Are You Ready for Executive Search?


Career Services recently hosted our Executive Search Industry Roundtables, which brought together senior consultants from leading search firms and many of our Executive MBAs (XPs) in specific industries - Financial Services, Manufacturing, Energy, Tech, and Healthcare, as well as a roundtable focused on the C-level. The event was designed to give search consultants and our students a forum where they could have industry and leadership focused discussions, while getting to know each other, unburdened by the expectation of ‘finding jobs’ and ‘placing candidates.’

The conversations I overheard were content rich and engaging, covering a wide range of topics from what companies in a given industry value in high-performing executives to leadership characteristics required of executives in more complex environments. While some of our XP students are certainly ready for executive search, many are still approaching the cusp of working with search consultants, i.e. one or two levels away from being ready for the kinds of opportunities that executive search firms typically work on.

One thing that initially surprised me when I first started to work with our XPs is the variable nature of what they understand about executive search. I thought I’d share some commonly held misconceptions about exec search and the realities of how search consultants work with exec MBAs in particular.

Is executive search a good option for career changers?

It might seem like a good idea for exec MBA students wanting to make a career change to tap search firms in their future industry or function of interest - after all, search firms know where these jobs are, right? That could be true depending on what search mandates the firm has, how robust the firm’s research capabilities are and how strong a network the firm’s consultants have in that given industry. The thing is though, search firms are not looking for career changers. Search firms are hired (and paid handsomely) by their clients to identify and engage hard to find senior-level talent that is a strong match in terms of experience and skills to the mandates they are hired to complete. In most cases, this means exacting requirements in terms of a candidate’s experience (i.e. sector, function, geography, business scenario), skills, leadership and management capability, and personal characteristics. Put another way, finding the green square peg that fits in the green square hole. If finding these candidates was easy, companies would not need to hire search firms, which utilize massive people and technology resources to be able to identify just the right candidates for just the right opportunity.

Are executive MBA students ready for executive search?

What I consider one of the primary responsibilities of Career Services is to help our XPs level set their expectations for what it means to be prepared for their job search, of which executive search can certainly play a part. Several factors need to be considered on whether or not an exec MBA is ready to work with search consultants including how prepared they are to articulate their value and tell a strong story, as well as their current professional level.

To tell that compelling story about the value you bring actually takes quite a bit of work. It’s no less than writing a carefully crafted script for a commercial, where the high quality product being sold is you(!) And just as your expectations for the type of opportunities you want are raised when you enter into the Booth Executive MBA program, the expectations of employers of how prepared, focused and polished you are will be heightened as well. Being a strong professional is not enough. You also need to be able to sell yourself effectively with a coherent and focused message.

Top search firms are also looking to engage very senior executives for their client mandates, typically at the C-level or C-level minus 1-2 levels. Depending on the class make up of exec MBA students at a particular school, there will be a varying percentage of those that fit into that experience range and those that do not. What this means is that search firms will have varying degrees of interest in exec MBA students, which likely factors in broad stroke criteria such as the average age of the class (as a proxy for years of relevant experience), what a school is known for (e.g. finance, international business) and the overall reputation of the MBA program for a given school.

Should exec MBAs make relying on executive search firms a primary part of their job search strategy?

Well-performing search consultants focused on C-level searches place an average of 9-10 candidates a year. With the very specific candidate requirements of client companies, the infrequency of such placements should be no surprise. And this is also a strong indication for executives that they should not heavily rely on search consultants as the primary way in which they’ll find their next job. Search consultants are an avenue, but not the only avenue to new opportunities. Executive MBAs in particular, should ideally have a robust network through their school which they can then leverage. Regular networking with school alumni, together with other means of sourcing jobs such as executive-level job boards, school-facilitated job postings, attending professional conferences, networking sites like LinkedIn, and executive search, comprise a more complete and effective search strategy.

Knowledge of how executive search works and the preparation to engage search firms will help you confidently answer in the affirmative - ‘Are you ready for executive search?’ At Career Services, we’re here to help you determine if executive search is a good option for you and put your best foot forward in engaging with search firms.