My worst ever Executive Search- 7 embarrassing mistakes

29 Mar 2016 by Sarah Leembruggen.

It must be 10 years ago when one of my favourite agency CEO’s suggested a certain bank that they should contact me. Apparently after I found several members of their team they had given us a glowing recommendation- Fabulous. What could go wrong? Everything.

I share this story after 13 years of in-house and agency senior level (mostly retained) search and I would hope I have learned a thing or two. The role was for an international bank looking for their first Head of PR in London.

Mistake 1 - We didn’t enquire about what they wanted out of the meeting which meant we were wholly unprepared- it was embarrassing.

Mistake 2 - We chose the wrong venue- A rather cool exclusive club with soft seating. The meeting required a table and a formal presentation.

Mistake 3 - The client wanted to retain us for executive search as our renowned competition had failed to fill the role. We advised against it as it was December, a terrible time to start a search. This was not the mistake. It was that we were not prepared to sell ourselves. We didn’t have a presentation for a search, hadn’t done a search like this before where you get paid upfront to research the market.

Mistake 4 - Funnily enough we didn’t win the search and another of our closest competitors was given the role. They, too, failed. The mistake was that we then took it on. I knew a December search would fail but the fact that two of my competitors that were unable to fill this role- you have to ask the question why?
Fortunately, I could see the issues and advised the client on the best course of action.

Mistake 5 - Now when you headhunt people they are usually flattered but this role was already so well known on the market that it started to get embarrassing when my approaches knew which bank it was, as it was old news. All confidentiality and prestige seemingly was out the window, along with all my pride.

Mistake 6 - I have never since worked so hard or spoken to as many people as I did on that campaign. I was determined to fill it and in fact one offer went out and then got turned down- argh. The client was so tired at interview they put the candidate off. I should have noted this and advised the client, my mistake.

Mistake 7 - I really could go on as there are more. I did find another candidate who gratefully accepted the role but I think I went grey over it. Salary was a big sticking point and something I had advised on early on but the client thought they knew better. I forgot I was the expert for a while, yet another mistake.

So 13 years of executive search and a fair few mistakes later I can hand on heart say: I have never failed to fill a retained assignment. Everything has been easy since! Despite the pain, the Head of PR at the Bank stayed there for 5 years. My biggest learn is not that I’m not half bad at my job, it is that I love it. The bigger the job, the tougher the challenge, the more I am interested. Bring it on!

The Works Search specialise in placing mid to senior level PR and communications talent in leading PR agencies and in-house organisations across London, on both a contingency and executive search basis. For our latest roles visit our jobs page, or contact the team on 0207 559 6690 to discuss your career in confidence.

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