Perspectives January 10, 2012

6 Insider Secrets to Partnering with Executive Recruiters


The right people are often the difference between success and failure in building companies. For startups, this is doubly true when it comes to executive hires. While co-founders and other early employees might find each other organically, this is rarely the case for executive talent.

For many entrepreneurs, this is the moment of introduction to the unfamiliar world of executive recruitment. Before joining Greylock to help manage executive talent within our network, I spent 14 years in the executive recruitment business. I hope to share a little of what I learned during my career to help entrepreneurs navigate this world.

In coming months, I’ll dive into some of the details of the recruiting process and share some of my favorite stories. Consider this post the Cliff Notes version of what’s to come, covering some, but definitely not all, of the elements of a successful search process.

1)  Think partnership, not outsourcing.

One of the most common mistakes entrepreneurs make is to think that once they’ve hired a search firm, the hard part is over. Unfortunately, executive recruiting is not something that can be outsourced like you might your payroll functions. Instead, you need to be actively involved and plan for it to take a meaningful amount of your time.

Sadly, as with marriages, not all hires work out. The more time you spend on your search, the more likely it is that yours will be one of the successful ones. In fact, I’ve turned down potential clients if it was clear that they didn’t intend to be an intimate part of the process, but were just looking for me to source great people.

2)  Fast-forward two years.

Before you even talk to a recruiter, you need to clearly define the sort of executive you are looking for. Jump forward a year or two, and articulate what a successful hire ought to have accomplished in that time.  Use this to put together a draft version of a position profile.

Early in your search, take the time to see what “Best in Class” looks like. While everyone thinks they can immediately spot first-rate talent, until you see a few in the flesh, you’re operating in the dark. Whether through your investors or your recruiter, meet with someone who is widely considered among the very best in the field. These early, potentially “ungettable” candidates help you calibrate your ideal profile for the job.  Remember, these individuals are not necessarily the bar.  You have to keep in mind your company’s stage and what you want this person to accomplish over the next few years. You’re trying to mitigate the risk of passing on the right person because you didn’t know what to look for.

3)  Don’t plan for lucky; it takes a while.

The day your A Round funding is announced, you’ll probably be swamped with calls from recruiters who want to help you with hiring immediately. Unfortunately, the very best recruiters are typically already engaged in searches and, on average, take 3-4 weeks to free up for a new search unless you get lucky and catch them at the right time. A talented, busy recruiter will typically be running somewhere between three and five concurrent searches.

Once the recruiter you’ve chosen becomes available, expect the process to take between three and six months. This might seem like a lot of time. But when you consider the years you will spend with your hire, and how harmful a bad fit can be, you’ll understand why it’s almost always time well spent.  It is possible to get lucky and have the search take less time, but don’t plan on it.

4)  Find the right person and process.

Every search firm can show you a fancy list of companies and executives they’ve worked with. But you need to know much more. You’re looking for a recruiter who you feel confident in as a representative of your company and who lays out a search process that you feel comfortable with. Ask yourself whether you will want to spend the hours on the phone with them on update calls, or how you’d feel if you were the candidate and they were selling you on the company and position. Do you feel good about the knowledge they demonstrate of what a successful search looks like, and how they walked you through their process?

5)  Listen for the why and the objections.

During your weekly status meetings with the recruiter, remember that you’re paying your search firm not just to come up with a list of names, but to also have a strongly informed opinion. Which candidates do they think are the strongest and best fit? And, of course, why? This will also help them fine-tune the future candidates they recommend.

Push for an added layer of data as well. Ask which candidates turned them down, and the reasons they said no. Understanding objections and preconceptions is very helpful in how you approach future candidates.  Also, you may learn when a candidate turns down a role for business reasons you feel you can overcome, ask the recruiter to arrange a call for you and the candidate to discuss.

6)  Listen for real references.

Once you’ve got a few candidates who you really like, you’ll want to begin checking references. While this can be a notoriously tricky process, there are tips that can help. A key thing to look for is balance.  You want to ask and look for critical comments about the candidate.  This evidences that the reference is being candid and not acting purely as a cheerleader. You’re looking for as rich a portrait of your candidates as you can get, and you need balanced references to achieve this.

As you can see, executive searches are complex beasts.  Like with everything else, the right preparation, focus and execution can yield terrific results. In future posts, I’ll elaborate on each of these, as well as discussing how to handle the offer process (when and how to give an offer), closing the candidate (much more art than science), and effectively on-boarding the candidate to ensure a smooth transition. Happy recruiting

“The right people are often the difference between success and failure in building companies. For startups, this is doubly true when it comes to executive hires.”