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Happy hunting

Selecting the right recruiter requires no less diligence than any other hire. There are several pitfalls to avoid when outsourcing an executive search.

In most cases, by the time the managing partner starts calling recruiters, the in-house rolodex has already been exhausted. A viable candidate may be only one more degree away, but someone else has to connect the dots. Enter the headhunter promising a short list of the possible hires ? all in a fraction of the time it would take for the GPs to tackle the task themselves.

As attractive as that sounds, firms should avoid cutting corners in selecting a recruiter. Before even sitting down with possible headhunters, the firm should develop a profile of the ideal mix of skills, background and salary requirement for that principal, VP or CFO. Then when sitting down with the recruiter, the sales pitch should be the start of the process, not the end. As the negotiations move forward, recruiters should display an understanding of the firm's culture, not just the tangible skill set. Search firms should also offer an accessible list of references, relevant to the project at hand. Finally, the firm should make certain to meet the person responsible for the search, as many recruiters use their top talent to close deals, while relegating the search itself to their less experienced staff.

?Some recruiters will send out their A-talent to win new business and then relegate the actual search to someone else in the firm.?

Most headhunters stress that the best searches begin with a very specific mandate. ?Don't be afraid to honestly describe what you want in that perfect candidate,? explains Simon Francis, a partner with the global executive search firm CT Partners. ?Name what schools they should have attended, the investment banks where they should have started, all the way to what their current position should be.?

However, while it's vital to begin with a detailed profile of the position and the ideal person, the best recruiters will use it for what it is ? a starting point. ?People can confuse a pedigree with good judgment,? warns Clarke Murphy of the New York-based recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. ?A good headhunter should be able to tell the difference.?

Several search professionals explain that recruiters often reveal their real abilities not by how slavish they are to the initial mandate, but how well they interpret it to fit the intangible qualities of the firm.

?People get hired for their skills, and fired for their personalities,? says Francis. He explains that it's vital that a recruiter pick up on the persona of the firm. ?A proper cultural fit isn't about so-called ?class? as much as it is the way meetings are handled or conflicts are resolved.?

Francis suggests that the best candidate will have a similar style to whoever wields power in that company. ?As the conversation over a new search continues, it's important to listen for how the recruiter articulates the culture of the firm,? says Murphy. ?After all, they've got to communicate that personality in a succinct fashion for anyone they're pitching the position to,? says Murphy.

Even if the recruiter is saying all the right things, it's crucial to check references. ?Private equity is a small world, so you should be able to find someone to comment on a recruiter,? says Murphy. Recruiters stress the need not just for glowing reviews, but relevant ones. ?Make certain that they've got some experience with a fund of your size, your vintage – or a search for a similar type of professional,? says Murphy.

GPs should also be careful that the recruiter they interviewed is the one who'll be performing the search. ?Look out for the bait and switch? says Francis. ?Some recruiters will send out their A-talent to win new business and then relegate the actual search to someone else in the firm.?

He explains that in some cases, there's a sales staff that knows to say the right things with the right look, but does little recruiting themselves. ?They've got the silver hair, the great suit and the list of clients to impress,? warns Francis. ?But if you start asking questions about this or that search, they start to blank on candidate names, or the specifics of a given industry.? Many recruiters suggest clarifying who within the firm will be responsible for their account and what sort of staff will be applied to the task.

?Recruiting for private equity is like picking your own brother because you'll be stuck with them for life,? says Murphy. ?The way firms are built is with a team of professionals that are committed to the life of a fund ? and that's easily five or ten years.? As that's the case, GPs should think long and hard about who will be picking the next member of the family.