Boutique Search Services for Higher Education and Nonprofit

Boutique Firms – The Value Proposition

Carrie Coward, President
December, 2018

The value of a boutique executive search firmThe Scenario:
I am leading a search committee discussion for a Dean search that my firm is managing for a public university. The university has another Dean search running concurrently which is being managed by a large “big name” search firm. I don’t know why they are using different firms for similar searches, but there are several likely explanations. Perhaps the experience level differs in specialized areas; perhaps the decision is relationship-based; perhaps the university did not want one firm to be managing two similar searches at the same time.

It’s interesting – two search committee chairs on my committee are also serving on the other search committee. During a status update meeting, the other search comes up in conversation. The other search timeline is delayed and our timelines are now overlapping, so we may need to make adjustments as we set campus interview dates and such. The co-chairs they tell me that they are frustrated with the other firm’s performance. The process feels disjointed. The search consultant doesn’t seem very close to the search. The timeline keeps being adjusted because the other consultant has too many searches running at the same time; he keeps moving the dates to suit his schedule. They question why this is acceptable. One of the chairs hears from a colleague at another university, “Hey, I just got a call today about XYZ search. How’s it going?” The problem is that this call was made two days before the candidate slate was due to be delivered to the search committee. They inquire to me, “Shouldn’t these calls have gone out five or six weeks ago?”

My Assessment:
It’s hard to be in a position like this. I hear their concerns and concur with them in my head. At the same time, I don’t want to commiserate with them or speak ill of another firm or of a process that I am not leading. I can empathize with the other firm. Searches are difficult and time-consuming and require a good deal of effort and attention. It’s tough to have several complex searches going at the same time.

What strikes me most is that I have heard similar complaints several times this year. It’s almost a theme in some conversations I have with prospective clients who are considering using a boutique firm (boutique meaning small and specialized). On the one hand, they see advantages to using the bigger name players – established histories with their university, name recognition in the marketplace, large networks/databases. On the other hand, they are frustrated. They are seeking several things that feel more aligned with a boutique firm. They are seeking a search firm that will:

  • Put forth a level of time, effort, and attention that feels robust to the client
  • Only take on as much work as it can handle to maintain excellence in its effort and in its results
  • Provide a project team that is engaged and close to the whole process, close to the candidate outreach, close to the candidates, and close to the search leader and search team
  • Commit to do primary (fresh) research for each project and not rely solely on its database
  • Reach out to prospects multiple times in multiple ways
  • Provide details on process and metrics (for example – providing detail on advertising, listservs, prospect research, passive candidate outreach, diversity outreach, market data, and competitive intelligence).

Selection of a firm is based on many factors. But, when you boil it down, what clients are asking for is alarmingly simple – clients want EFFORT and ATTENTION. I think it’s an important reminder to all search firms – regardless of size or status.