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I should start off by being completely transparent. As the co-founder of a specialized boutique search firm focused on in-house counsel and compliance staff, including General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officers, we run into the global search firms as competitors every day. 

So I’ve had plenty of occasions to ask clients and prospective clients about their rationale behind including the biggest search firms in consideration for engagements we’re going after. Those conversations inspired this post, which I hope will provide some fresh perspective on the long-running “David vs. Goliath” discussion in our industry.

Top Myths

Myth #1: You need to work with a giant to access the best talent.

Reality: Top talent has the luxury of to responding to only the best opportunities, so being big doesn’t guarantee response. Being very good in a specialty absolutely increases the likelihood that top talent responds, and quality boutique firms dedicate themselves to being very good at their craft. 

Myth #2: Global search firms have more recruiting talent in their networks. They win the numbers game.

Reality: That’s like saying Walmart has more business suits for sale than Brooks Brothers. Yes, the largest search firms probably have more warm bodies within their candidate networks. But boutique firms working single-mindedly at attracting the top talent in their niche will have the best concentration of high-quality candidates. They expend more effort understanding quality, and (see #1) are better at getting responses from top talent.

Myth #3: Global search firms are worth the higher price because of all the extras you get when you work with them. And their search specialists are the best in the industry, so of course they cost more. 

Reality: The largest firms cost more because they have more overhead to absorb – overhead that has absolutely nothing to do with your search. It’s true they have lots of high-priced partners, but another reality is that junior associates, people with limited experience in the searched industry, will do most of the work behind your search. What about the high-priced talent? They’re mostly there for selling.

Myth #4: Because of their staff depths, bigger firms provide the best service.

 

Reality: Anyone who believes that also thinks an 800-room hotel serves guests better than an 8-room boutique hotel because they have more staff. I’ve stayed in both, and the boutique wins every time. When you check in, the manager asks what time you want to eat breakfast. You go to sleep knowing they’ll be there waiting for you to personally make your breakfast exactly the way you want it.

With a boutique search firm, if you want to discuss the status of your engagement with the partner running the search, you call him or her directly and talk. Because they only work on a limited number of projects at one time, you have that partner’s undivided attention whenever you need it. And because they’re actually doing much of the work, they have firsthand knowledge of what’s actually happening. 

Myth #5: No one ever gets fired for hiring a global search firm. That’s the safest decision. 

Reality: The industry average for successful searches is around 80%. Which doesn’t sound bad, unless you’re one of the 20% who wasted six months on a critical search and have nothing to show for it.

The top boutique firms across specializations are likely to average better than 95% success because they know the industry they work in better than anyone, and because they live and die on their reputation connected to every search. They absolutely can’t accept a 20% failure rate.

Do you think boards of directors look kindly on failed searches simply because a name firm was responsible for it? Certainly not if they knew there were better options available, and those other options were better business decisions in all regards.

When it comes to searches that are critical to the health, wellbeing, and future success of your enterprise, avoid putting your trust in myth. Trust in reality, and make better decisions as a result.

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