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Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better When Picking A Search Firm

By Joann S. Lublin

In seeking fresh employment, should you turn for help to the biggest executive recruiters or the smallest? Both giants and boutiques can help -- and hinder -- your hunt.

The solution? Play all sides of the field, mindful that size-related pitfalls abound. Forge bonds with key players everywhere. Though search professionals work for employers, smart ones know well-treated prospects often become clients later.

The world's largest search firms help fill spots at a variety of pay levels in a range of industries. Thanks to their huge staffs, elaborate databases and offices around the globe, you may gain exposure to a broad array of opportunities.

In the U.S. alone, the four leading recruiters handled about 54% of the industry's management searches last year, says Scott Scanlon, the CEO of researchers Hunt-Scanlon Advisors. He figures each conducts an average of 2,200 domestic assignments annually. Their search consultants typically carry heavier workloads than those at boutiques, he adds.

But with heft comes drawbacks. You may find it arduous to land an introductory session at an industry giant. A jobless media executive has spent two months pursuing a drink with a New York senior partner at Korn/Ferry International, the biggest search firm. A mutual acquaintance dropped her a note, vouching for him.

The recruiter's assistant promised to arrange the get-together once the man posted his resume and job interests in the firm's internal database. The man did, then heard nothing. Prospects can "get lost in a larger firm," the executive frets. He should complain "to the next highest level in a constructive way," recommends Robert Damon, Korn/Ferry's North American president.

Big search firms' weighty workloads can crimp their ability to keep contenders well-informed. Last fall, Heidrick & Struggles International approached an unemployed advertising man about a restaurant-chain presidency. Invited to meet the board selection committee, he repeatedly called the busy recruiter to learn the committee members' names. The recruiter finally gave him the names the night before his 8 a.m. interview. The board picked someone else.

"We don't accept that kind of performance," insists Gerard Roche, senior chairman of Heidrick, the industry's third biggest.

Yet with inadequate feedback, you may not realize a big firm recruiter has "reserved" you -- putting you beyond his colleagues' reach until his quest ends. "You can get tied up on a reserve list for weeks and sometimes months," says Peter D. Crist, an ex-Korn/Ferry vice chairman who runs the boutique Crist Associates in Hinsdale, Ill. Candidates keen to shift allegiances inside a search giant should tell the recruiter, "Take me off the list."

Boutiques offer different pluses and minuses. Most specialize in a function or industry niche. Because they serve a narrow band of employers, you're less likely to be "off limits" if you work for a present or recent client. You're also likely to jump through fewer hoops before you meet clients. And you may become chummy with a senior partner faster.

Though small recruiters may try harder to match your needs with a hiring company's, they often lack suitable opportunities -- especially if you're eager to change fields or have already switched. Ann Kirschner, a New York media and technology consultant, has worked in broadcasting, the online world and higher education. She says boutiques suspect she's "a strange creature from some career zoos whom [they] have not petted yet."

Tiny firms' low volume limits your prospects, too. Whelan Stone, a San Francisco boutique, handles just four assignments at a time. "The odds are diminished that any of those searches might be right for you," concedes Fred Whelan, a partner.

Jonathan Estrin, executive vice president of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, was once the runner-up for a Rockefeller Foundation position. He appreciated the personal attention he received from recruiter Marilyn Machlowitz. Nevertheless, the boutique owner didn't "come back to me to inquire about other searches for maybe six months," he recalls.

A six-month lag doesn't mean a prospect "made a bad impression," notes Ms. Machlowitz, a nonprofit specialist. It's just that "we're looking for such unique skill sets."

Another disadvantage: Tiny search firms sometimes operate less smoothly than industry heavyweights. Medical-device consultant Joel Weinstein billed a boutique for his travel when he flew to San Antonio from Boston for a job interview in July 2002. He was vying to be a U.S. division general manager at a Japanese company.

But Mr. Weinstein not only failed to get hired, he nearly failed to recoup his $1,000 in expenses. It took four months, a letter from his attorney and the client's threat to stop using the firm. The recruiter blamed billing system problems.

"I maintain a 'Do Not Use' list, and this guy's name is at the top of it, along with his entire boutique," says Mr. Weinstein, now CEO of VueSonix Sensors, a medical-device startup in Wayne, Pa. "It's no wonder that some recruiters have a tarnished image."

Article from – August 2006