Whether or not to use an executive search consultant

An executive search consultant can be engaged to undertake a range of tasks. These include attracting candidates to the role, undertaking initial assessments of the candidates, preparing a shortlist, assisting with collecting and interpreting more detailed evidence about candidate capability and ‘fit’, and record keeping.

A good executive search consultant will bring expertise, an objective perspective and additional human resources to what is a complex and time consuming process. Given the time and effort involved in finding the ‘right’ CEO, and the cost of recruiting the ‘wrong’ CEO, there can be a good business case for spending money on an executive search consultant. This can especially be the case if the organisation is large, has a high profile or the operating environment is especially complex.

But there can also be a good business case for conducting the process without using an executive search consultant. If, for example, the organisation is small, its work relatively straightforward, and there is already an easily accessible pool of strong candidates for the CEO role, then an executive search consultant may offer little value.

There is no requirement for public sector Boards to engage an executive search consultant to assist with the recruitment of a CEO. It is a decision that the Board must make.

In any case, even if an executive search consultant is engaged, there are certain tasks that members of the board cannot outsource. No executive search consultant can undertake the tasks for which the Board are solely responsible. An executive search consultant cannot and should not be asked to undertake the following:

Identify the strategic direction for the organisation

Only the Board can establish the organisation’s strategic direction.

Conduct all the meetings (interviews) with candidates or referees

The Board, and especially its Chair, must have direct contact with the potential candidates and their referees prior to determining a final ranking of candidates.

Make the decision about who to recruit

Only the Board can make this decision, drawing upon advice from the selection panel.

Negotiate the terms and conditions of employment

The Board Chair should conduct the final negotiations (noting that the consultant should be able to provide salary parameters and other information about terms and conditions during their initial contact with prospective candidates).

Before assigning key tasks

If the Board has decided to engage an executive search consultant, they will need to establish a close working relationship with them. It is important, therefore, that the recruitment sub-committee invests time and effort into evaluating the capacity of executive search consultants to work with the Board, its Chair, the recruitment sub-committee and selection panel.

This section provides some questions that the Chair or other members of the recruitment sub-committee can ask an executive search consultant when considering whether or not to engage them.

If the Board has decided not to use an executive search consultant, then these questions can serve as a checklist for engaging, briefing and establishing the working protocols for whoever has carriage of the various tasks normally given to an executive search consultant.

Understanding the organisation

What actions will you take to gain an understanding of the organisation and the CEO role? What do you want from us?

A good executive search consultant will want to have separate meetings with the Chair, selected members of the Board, potentially some senior staff, and possibly one or more external stakeholders in order to understand the requirements of the organisation (the brief).

A good executive search consultant will also:

  • know the industry and public sector and how other CEOs in similar roles/organisations operate
  • be aware of current events relating to the organisation, industry and public sector
  • have experience recruiting at CEO and Board level for similar organisations.

A good executive search consultant will acknowledge the limits to what they can do and their capacity to succeed in their work is determined by the capacity of the Board to clarify organisational needs and participate in the decision making process.

Efforts to find candidates

What activities will you undertake to seek candidates who are not actively looking for a new role?

A good executive search consultant will have a variety of strategies for seeking candidates who may not be actively looking for a new role or who are not already on their database of known job seekers. These strategies could include: print media in leading and relevant newspapers, social media sites (for example, Linkedin, Facebook, and industry forum sites), referrals, networking, and database searches.

Candidate Management

Describe how you manage candidates.

A good executive search consultant will have a system for ensuring regular communication with candidates throughout the process. They will also be able to identify what information they provide candidates at different stages to ensure candidates have an accurate understanding of the role and its challenges while remaining engaged with the process.

Expertise in evaluating CEO capabilities

What is your methodology and the research basis for your approach to the assessment of candidate capabilities and fit?

A good executive search consultant will have a research basis for their work and be able to communicate ideas and concepts in ways that immediately make sense to the Board Chair and members of the CEO recruitment sub-committee.


How do you assess the extent to which candidates have a moral compass, that is they will accept and behave in accordance with the values of the organisation and the public sector more generally?

A good executive search consultant assisting with public sector CEO recruitment will have good working knowledge of the Public Administration Act 2004. They will have developed techniques for assessing the alignment between candidate values and those of an organisation.

Reference checking

Describe how you reference check potentially suitable candidates.

This will vary. A good executive search consultant will, at a minimum, use reference checks to verify a candidate’s experience and claims about capability and behaviour. A good search consultant will also change the questions that they ask referees in order to investigate areas of a candidate’s capability about which there is little clarity or cause for concern.

Working protocols

How will you deal with a situation in which you feel that a candidate suggested by a Board Director (or other influential stakeholder) is not suitable for the role?

A good executive search consultant will accept that there may be a situation where a candidate put forward by an influential stakeholder may not meet the requirements of the CEO role. In such cases a good executive search consultant will be prepared and able to justify their assessment in terms of evidence that relates to the key selection criteria.

Commitment to outcomes

What is your payment schedule?

A good executive search consultant will provide a payment schedule that ensures commitment to the organisation’s best interests. For example, the payment schedule may be based upon achievement of key milestones such as creation of the short-list; the appointment of a candidate from the short-list created by the consultant; and upon the newly appointed CEO’s successful completion of their probationary period.