Large Exec Search Firms Vs Boutique Search Firms: Which is a Better Bet?
Hiring and recruitment is in the middle of a storm, an unprecedented one created by several factors working in combination: technological developments, digitalization, intense competition, and the surge in demand for talent complicated by its shortage, especially in the top bracket. There is tremendous pressure to not just attract but also retain senior management talent, especially as businesses navigate through macroeconomic challenges in the current environment. No wonder then that executive search recruitment in the US is a sizeable market – at $8.8 billion in 2022, with an annualized growth of 1.2% over 2017-22, as per the latest estimates by IBISWorld.
As the fight for top talent intensifies amid the increase in open management positions, demand for executive search firms to help fill the roles is rising. According to Hunt Scanlon Media, the recruitment industry, in the US and globally, attracted billions of dollars in 2021, led by pent-up demand for senior leadership talent. The largest 50 recruiting firms in the US raked in record revenues in 2021, with $5.9 billion in fees, up 52%. SHREK (Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, Russell Reynolds, Egon Zehnder, and Korn Ferry) firms – the big corporate headhunters – reported 42% growth in 2021. Interestingly, boutique recruiting firms, on the other hand, as a group, registered $2.2 billion in revenues, up 58%.
While the numbers speak for themselves, what stands out is the growing demand for services provided by specialist search firms. This re-ignites the debate between large exec firms versus boutique search firms–who is a better service provider?
The right approach
While size may allure, it is not always the best determinant of capability. A better way to discover is by finding out what boutique firms offer and how they fare in comparison with larger firms.
Technically speaking, the difference between the two is essentially in size and scale and the resultant effect on operations or expertise thereof. However, a deeper look reveals that the very factors that work to the advantage of large firms can also pose a challenge to them.
Let us see how
While larger firms maybe having a bigger list of clients, contracts/agreements often prevent them from approaching the same company for recruitment where they have recently added a candidate. This, therefore, restricts the talent pool available to them.
Plus, large firms often sell an aggregate of results by combining the searches of their different partners as well as teams. So, while the overall list looks impressive, it may hold little significance for a client in terms of relevant performance.
Furthermore, large firms often reuse their prior work and research while catering to a new client for a similar search. They may avoid investing the time and effort required to tailor a search as per the requirement. Another reason the economics of engagement may not be very accretive to the client is because these firms typically work strictly along set modules or formats. Once they have delivered their effort along that structure, they move on to the next client. They may feel they’ve met the industry standard, but they may not have met the client expectations. This, therefore, makes you question the returns on your investment.
Size may matter. Often, larger firms tend to give more attention to a client depending on the size of the firm, with more of a dismissive attitude toward the smaller clients.
Retained model: These firms are exclusively retained on executive-level searches. According to the Executive Search Performance Benchmark conducted by Clockwork, approximately 30% of these Executive Retained search projects are not fulfilled. The study by Clockwork that covered over 30,000 retained search projects suggests that an average retained search takes about 123 days. Moreover, large firms are likely to be limited in their outreach within key companies in your industry because of Non-Solicitation agreements with their existing clients. This clause prohibits large search firms, which generally work with several competing companies, from recruiting their clients’ employees for at least a year. When partnering with these organizations, it is always good to request a list of organizations they are contractually prohibited from soliciting (their) employees.
Boutique firms therefore gain an edge due to…
Personalization of services: Boutique firms score higher in this aspect. They are typically smaller, which works to their advantage. As they work with a smaller list of clients or in specific functional areas, they are better positioned to come up with more innovative and customized solutions, given their deeper hold on the specific challenges of every individual client. This helps them place candidates that are the right fit from all perspectives: expertise, qualifications, pedigree, and culturally. Boutique firms adopt a relationship-based approach and are not database-driven.
Agility and flexibility: Unlike large firms, boutique firms are more inclined toward adopting a flexible or agile process or approach. At times, the rigidity of structure, as pursued by mega-firms, can come in the way of developing creative solutions. Not handling enormous volumes also contributes to agility. Being flexible helps boutique firms work more empathetically and purposefully. The client and the candidate thus get greater value for the money/time invested.
Accessibility to talent: Having an extensive list is not always a positive because these are also accompanied by restrictions. Boutique firms, on the other hand, because of the size of their list of clients, quite naturally, are relatively free. Therefore, they have better access to the talent pool. As a result, these firms are much more informed about the talent on their lists, which enables them to find a better profile and cultural fit.
Value over volume: The recruiting teams at boutique search firms are smaller than their counterparts at large executive search firms. While this may appear as a disadvantage on the face of it, it helps boutique firms engage more closely for a first-hand or direct experience.
Unlike large search firms, where services or processes are more goal/target-centric (that could cause focus being more on getting the numbers in as less time), boutique firms are not overtly focused on meeting just the quotas. In other words, they are not just looking to fill positions but instead take the time to truly ensure the person they are placing will be successful in their new environment, as their brand is 100% tied to performance, not to their name.
Expertise and specialization: Boutique search firms usually have specialization in a few areas or domains. But the knowledge of these sectors is deep. Larger firms, given that they cater to a much-wider list, cover several industries and functions, albeit they position them in smaller practices. In comparison, therefore, their knowledge may be more widespread, but not as incisive as a boutique firm in a sector where they both provide services. Boutique search firms fare better in this regard. While some of them may be dedicated to recruiting for certain levels only, others cover all exec levels, which enables them to follow the career paths of their candidates, often the previous candidate becoming a client.
Another factor is that the executive search team at boutique firms is many a time manned by people who have a background in big companies. Hence, they bring a sound understanding of processes. Moreover, having knowledge of what does not work, they implement only the best practices.
Accountability and trust: At boutique search firms, usually, the senior partners of the organization directly get involved with the client and the candidate. Interaction at this level is good from the perspective of both trust and accountability. Trust because you can pose questions, raise concerns and directly have the topmost person in the firm field these for you. At large recruitment agencies, you may be working with people at the mid or lower rungs who hardly have any influence on how processes work.
Also, at boutique firms, due to the smaller number of people, with many of them occupying senior designations, accountability is higher. The same person is handling all aspects of hiring, unlike at large firms where the roles are divided and multiple people handle different aspects. Therefore, accountability at boutique firms is higher – you know whom to reach out to and approach for an answer.
So, what attributes should you look for when considering hiring an exec search firm?
You can begin by exploring a few questions around:
History/track record: What is the number of searches completed within a similar vertical/function? Do they have a name in the industry? Does the team appear credible to you?
Expertise: What is the combined experience and specialization of the members; the tenure of leaders who would handle your search; or their experience–is it less than 4 years or is it a substantial number of years in the domain? What are the capabilities of assessing? Does it include profiling along predictive psychology?
Data mining: What are their capabilities in harnessing data, especially in digging out passive candidates? During the last decade, there has been an explosion in digital data, a trend which is only likely to continue. According to the IDC, we will sit on a pile of 175,000 exabytes (EB), or 175 zettabytes (ZB) of digital data, by 2025. Data research expertise is, therefore, a must. Moreover, the research and competitive intelligence must be solid and based on data as well as human intelligence.
Approach for executive search: How do they prioritize the search? Do they have a specific search strategy? How to do they attract candidates and assess them? When presenting the candidate, what are the analysis, appraisals, capability assessment techniques involved? What does search completion cover? Does it include assistance in salary negotiation, communication during transition, client feedback collection, and follow-ups to check in on the progress of placement and transition?
Processes and functions: How sophisticated are the search processes? Do they use proprietary frameworks and intelligent assessment and evaluation tools/techniques and modern methodologies? What is the consistency of search, timing, and end-to-end completion of hiring process, including onboarding and post-placement support?
DE&I criterion: If looking specifically from the DE&I perspective, what is the ability to provide diverse candidates, and capability to understand the requirement and assess the candidacy?
Moot question–whom do you hire?
A piece of advice here is to not be enamored by size and scale alone. Expertise is not contingent on numbers. Often, when we go just by the glitz associated with a big name, the outcome may not be up to our satisfaction. Worst, we may find ourselves embroiled in a process where accountability is little, with poor clarity on ownership. An engagement where ownership is high, communication is transparent and client interactionis personalized, offers a better winning proposition. Hence, expertise and personalization of services are more effective determinants when deciding on hiring the services of an executive search firm.
Whenever you choose, go for people who are as passionate about your organization as you are, although they may be from a smaller organization. Any search is a combination of experience in the industry, in-depth and thorough processes, storytelling, and above all – functional insights. Size and footprint are not necessarily a proof of the quality of research practices.
Once you are clear about this, you will be able to guide your strategy better in hiring the right search firm for your requirement. A firm that will help you maximize your leadership development potential and most importantly prevent a bad hire—a tough cost to swallow.