Many clients look to search firms to solve their diversity needs. Ask the firm for their diversity track record and their process. Have they placed diverse technology candidates? What is their approach? Listen for a partnership: They should work with you on your employer brand, interview process, and requirements to ensure that you’re positioned to attract a diverse range of talent.

[ Want advice on how to reach a wider range of candidates? Read How to build a more diverse IT team. ]

For example, if you state that you will only consider candidates with X degree from companies AB, and C, you are likely limiting your candidate pool from day one. The search firm should be honest and consultative with you about this instead of simply agreeing to such criteria. If realistic expectations aren’t set up front, your search will be inefficient and take far longer than it should.

What will they do for you?

Selecting the right search firm to partner with is an important decision. Take the time to understand each search firm’s process, strategy, and track record. Ensure that you are being represented well in the market and that your position is their priority. Asking the right questions of your recruiting partners will help ensure a smooth process and a successful hire.

[ What are the key trends in IT talent? Read the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

Somer Hackley is the Founder and CEO of Distinguished Search, a retained executive search firm that launched February 2020.  Her focus is functional: technology, data, product and digital, across all industries.  Somer went off on her own to get back to what she loves: working with fewer clients and providing a high touch service.