4 Questions to Ask to Select the Best Executive Search Firm

by: Atta Tarki  & Gustav Brown


Selecting the right executive search firm can be almost as difficult as finding the right candidate for the job. As insiders in the recruiting world, our friends have often asked us to help them select a hiring vendor when we were not the right partner for them. By and large, they’ve been surprised to see how differently we evaluate their potential executive search partners than they would.


The problem is: many hiring managers just don’t know how to evaluate external recruiters. Here are a few common pitfalls we’ve observed and a few questions you can ask to make a more informed decision.


The Common Approach – and Why it Doesn’t Really Work

When evaluating external recruiters, most hiring managers start by asking: “how many placements have you made in our industry?” The assumption here is that an agency that gets what you do will be more likely to find someone who fits your needs.


On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. If the agency has worked in your industry, presumably they understand what companies like yours value. They should have a network in place and a positive reputation among potential candidates. But it’s not as good a question as it seems at first glance.


First, the roles (or needs) of those previous searches may have been significantly different from yours. Put it this way: just because an agency placed a technical Project Manager at a software company doesn’t mean they can find the right Chief Financial Officer or Director of Marketing in the same industry. In many cases, placements by function or title are a better predictor of the recruiter’s ability to understand your needs than by industry.


Second, what you are trying to understand is how repeatable their success rate is. How often does their process end up with clients hiring someone they are happy with? The firm might have relied on their rolodex to place a CFO  in New York City, but this doesn’t mean they can do the same and find you a candidate in Chicago.


This is why it’s important that you take a look under the hood and try to understand how they intend to find you a great candidate.


A Better Approach – Understanding How your External Recruiter Works

In the old days, external recruiters kept their methods opaque; their main bragging point was the size of their rolodex. Don’t get us wrong, the rolodex approach used to be valuable because it used to be extremely difficult and time-consuming to find people with the right skillset. After all, this information in most cases was confidential or difficult to access. But access to candidate data through LinkedIn and other platforms, as well as advances in the use of data analytics, have transformed the game.


Building off of these digital revolutions, the best recruiters have transformed their value proposition. These recruiters rely less on their own rolodexes and instead create value by helping hiring managers understand how they can structure a search to increase their chances of success. These recruiters also use repeatable methods for finding candidates, engaging with them, and evaluating them. And finally, savvy recruiters will help hiring managers stay on top of the hiring process and create a positive candidate experience – which increases the likelihood that desired candidates will accept an offer.



In this context, HR managers have unprecedented options – but also, potentially, unprecedented insight into how recruiters do business. The choices may seem dizzying at times, but if you ask the right questions, you can make a more informed decision than ever before.


4 Questions to Ask to Select the Right External Recruiter

1. What resources are they dedicating to your search?

The first question you want to ask a recruiter is how much of their time you are getting. Some search firms will fully dedicate a recruiter to your search. Others will split a recruiter’s time across 6-12 searches. This is obviously cost-effective to the search firm but comes at a cost in what they can deliver. We’ve seen a number of recruiting firms to dance around requests from clients trying to understand how much of the recruiters’ time is dedicated to their search. These recruiters will say things like “it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality” or “we know everyone in this space, so it won’t take us long to source these profiles.” What makes these statements powerful is that there is some level of truth in them. However, in the end of the day if someone is splitting their time across too many searches, either the number of candidates they reach will drop or the quality of the profiles they source will decline. Either way, you are worse off.


As a company that has a database with over 100,000 management consulting resumes, we know that it’s not just about pulling up a list and mass-blasting them all with an email. Each recruitment search will require a customized approach that can only be achieved if your recruiter is dedicating enough of their time to you.


So ask your recruiter: “how many searches are you (or the person you are staffing on my search) running?” and “For how long do I have X% of your recruiter’s time on the search?” While it’s normal for senior-level recruiters to split their time on a few searches, you want a significant amount of one of the team members’ time to be dedicated to your search.


2. Are they a valuable thought partner?

The role of the recruiter in talent acquisition has changed in a similar way as that of a good medical doctor. Both professions previously often used a black-box approach and their advice was taken at face value. Now, a good doctor will inform you about your choices and give you the pros and cons of each choice. Patients can then make an informed decision that’s right for them.


Similarly, a good recruiter will help hiring managers to understand what the expected outcome of various recruiting strategies are – but let hiring managers choose the strategy that’s right for them. Of course, you can still get lucky and find a great candidate by following a less viable strategy. However, as in any other field, you want to make the decision that is most likely to produce the desired result.


This is why it’s important that you select a recruiter that can be a valuable thought partner to your talent acquisition strategy. Does this recruiter understand your needs? If so, can they help you (a) define the role mandate and (b) understand how that mandate translates to the skills and traits you want in a candidate? From here, you can ascertain whether this translates to a clear search profile.


3. How are they sourcing and engaging talent?

You aren’t hiring an external recruiter just to come up with a strategy, but to help you execute on strategy. How do they plan to do that – will their recruiting team search for this profile systematically and thoroughly in a scalable way, or do they employ a “black box” approach? If you ask a recruiter how they find and engage candidates, and they respond with “we know everyone in that industry,” you’ll do yourself a favor by politely thanking them for their time and keep looking for another recruiter.


The black box approach can work sometimes, but it’s extremely hard to evaluate effectiveness if there are no clear hiring methods. You can’t understand what has gone wrong when things don’t work out, and you can’t replicate success when they do.


As a general rule, transparent and replicable models are extremely valuable. That way, if you don’t get immediate results, you can collaborate to understand what went wrong and how to expand the search strategy going forward.


For example, ask how are they sourcing – from a pre-defined “rolodex” of vetted contacts or systematically across a broad pool of candidates that fit the agreed-upon search profile? How many candidates can you expect them to source in a given week? How are they engaging with the talent and what conversion rates can you expect, i.e., how many of the candidates they reach out to typically express interest in the role?


4. Can the agency help you predict on-the-job success?

The hardest thing to do in recruiting is predict on-the-job success, but a good external recruiter can help you do so with much more accuracy. The questions you need to ask are: how do they plan to do so, and are they capable of delivering on that promise? How do they help you screen candidates in a more transparent way?


Again, you want your recruiter to help you understand their recruiting method so that if you were to follow the same process and ask the same questions, you’d come to the same conclusion as themScreening questions should have a clear right and a wrong answer.


Watch out for recruiters who don’t use a standardized approach to screening candidates or who tell you “there is no right or wrong answer” to their interview questions. These recruiters screen candidates using “I’ll know it when I see it” type intuition. You want to listen to their advice as much as you want to listen to the advice of a doctor who just relies on their intuition as opposed to trying to follow an evidence-based approach.


There’s no silver bullet when it comes to choosing an external recruiter. On the one hand, even the best, most carefully chosen firms sometimes fail to find the right candidate for their clients. Meanwhile, fly-by-night operations can sometimes get lucky – as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. But by asking the right questions and making informed selections, you can greatly improve the chances of a hire – ultimately driving value for your company.



Atta Tarki is the founder and CEO of ECA Partners, a 120 person data-driven project staffing and executive search firm, and the author of the upcoming book Evidence-Based Recruiting (McGraw Hill, February 2020). Prior to starting ECA Partners, Atta spent 6 years as a management consultant at L.E.K. Consulting.
Gustav Brown is an Engagement Manager with ECA Partners, where he helps private equity, consumer goods, and entertainment companies identify and fulfill their talent needs. Prior to ECA Partners, Gustav was a Fellow with the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute – where his work focused on the hiring practices and community outreach protocols of international NGOs. Gustav received his Ph.D. in Sociology from UCLA.
Atta Tarki & Gustav Brown

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