Executive Search - Demystified


What is executive search consulting and why is it important for you to understand this professional service much the same way you need to understand what a CPA or an attorney can offer as a professional service to you as an individual or to your company/organization?


First of all, here is a brief working definition of executive search consulting: Executive search consulting is a professional service provided to companies and organizations (clients) that need to attract, hire and develop professionals (candidates) who will hold responsibilities key to achieving the planned strategic goals and objectives of the client organization.

What are the key benefits of executive search consulting?
For Clients: Time and opportunity cost savings increased financial performance as well as the achievement of the most important strategic goals and objectives

For Candidates: Career development and growth, increased compensation, professional stature and work-life balance.  

HOW DOES Executive Search Consulting really WORK?   The service is paid for by the company or hiring organization (the “client”)--not by the job candidate.  Potential job candidates are identified, qualified and presented to the client by the executive search consulting firm (the “firm”) based upon degree of alignment with a written or verbal Position Description developed with the client hiring decision maker(s). Assessing degree of potential fit of qualified candidates with the position description is the most important "deliverable" of the search firm.   A solid match produces long-lasting positive results for the client and the hired candidate.  Failed searches where the wrong candidate is hired for a vitally important position play out in the headlines of business publications and in social media.  Taking a thoughtful approach to hiring saves time, money and is the single most important factor attributed to the success of any company, university or not for profit organization.

It is common for a candidate to be identified by the search firm through in-depth research conducted by the firm. Opportunity knocks…sometimes at the most interesting times and when that happens the candidate can be in for a life-changing experience!   Top firms work hard at cultivating and continually updating their network of contacts so that when a search assignment is awarded they will be ready to start qualifying potential candidates as soon as the position description is prepared.

A good thing to understand about the etiquette of search is that the person being contacted always appears much more sophisticated, in the eyes of the search consultant, if he or she makes an effort to be helpful to the search firm.   If you help the firm calling you there is a distinct possibility that the next time the firm calls it could be to tell you about an opportunity that you will want to follow up for yourself...so, practice the "golden rule".

CONTINGENT and RETAINED SEARCH: useful definitions
When a search firm operates on a contingent basis it means that the firm will only earn a fee for service rendered if the firm and presents a candidate who is ultimately hired by the client. Typically, the fee is 100% "back end" loaded based upon a percentage of the hired candidate's first year cash compensation. In contingent search there is no exclusivity to the arrangement; the client is free to work with other search firms or source candidates on their own.  This may explain why more than one contingency firm may be calling you about the same assignment!   Contingent search tends to be less oriented towards in-depth candidate assessment and more about getting a likely potential candidate's job resume or CV in front of the client---quickly!  Usually, in a contingent search, the job specification tends to be less structured--more fluid-- allowing for a greater breadth of candidates to be presented to the client. More effort though, is expended by the client in assessing candidate fit and other key aspects such as reference checking. The danger for a mismatch can be high in contingent search due to a lack of clarity on what the client defines as a RIGHT CANDIDATE and then what it takes the hired candidate to succeed in the position.   Going the contingency search route for any mission critical search is not going to save much money in the search fee and opens up the client to greater risk.    

Retained Search means that the search firm is exclusively responsible for qualifying and presenting all candidates for the search; it makes no difference where the candidate is sourced---they all are thoroughly assessed and matched with the position description before being presented to the client for further review.  This approach brings a great deal of objectivity to the process and can even help an internal candidate receive equitable and fair consideration since the firm is doing the initial screening of all candidates.  The firm guides the search process from start to finish. The search consulting agreement signed by the client defines the services to be provided to the client by firm and mutual responsibilities, payment and termination terms.   

In retained search the firm and the client work closely to achieve a clear understanding of what it is going to take for a well-qualified candidate to be successful in the job.  The first and perhaps most vital task of the client and the firm is to create a first rate position description.   A well-crafted position description becomes a compelling statement about the job opportunity and an invaluable marketing tool for the search.   This is because the best candidates are often not looking for their next opportunity when the firm makes contact.  But, when their interest is piqued a well-wrought position description allows a top candidate to self-select.  Who wants to be sold?  Everyone smart person wants to make the buying decision.  When an experienced candidate has a very complete description of the position to review he or she will be able to quickly respond enthusiastically to it if there is sincere interest.   A great position description, professionally designed and presented, saves time and money by getting the right candidates to take immediate notice and respond with enthusiasm.     

The ability of the search consultant to correctly assess fit and degree of match of the potential candidate with the position description is a key skill that the client can and should rely.  When speaking with prospective candidates, an experienced search consultant will be eager to share detailed information about the search assignment including compensation range for the position and other salient facts about the client organization as well as the hiring executive.  It is very vital for candidates to be scrupulously in their responses to questions posed by the firm during the interview process.  The resume/CV must be accurate.

Candidate Interviews and Reference checking
after an initial series of phone or SKYPE interviews the firm usually will provide a written assessment of the candidate to the client.  For finalist candidates the firm completes an in-depth reference background check after receiving written permission from the candidate to do so.  References are important because they provide a picture of the behavioral pattern and problem solving abilities of the candidate. It is our experience that a person's behavioral patterns change very little over time--good or bad--so a great deal of stock should to be placed in the information gathered from references. It has been our experience that if we speak with three or more listed reference contacts provided by the candidate and ask "open ended" questions in a friendly manner about the candidate's personal character, the nature of their working relationship, examples of problem solving style and work ethic a valid picture of the candidate's ability to get things done, emerges.  We compare these findings with what is presented on the candidate's resume and what we have heard from the candidate during the interview process.  We have found that the story about the candidate that emerges from this cross checking process represents information that is highly predictive of the how the candidate will behave and, ultimately, perform in their new job.  

Making the Job Offer
Once a selection decision is reached by the hiring executive, the lead consultant communicates the verbal job offer to the finalist candidate so that any “bargaining discussions” can be handled by the firm in a less charged manner. Once the verbal job offer is accepted, the client prepares a written offer spelling out compensation terms, and other specifics including severance terms, reimbursement for moving expenses and the like.  The candidate acknowledges acceptance in writing and returns the written job offer to the client. The search assignment is now complete, and the real work for the hired candidate and hiring manager begins!

Generally, a retained search cycle takes about 90 -120 days. We have found that the process moves the fastest when the hiring manager and team are closely aligned on their expectations about what they really want to see in the hired candidate---so a good position description that everyone supports and endorses at the outset is crucially important to the successful and speedy outcome of the search. 

Executive search consulting is a valuable professional service for clients and candidates alike. Time, opportunity cost savings benefits as well as achievement of competitive advantage often occurs for clients.  Career development and growth is the most common benefit for candidates.  

The KULPER & COMPANY Search Process 


  • Initial Client Meeting is held. Client hiring needs and scope are reviewed in depth.  The firm discusses its experience and reviews its search process. Discussion emphasis: client company background, strategic goals & objectives, financial performance, and other factors.  The firm may then conduct further research about the position and share it with the client.
  • Client receives, reviews and signs off on the firm’s search assignment "Consulting Agreement", exclusively retaining the firm to assist in conducting the search assignment. 
  • Working closely with the client hiring decision makers the position description is prepared by the firm and approved by the client.  Initial retainer is billed and client payment is made. The firm prepares SEARCH Assignment "Project Plan" which is reviewed with and signed off by the client.


  • "Qualified Candidate" identification and qualification effort commences. All potentially qualified candidates identified by the client are referred to the firm including internal candidates.   Key Sources for qualified candidates: firm proprietary candidate data-base, industry sources, LinkedIN, specific industry network contacts, professional associations and others.
  • Candidates are interviewed by via telephone and/or SKYPE interviews.  First Round candidates who are interested in moving forward in the process and are deemed well matched with the position description are assessed by the firm in writing and presented to the client for evaluation and follow up phone interviews. 
  • Semi-finalist candidates selected by the client move forward in the process.   Semi-finalist candidates provide written permission to the firm to conduct a thorough background and reference investigation. The candidates are then interviewed by the client interview team on the client premise.
  • Client receives and reviews the firm’s "Qualified Candidate Interview Guide". This guide helps to assure that all members of the client interview team are aware of recommended interview techniques before meeting "semi-finalist" candidates in person.  
  • "Finalist" candidate is selected by the client. Additional background reference investigations of the candidate are completed by the firm and provided to Client. "Finalist" candidate compensation package specifics (salary, benefits and starting date) are discussed in detail with the client.  Verbal "job offer" is made by the firm. 
  • Written JOB OFFER LETTER is prepared by the client and forwarded to the finalist candidate for review and written acknowledgment.