The Bell Curve – How the search for top talent really works

The Marketplace for Leadership

In any search, the prospective candidates stratify on a bell curve based on their background, skills and accomplishments.

The impact of “off-limits” on your access to top candidates

“The Search Industry is One of the Most Misunderstood by Even the Savviest of Executives.”

Forbes Magazine

“Recruitment firms [Isaacson Miller, Storbeck/Pimentel, Parker Executive Search, AGB Search, Greenwood/Asher, Myers-Mcrae, Gold Hill Associates, Russell Reynolds, Korn/Ferry, Witt Kieffer, Academic Search and many others] are handicapped in doing the very job for which they are hired because ethically, those firms must eliminate highly desirable source companies [institutions], certain clients and individuals are considered “off limits.” The larger the search firm, the longer the client list, the more tightly constrained they become in terms of their potential talent pool.”

“There is danger when a client uses the same search firm many other organizations are using. To drive revenue, search firms engage as many clients and searches as possible. This is lucrative for the search firm, but not ideal for the client, for this reason: the fundamental caveat in the search industry is that a search firm does not recruit from its clients – those candidates are “off-limits”. The more clients a search firm has, the more difficult it is to recruit top talent. On the other hand, underperforming or unemployed candidates are easily recruited, including underperforming candidates from the search firm’s clients who would love to see their underperformers moved elsewhere.”

Fortune Magazine

“The single biggest operational issue we have is the off-limits issue, because it prevents us from going after a lot of the best and the brightest. The more business we get, the more talent is blocked for us.” 

Fortune Magazine

“The off-limits issue is something that most boards and CEOs have not even thought about. There is a considerable lack of understanding and knowledge by clients in terms of who is doing what in the executive search community.”

Frederick Wackerle, Author of The Right CEO

“What really matters, especially for organizations that say they’re committed to diversity and recruiting from broader pools of leadership talent, is which candidates the executive search firm can and cannot call. And that’s an important consideration, given that many search firms have adopted a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy when it comes to sidestepping the important client issue of where the search firm can and can’t go in search of executive talent. Additionally, since the client list solely belongs to the search firm, a new client may never realize the full extent of who is genuinely off-limits.”

“One paradox unique to the executive search consulting business is that a firm‘s reach isn’t the same as its access to talent.  Technology has expanded the reach of most executive search consultants across the world, but given that each search firm has a different client list, the question of which organizations the firm can actually recruit senior leadership candidates from must be raised by the client before each search assignment. The vital difference between search firms’ reach and their true access to executive talent is often misunderstood by even the most experienced executives, including a startling majority of CEOs and board directors.

Joseph Daniel McCool, Deciding Who Leads, How Executive Recruiters Drive, Direct & Disrupt the Global Search for Leadership Talent

“The search firm’s size plays a role in the ability to provide an optimal experience for a    client. Bigger is not necessarily better.  …Moreover, the larger a search firm becomes, and the more client relationships it maintains, the fewer candidates it can access due to off-limits restrictions. As a result, it becomes problematic — if not impossible — for a large search firm to fulfill the promise of its value proposition.”

Head of Korn/Ferry’s CEO practice (previous)

A compelling criticism of search firms with long client lists such as Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, Stobeck Pimental, Academic Search, Witt Kieffer and many others is their very success limits their effectiveness. That’s because in playing by industry rules, they cannot recruit executives that their firms have placed in jobs or take top talent from companies where they’ve installed executives. So, these firms can’t pluck executive leadership from leading organizations and enterprises that are off-limits according to Heidrick & Struggles Chairman is forthright about the problem. “The single biggest operational issue we have is the off-limits issue, because it prevents us from going after a lot of the best the brightest,” he admits. “The more business we get, the more talent is blocked for us.”

Fortune Magazine

Excerpts from the sentinel guide to the executive search industry, Rites of Passage at $100,000 to $1 Million +;  Your Insider’s Lifetime Guide to Executive Job Changing and Faster Career Progress, by John Lucht

Barrier #1: The You-Work-for-a-Client “Off-Limits” Rule:

Because the retainer recruiter is being paid to strengthen the client organization, he or she has a corresponding duty not to tear it down. When the client agrees to pay the recruiter to attempt to fill an empty office, she has a right to expect that the recruiter won’t simultaneously… or afterward… try to empty another office. Indeed, no employer wants to contribute to the financial health of any recruiting organization that currently is… or soon will be… working against the health of the employer ‘s organization.

Barrier #2: The You’re-Allocated-to-Another-Recruiter-Within-the-Firm “Off Limits” Rule:

Only one recruiter at a time is given permission within the firm to contact a prospective candidate. And he/she’s only allowed to tell that individual about one job at a time.

How These Barriers Operate Within the Recruiting Firm:

Every recruiter in a traditionally ethical retainer firm is forbidden to contact any executive as a prospect for a job until he or she checks to determine that the executive:

1. doesn’t work for a client,


2. hasn’t been allocated to a different recruiter doing a different search.

Only if the retainer recruiter is lucky enough to hurdle both barriers does he have permission within his firm to tell a prospective candidate about a career opportunity.

Let’s today begin a dialogue as to how our Portfolio Approach and Portfolio Promise combine to uniquely position your enterprise assuring you consistently hire those proven top of the bell curve leaders.

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