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JUNE 2023

Top Executive Search Firms: How to Choose?

“Shrek” Firm or Boutique: What are the Benefits of Working With a Specialty Firm?


Recruiting for executive roles is a challenging undertaking because of the time, financial investment and high stakes for your organization in selecting a top leader.

You want to find the best candidate with the right skills, experience and knowledge to support the unique requirements of the leadership role, which will help the company grow and flourish. The in-house talent acquisition team may not be equipped with the tools and resources to quickly and efficiently find the top candidates for c-level or executive positions, which can lead to leadership roles that stay open for months.

For these reasons, many organizational leaders turn to executive search firms. The best executive search firms bring with them a rigorous search process, offer discretion and confidentiality, and deliver an excellent, diverse candidate pool.

What is an Executive Search Firm?

An executive search firm is a specialized recruiting agency that helps companies identify and select top talent for executive-level positions. These firms use their extensive networks, recruiting expertise, advanced processes and technology to identify and evaluate candidates that fulfill their clients’ needs.

There are two types of executive search firms: contingent and retained firms. Unlike contingency-based recruitment agencies, which are paid a fee only if a successful placement is made, retained executive search firms are paid an upfront fee for providing their services, regardless of the outcome.

With a retained search, your organization gains the advantage of a highly focused, dedicated search with a greater chance of matching the right candidate.

The positions for a retained search are typically senior leader roles for a c-suite executive search, such as CEOs, CFOs, CHROs, CIOs, and other executives, as well as other high-level management positions such as board directors for a board executive search.

What Does an Executive Search Firm Do?

Executive search firms provide a strategic and consultative approach to executive recruitment, working closely with the client within a structured executive search process to understand their business, organizational culture, and specific requirements for the role. This includes gaining insight into the competencies, experience, leadership style, and personality traits desired in a candidate.

The top executive search firms leverage their extensive networks, industry knowledge, and research capabilities to identify potential candidates. They conduct a rigorous and confidential search process, reaching out to both passive and active candidates, and thoroughly assessing their qualifications, background, and fit for the role. This may involve conducting interviews, reference checks, and in-depth assessments.

Throughout the search process, these firms act as a trusted advisor to both the client and the candidates. They facilitate communication, manage expectations, and provide objective insights and recommendations. They also assist in negotiating compensation packages and ensuring a smooth transition for the selected candidate.

Selecting an Executive Search Firm

When selecting the right executive search firm for your needs, and the best partner for your organization, here are some key criteria to consider:

Industry Expertise

Look for a firm with experience recruiting for executive positions within your industry to be certain they have an understanding of its unique challenges and requirements.

Understanding of Industry Dynamics

An executive search firm that is familiar with your industry will have a deeper understanding of its candidate pool, dynamics, trends and opportunities. They will be well-versed in the specific skills, qualifications, and experiences required for executive positions within your sector. This understanding enables them to assess candidates accurately and identify those who possess the knowledge and competencies needed to excel in the role.

Track Record

Working with an executive search firm that has a proven record in your industry enhances your organization’s credibility and reputation in the marketplace. Candidates who are approached by a reputable search firm known for its expertise in your sector are more likely to take the opportunity seriously and view your organization as a desirable employer. This can help attract top-tier talent who may be otherwise hesitant to consider opportunities with less-established or unfamiliar firms.

Insights and Industry Benchmarking

An executive search firm can provide valuable insights and benchmarking data. For example, they can offer market intelligence and Total Rewards and compensation trends, which can inform your organization’s decision-making process, and help in determining competitive compensation packages and structuring attractive offers to secure top candidates.

Efficient and Effective Executive Search Process

Industry-specific knowledge enables executive search firms to execute a search process more efficiently and effectively. They are familiar with the relevant professional associations, conferences, and online platforms where industry executives gather. Their experience also helps them to ask the right questions and evaluate a candidate’s fit within your industry’s unique context.

Network and Resources

A firm with a broad network of professionals and access to advanced recruiting technology can help you identify a wider pool of candidates. Executive search firms have established relationships with key individuals, including top executives and industry leaders, giving them access to candidates who are actively engaged in your industry and may be an excellent fit for your organization. They are also more likely to know about high-potential candidates who may not be actively seeking new opportunities but could be persuaded to consider a compelling role.

Candidate Fit

It’s important to choose a firm that understands how your company operates and its values, and can help you identify candidates that align with those values. At the same time, keep in mind that as part of a commitment to DEI it may also be important for a search firm to help your company expand its focus and criteria past cultural fit to gain a wider, more diverse candidate pool.

Fees and Process

Review the firm’s fees and processes to confirm they align with your budget and timeline. Reviewing these aspects is crucial for several reasons: Executive search firms typically charge a fee based on a percentage of the candidate’s first-year total cash compensation. By reviewing the fees upfront, you can assess the financial implications and know if the costs align with your organization’s budget.

  • Reviewing the firms’ processes can help you assess whether they align with your organization’s specific requirements and timeline. For example, you may prefer a firm that conducts in-depth competency-based interviews, employs psychometric assessments, or has a thorough reference checking process.
  • Additionally, you may wish to gain insights into the firm’s approach to candidate sourcing, assessment, and selection. For example, you can inquire about their strategies for identifying diverse candidates or their approach to cultural fit assessment.

Top Executive Search Firms – The Big-5 “Shreks”

Among executive search firms, the five largest in the world are informally and acronymically known as “Shrek” firms, or the “big 5” search firms. In 2020 The Economist reported that these firms dominated the search for top-level positions such as CEOs, and together made an estimated $4.8 billion in search fees annually.

These firms are large and typically have a network of international offices target a wide range of industries and executive roles. They include:

  • Spencer Stuart — Founded in 1956 with headquarters in Chicago, IL, Spencer Stuart is a global executive search and leadership consulting firm.
  • Heidrick and Struggles — Established in 1953 with headquarters in Chicago, IL.
  • Russell Reynolds — Started in 1969 with headquarters in New York, NY.
  • Egon Zehnder – Founded in 1964 with headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland.
  • Korn Ferry – Started in 1969, and with headquarters in Los Angeles, CA.

Agility and Client Focus: The Secret Weapons of a Boutique Firm

While Big-5 firms offer global reach and a wide range of services, are they necessarily the best fit for your leadership search?

When your organization aims to fill a critical role such as CFO, CRO, VP of Sales, or CHRO, you seek a leader with the specific qualifications to help your business grow and flourish. Likewise, when you recruit any of a range of HR, People and Culture positions–a category that Society for Human Resources Management finds has some of the fastest-growing roles in the U.S.–you seek a leader who is uniquely suited to set a strategy for your workforce.

A boutique executive search firm excels in areas that are especially tuned to help you find the perfect, hard-to-get candidate who meets your company’s unique needs. These include:

  • Client focus:
    Boutique firms can provide a more personalized and customized approach, dedicating more time and attention to each client and ensuring a better fit between the candidate and the organization.  They may also be more flexible and agile in tailoring their search process to suit the specific requirements of the client.
  • Transparency:
    Smaller, specialized firms tend to have more transparent and open communication with their clients throughout the search process, providing regular updates, sharing insights, and collaborating closely to align expectations. Clients have a clear understanding of the progress and challenges of the search.
  • Trust:
    Boutique or specialty firms prioritize building long-term trust and relationships with clients. They often have close-knit teams with a higher level of expertise and a deeper understanding of specific industries. They can provide a more confidential and discreet search process — particularly important for sensitive executive-level positions.

Frederickson Partners: The Best Choice for Executive Search

Frederickson Partners offers advantages that include:

  • Industry-leading expertise in HR and People leadership:
    Frederickson Partners is a premier executive search firm and market leader in recruiting HR executives. Founded in 1995 by CEO Valerie Frederickson, with a 28-year track record placing People leaders across a wide range of industries, the firm has a deep understanding of the unique challenges and requirements of HR in each sector, as well as the specific broad range of executive roles for HR recruiting. Frederickson has also expanded its practice into executive search for senior-level roles in departments including Finance, Operations, Sales, Marketing, IT and Legal.
  • Proven record:
    Frederickson Partners has a long history, as one of the top executive search firms for C-suite executives, of working with established global brands and of successful executive placements in enterprises, as well in fast-growing startups and mission-based organizations. The firm’s ability to match candidates with the right skills, experience and cultural fit has resulted in successful long-term placements, driving client satisfaction.
  • Commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion:
    Frederickson Partners has been dedicated to promoting DEI in all aspects of work throughout its history. The firm recognizes the importance of building diverse teams that reflect the communities it serves, and has a proven track record among diversity recruiters in filling leadership roles. Frederickson Partners also offers DEI consulting and training services to help companies create a more inclusive workplace culture.
  • Advanced technology:
    Frederickson Partners uses advanced tools and data analytics to identify and evaluate top HR talent. This helps in identifying candidates that are the best match for clients’ needs and enables an efficient and effective recruiting process.
  • Client-focused approach:
    Throughout its history, Frederickson Partners has been known for taking a client-centered approach to work, building a thorough understanding of clients’ unique needs and requirements.
  • Global focus with a “boutique” approach: Now a part of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., a global Fortune 500 company, Frederickson maintains its boutique perspective and processes, and its ability to work closely with organizations to develop a customized recruiting strategy that is tailored to their specific needs and goals.

In Summary

You can make the process of selecting the right executive search firm easier by considering the industry expertise, track record of success, network and resources, understanding of culture, fees, and recruiting process of executive search firms.

While there are many great firms to choose from, Frederickson Partners is a top choice for recruiting executive talent, due to its industry-leading expertise, ongoing and recognized commitment to DEI, access to deep talent pools — combined with an approach and broad executive network that reflects its 28-year history as an agile, client-focused firm. Trusting Frederickson Partners with your executive search requirements will help guide you to a successful executive placement.

If you’re looking for a partner to help you find top People or HR executive talent that aligns with your company’s values and unique culture, look no further than Frederickson Partners.

With a commitment to DEI, industry-leading expertise, and a client-focused approach, Frederickson Partners is the clear choice. Contact Us to schedule a call. 

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Frederickson Partners, a Gallagher company is a market leader in retained executive search since 1995. As one of the top-rated HR executive search and C-suite recruiting firms, we have expertise in placing Chief People Officers, Chief Human Resources Officers, Chief Diversity Officers, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Legal Officers and many other senior leaders. We draw on a broad network of rising and established executives and leaders, and a 28-year reputation as a talent acquisition and HR Advisory provider.

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