Tips from the Leadership Coach: Boutique Executive Search Firms Help Clients Win the War for Talent

Go Back to Searchlight Q2 2019
image of lisa thompson vice president pearson partners international

Lisa Thompson
Vice President

By Lisa Thompson, LPC, PCC
Vice President, Pearson Partners International

When a leading Dallas-based nonprofit needed to hire a senior director of major gifts before launching a $30 million capital campaign, CEO Jan Edgar Langbein reached out to Pearson Partners International, a boutique executive search firm. “The Pearson Partners team was in my office within 48 hours and gained a deep understanding of the role,” said Langbein, CEO of Genesis Women’s Shelter and Support. “Within two weeks, they submitted a slate of well developed, highly qualified candidates and we were able to fill the position quickly.” 

At a time when hiring and retaining the best executives and reducing time-to-hire are crucial in winning the war for talent, boutique executive search firms have a clear advantage over large firms whose hands are tied by constraints like overreaching off-limits restrictions, often taking months to develop a slate of candidates that may not be the best fit. Today, organizations value the speed, agility and fewer constraints of boutique executive search firms with national and international footprints. 

Here are eight ways boutique executive search firms deliver superior value, according to our Pearson Partners clients. (Follow the links to read in-depth case studies.)

  • Partner-level experience and expertise. An experienced, senior-level consultant leading the search, rather than passing off the work to a junior associate (“leveraging” in large-firm parlance), can make a big difference in a successful executive hire. Pearson Partners client Ralph Stow, chairman of the board of STI International, explains: “It was imperative to us that senior partners be the ones making the calls to our targeted C-level executives. I liked the fact that the firm’s senior partners were the ones doing the actual search and not passing it off to less experienced recruiters.”
  • Deep understanding of the industry. It can be difficult to recruit the right executive without being well-versed in the client company’s industry. “The boutique search firm we use understands the private equity business very well, and also the cultural attributes that go hand-in-hand with that,” said Christopher Ray, senior managing partner of Natural Gas Partners. “They were in tune with our need for this person to both fit internally and interact positively with our portfolio companies.”
  • Ability to uncover hidden talent. In today’s tight job market, many qualified executives are not actively searching for new positions. It takes knowledge and skill to identify these sources of hidden talent, determine their goals and convince them to entertain a move. “Our boutique search firm has very strong connections in the marketplace,” said Rhonda MacAndrew, SVP of human resources, Greyhound.  “They personally network with individuals and forge relationships with people proactively, and that’s extremely positive.”
  • Freedom from candidate pool restrictions. Large search firms are constrained to a limited candidate pool by what’s known as “off-limits” restrictions. Since most of the Fortune 1000 companies are current or recent clients of the big search firms, those firms are not allowed to recruit their employees or candidates. This significantly limits their available candidate pool. Diane Hawkins, senior director of people and performance at Meeting Professionals International (MPI), explained: “One of the [other search firms] knew our market, but had done a lot of work in our industry, so they were restricted from going after certain people because their employers were clients. Pearson didn’t have that disadvantage.” With a much smaller client base, and therefore largely free from these off-limits restrictions, boutique search firms offer unparalleled access to leading players across all industries.
  • Efficient recruiting process. A boutique firm can save time through a thorough and effective screening process, providing clients with a short list of qualified candidates rather than a long list of potential interviewees. “Our search firm was very effective at giving us the best of the best,” said Chris Burt, SVP, LSG Sky Chefs. “They gave us good insight into the candidates they presented so that we didn’t have to interview 20 or more people.”
  • High level of responsiveness. A boutique executive search firm limits its number of engagements to provide the focused, personal service of a boutique with the experience and reach of a global firm. As C. Jedson Nau, SVP and general counsel, The Rosewood Corporation, said, “Pearson’s principals worked hard to understand what we needed in our HR department. They were always available and responsive. They took time to understand our needs and they provided top candidates.”
  • Full-service approach. It can be challenging for a company to find the time, connections and consensus to replace a top executive. That’s why a boutique firm’s ability to take a full-service approach is so valuable. “The search firm’s senior partner took the time to listen to us and documented that information into a chart that clarified the things we were looking for and our priorities,” said Scott Karol, board member, Cooperative Processing Resources. “She drew out from us all the things we needed to understand that might not have been top-of-mind to us.”
  • High completion rate. Most boutique search firms have a nearly 100% search completion rate because they don’t have the luxury of walking away from a search (barring client cancellation.) It is well publicized that the top 5 executive search firms typically leave more than 30% of their searches unfilled because they move on or they simply cannot fill the search to the client’s satisfaction because of off-limits restrictions. “I find that recruiting for this particular high-net-worth management function within a Big Four accounting firm is one of the harder positions to fill,” said Randy Wright, a partner at Deloitte. “I have used different recruiters over the years and it’s just a really tough market. Pearson Partners had a very thorough approach. It wasn’t just about getting a candidate, it was about developing a long-term relationship.”

As the executive talent acquisition and leadership consulting market continues to evolve, boutique executive search firms will continue to offer the right balance of high-touch, high-tech service. Contenders in the war for talent know that building lasting partnerships with boutique executive search firms leads to successful hiring and retention of their leadership teams.

Read other examples of how our boutique executive search firm helps clients build world-class leadership teams.

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