I can hear the reactions already, “the cheek of that fellow at MM&CO, telling us how to be a great client  – doesn’t he get it, that he and people like him are there to do what we say and find us great executive candidates ?! It’s not up to him to tell us how to behave!”
As a first reaction I can understand that, and I would hate it, initially, if someone told me how to behave as the person paying the bills. And then I think of my own poor skills as a driver and I know that giving me a fancy car without some guidance would be a waste because I simply would not get the best out of it. And I think – and perhaps I am pushing the analogy too far – the same is for clients.
Some get far better performance out of their executive search partners than others. When I think back over the last quarter century it seems to me that those companies who get the best from their executive search partners share certain well defined characteristics that many other companies could adopt to their advantage.
Before I share with you the characteristics of what makes a great client let me pre-empt the totally fair comment “you should deal with all clients the same”. Yes, this is true, and all self-respecting professionals have this as an ideal for their conduct towards clients.
But professionals are human and if we are self-critical we probably all know that there are some clients for whom we go the extra mile – not just in pushing the research that much further, not just in the dogged hours of labour, but with the special spark that, in executive search, makes all the difference: PASSION. It is passion and energy that delivers, time and time again , superior results for their clients.
So how do the best clients ignite this spark in their search partners?
Let me deal with what they don’t have to be.
- They don’t have to be perfect.
- They don’t have to be the largest company.
- They don’t always have to be clear on what they want.
In fact, they can have any number of their own internal challenges. But what they do have to have is a willingness to be helped, to be open, share information and give feedback.
On the willingness to be helped I can hear echoed an American cartoon voice saying like “duh”. Well, you would be surprised.
Are you empowering the right executive talent?
When I write the words, ‘willingness to be helped’ it means being receptive to counsel and feedback on the market. For example, I have seen so many times a client seeking to hire a new CEO without being willing to empower them. What they probably really need is a COO. Or in some cases just a really good CFO.
Take advice on executive talent packages
Or when it comes to compensation they might be adamant that they want to pay US$500,000 for a position whereas the market average is US$750,000 for such a role (and if they are worried about the fees being jacked up they should just negotiate a fixed fee arrangement). So many clients stubbornly refuse to accept help in these matters, the net consequence is that they are setting themselves up for disappointment. The market is the market. A Porsche 911 GT3 costs what it costs and a Ford Fiesta ST (a great little car by the way) costs what it does – but the performance is not the same.
Openess and sharing feedback
Great clients are open, they share information and give feedback in a timely fashion. Being open is about having the courage to admit that not all is perfect, is about recognizing that there are issues and sharing the strategy, the aspirations and the challenges of the organization. If the executive search partner knows these things then they can anticipate and manage candidates more effectively for the sake of the client.
One of the most soul destroying experiences for a search firm is when they have labored hard for a client and then have their candidates dismissed for no apparent reason. All search professionals, I am sure, have experienced that reaction from a client which is like “why do you want to know? None of your business…higher management knows best”. Most often or not it turns out that CVs have not been read, or not read to the end or that there is a secret agenda (“we want this nationality, not that nationality”), or they just don’t understand what they have been presented with. With good feedback course correction can be made and the market re-attacked. Great clients are masters of good feedback in a timely fashion.
Make executive search partners a part of your team
The other characteristic of great clients, and this is something that gets built over time, is that they make you feel part of their organization, they brainstorm, they trust, they invite you to their functions. It is a smart move because the executive search professional feels like they are an extension of the organization and goes the extra mile.
For my part I have been privileged to work for some great clients  over the years and by and large they all follow the same pattern as I have described.
But there is more they are themselves, at all levels of the organization, from the receptionist to the CEO, lovely people in their own right. One of the things that I may not have appreciated when I was a young consultant is that clients are people, not a species of extra-terrestrials. They have good days, bad days, they have hopes and aspirations, they have children, they deal with the worries of education and family, as we all do. We in the executive search world are there to help our clients prosper and to drive a free market for talent.