The most frequent calls we receive from job seekers are requests to assist them in finding a position and placing them. These inquiries can come from executives at all levels working throughout government and private sector organizations. Frequently they mention that someone told them the best jobs are all handled by, and found by, search firms. While we would not entirely discount the adage suggesting the best jobs are never published in the public domain and can only found by “knowing someone,” this is a dated outlook and not reflective of the current approach taken by increasingly large numbers of organizations who seek security executives.

We estimate that, busy as we are, globally — excluding those roles that are primarily information technology (IT) focused — search firms collectively handle less than 5% of the entire pool of open mid- to upper-level security executive roles. Organizations work very hard to diversify their talent pool in many respects and are publishing these openings across numerous networks and open-source media. Additionally, behind-the-scenes referrals that result in the passing of the baton to friends and former colleagues are the exception rather than the rule.

Having said this, search firms do play a vital role in helping organizations identify and recruit talent. There are a few key facts candidates should understand concerning what search firms do and who they represent.

First and foremost, search firms represent the employer with whom they are under contract to fill one or more positions. These contracts can take more than one form.

  • Retained, whereby the organization has engaged a firm and paid a percentage fee to conduct a search with the payments set up on achieving specific milestones.
  • Contingent, in which case the search firm is willing to absorb the risk and costs in undertaking the search and will only receive the agreed-upon fee if successful.

Generally, but not always, the more senior the role, the more likely the contract is retained. HR departments often have internal policies governing these agreements outlining the circumstances under which they can be executed.

It is not uncommon to see a policy requiring a position to be at a certain salary grade before a retained search can be contracted. In some cases, the hiring company may not wish to be identified until a small number of finalists are identified and submitted.

Our experience in watching this has led us to conclude there are common circumstances we believe do the market — and the security industry — a disservice.

  • Several retained executive search firms will only spend the amount of time it takes to identify a small number — six or eight — candidates they feel can be “peddled” to the client. They then suspend further active searching. This is easier for them to do when the search is a process that is closely held. As a result, I have seen a lot of highly talented and likely better qualified candidates get “blown off” by these firms because they found out about the opening too late, once the search firm stopped looking.
  • Clients offer a contingent contract to a firm then subsequently hire a second or even a third firm to work on the same search. They may also choose to blast ads across the internet, making it both difficult and confusing for the firms they have contracted as well as potential candidates. The same resume may get submitted by multiple search firms in addition to the candidate submitting one as well. Typically, the hiring company will date/time stamp resumes as they are received, with credit for finding a candidate — should that candidate be hired — going to the first search firm of many to submit the resume. This results in candidates having no idea who to contact to give them their best shot at the opportunity.
  • Search firms become aware of an open role and publish the listing requesting resumes when they do not have a legal agreement with the company to conduct the search. They may or may not speak with the candidates before sending a selection of resumes to either HR or the hiring manager along with a contract solicitation. This is highly unethical and violates several privacy statutes across several states and countries.

Looking for a job can be about as much fun as self-acupuncture with a nail. It can be frustrating, and often the processes you go through with either HR departments or search firms can seem bizarre at best. This is true even from our side of this. Learning to navigate and manage this will be a key element in moving your career outside your current organization. There are some dedicated professionals out there who can truly support and help organizations to both find and develop talent. Learning to work well with them will only be to your advantage.