Critical Questions for Choosing an Executive-Level Recruiter

Critical Questions for Choosing an Executive-Level Recruiter

Hiring at the director level and above has a significant impact on a company. People in these positions typically set and execute the strategy for a department, division, or the entire company, meaning that wrong hires can have a magnified negative impact, even catastrophic! As dramatically illustrated in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you must “choose wisely” when selecting a candidate—and the recruiters who will help you in your search.

When it comes to choosing to work with an executive-level recruiter, you first face two questions:

  1. Will you use an internal or external recruiter?
  2. If external, will you use a contingent or retained form?

There are reasonable arguments for and against each of these alternatives based on your unique situation. Your top-level goal is to maximize the ROI on each hire, so let’s begin by examining them more closely.

1. Will you use an internal or external recruiter?

This decision is usually driven by cost and whether your organization has internal recruiters in the first place. Smaller companies, if they have internal recruiters at all, often use them for specific hiring purposes, such as staffing call centers or development teams. These recruiters may not have the expertise or resources to make a successful senior-level hire.

If your internal recruiters are qualified to perform higher-level searches, then you must decide if you believe they will produce the desired results. In the second part of this article, we will review several questions to ask to make this analysis.

2. If external, will you use a contingent or retained firm?

If the decision is to go external, you will need to choose between a contingent recruiter and a retained executive search firm. As the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC) points out, they are often lumped together, but they are very different options. The AESC describes retained executive search firms as “specialized management consultants retained by clients in an advisory capacity. Executive search firms partner with a client to identify, assess and select the very best possible candidate.” Meanwhile, they define contingent recruiters as those “hired to present a pool of candidates that fit certain criteria. Contingent recruiters generally work the front-end of the process, leaving the assessment and selection work to the client.” [1]

Asking the following questions will help you decide which is the best solution for you:

  • Is this a critical role for which you cannot afford to make the wrong hire?
  • Will this be a difficult search that requires someone’s full attention?
  • Is the fee a determining short-term factor, or is securing the right hire more critical in the long-term?

Further Questions to Ask Your Recruiter

Whether you use internal or external, contingency or retained, you need to ask your recruiter the right questions. Hiring an executive is a lot like choosing a spouse—so the recruiter is like a marriage matchmaker. You will live with the results for up to ten hours a day, 5 days a week. Since most people spend more time at work than with their families, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

The following questions can guide your evaluation process, set proper expectations, and provide the assurance that your recruiter will deliver the right executive-level talent. No matter how long you’ve been working with a recruiter, you want to eliminate any unshared assumptions or biases.

Initial alignment

  • How detailed should the job description be, and who should write it?
    • Have a thorough, candid discussions with the recruiter to get on the same page about what the job entails and how it will be presented to candidates. There is a strong correlation between a clearly defined position and the recruiter securing the right candidates.
    • Note that short job descriptions by themselves can’t communicate the full details of a position, yet long job descriptions become cumbersome.
  • Who should the recruiter speak with to glean additional useful information?
    • The recruiter should speak with the hiring manager, because no one knows the requirements better.
    • Similar discussions with key influencers can provide further insight and identify blind spots. You want no stone left unturned, much less undiscovered.
  • Should the recruiter walk into the initial conversation with a list of candidates?
    • Working with wrong assumptions up front, even if corrected, can close doors or confuse prospects. 
  • Where should company culture fit into the search process?
    • Culture should be a top priority in executive-level hiring—it can help unite or divide people and teams.
    • A company’s culture might be expressed in an employee handbook, but how it manifests itself is only learned from talking with the employees who drive it and live it every day.
  • How do you ensure you and the recruiter are on the same page?
    • Although you may need help clearly defining the criteria for a search, the recruiter must be able to walk you through what you want, with nothing vague or missing.
    • We suggest the search criteria be in writing to avoid misunderstandings later on.

Setting expectations

  • How many candidates does the recruiter typically present?
    • You don’t have time for a barrage of candidates at the executive level; you need the recruiter to be decisive and narrow the list down to the best. However, only one or two candidates is probably not sufficient.
    • We suggest a range of three to five candidates, refined to that number by the recruiter’s expertise.
  • What is the recruiter’s accuracy in presenting viable candidates to be interviewed?
    • Initial agreement on a position definition starts you on the same page and provides the clear hiring criteria that helps you achieve your ROI goal.
  • What is the timeline?
    • If you are looking for candidates in a few days, you will probably end up with poor results.
    • Understand the timeline the recruiter typically operates on, factoring in the difficulty of your search and related factors (e.g., scarcity of the required talent, pay level, relocation benefits).
  • How will the candidates be presented?
    • You need to make apples-to-apples comparisons of the candidates’ skill sets; resumes alone make this comparison hard to achieve.
    • You’re paying for expertise and advice on why a candidate is presented and how they match up. You need to understand what the recruiter provides, if anything, to help facilitate those comparisons.
  • What is the recruiter’s own executive expertise and experience?
    • There is no replacement for experience. The recruiter’s experience helps them not only set appropriate criteria but thoroughly vet prospects.
  • What percentage of candidates presented do you expect to be hirable?
    • Personal experiences and biases shape our expectations of candidates, but we need to know what is reasonable.
    • That said, err on the side of high expectations. Lowering the bar for acceptable candidates reduces the chance of maximizing ROI.

Your recruiter, whether internal or external, contingent or retained, should be a highly trusted team member, not unlike your COO or VP of Marketing. Don’t be reticent—ask the tough questions, probe, and put the recruiter on the spot if necessary, just as you would members of your executive team. Commit to the process and be patient throughout the required timeline. Remember, it’s up to you to “choose wisely” when it comes to every executive-level hire—and the recruiters you rely on to deliver game-changing talent.

[1] Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants, “Understand the Landscape,”

Wade H. Allen

Wade H. Allen has been president and CEO at the executive placement firm Cendea for over 25 years. Since 1994, Cendea has provided senior-level executive search solutions for businesses that have high goals and require impact leaders who can take them to the next level. You can reach Cendea at

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