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A Guide to Sourcing Candidates during an Executive Search Process

Sourcing is the process of locating names of possible candidates by referral from others (or themselves, when contacted). You generally have to contact many people to obtain names. Some of these may be found unsuitable quickly because they do not meet the job description requirements. Sourced names that seem to be suitable are added to a list of potential candidates for further investigation.

The first people to telephone in your source search are those who know about relevant industries and companies, such as association executives, academics who have specific knowledge about industries and key companies, accountants, attorneys, investment bankers, journalists, and business acquaintances. Or they may be people brought to your attention by third parties.

Sourcing calls are made primarily to obtain names of individuals who appear to meet the qualifications for the job that you are seeking to fill. Sometimes you call an executive you have reason to believe may be a potential candidate. Other times, the sourcing calls purpose is to obtain the names of as many potential candidates as possible. It is also a good idea to try to get additional source names from individuals called.

After making a sufficient number of sourcing calls, you should have obtained the names of potential candidates (who will be further investigated), as well as additional sources. Names of five or more potential candidates might be obtained with a single source call, along with the names of one or two additional sources. After a number of calls have been made, you should have a network of names.

Sourcing calls make up a good deal of the workload in the search assignment. It is important to note clearly on the call list which potential sources have been contacted, so that future work, when needed, can proceed based on leads not followed up the first time. It is up to your own professional judgment when enough sourcing calls have been made.

Sourcing in Small Versus Big Markets

For maximum efficiency, small markets and large markets call for different methods. One reason for this is that you usually have many more target companies to hit in a large market. In a small market, often with just a handful of target companies, you cannot afford to do many wrong source calls in a company, or stir things up. You have to hit your target right away if possible. Wrong calls can make the word go around, and your target can easily lose interest because he or she does not feel special. Sourcing techniques must be adjusted according to the marketplace, the existing culture, and the situation at the time.

Time wise, the most efficient way to conduct research in larger markets such as the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom is where you concentrate first on finding candidates who are qualified, and you do not conduct reference checking until much later. This method often includes extensive use of mailing before calling.

In smaller markets such as Ireland, Norway, and Sweden, a helpful way to source is by careful reference checking, as you not only want names, but also would like to know beforehand who the best candidates are. In this method, it is helpful to speak to someone who just left your target company, and who happened to work in the department you were targeting for prospects or potential candidates. The goal should be to find someone (source) who is one level above your potential targets. If this source is helpful, he or she can provide you with quality names. This method of tracking down candidates is generally too time-consuming to use in larger markets.

Both approaches are being mixed in small and big markets, although there is a tendency to lean toward a certain way to conduct the search in the specific market as explained.

Finding Sources Who Left the Company

Talking to people who recently left the target company can help you tell the rising stars from the falling ones early in the search process. Keep in mind that it is important who your source is: A statement from a boss who recently left the company usually has a lot more validity than one from a secretary. There are two basic methods you can use to find your source:

1.    Cross-check directories: Look at the executives listed in a current directory, and compare them with those listed in an earlier edition of the same directory. Names that were previously listed but are not in the newest edition are good potential sources. Next, phone the company and ask for the missing people. Pretend that you think they are still there. Tell the switchboard operator or the person in the department that you are speaking to that you used to be friends with the person, but you lost touch over the years. Keep in mind that if you get the HR department on the line the game is over, because they generally will not give out a forwarding number.

2.    Connect with someone in the department that you are targeting: Tell the person at your target company that you are looking for someone that you met a while back who had told you he used to work with the target company until recently, but had recently started elsewhere. If he or she asks you why you want to know, say that it is very personal and out of respect for the person in question you do not wish to disclose any further information on the matter. You are not 100 percent sure about the name, but you think that it may be Jim or Peter. In most cases the person will try to help you out by giving you different names of people who have left if you just keep probing. This method should only be used if nothing else works. You should always use your real name and the company that you are calling from, if you are asked. Never pretend that you are someone else, as you can get involved in legal complications. Be persistent, polite, quick, and positive.

Mailings and Source Letters

Mailing the position specification to potential sources and candidates is a practice that both private companies and several executive search firms stick to religiously, while others ban it. Even some of the most prestigious executive search firms with top-notch positions do mail-outs. To obtain the best possible results, certain basic rules should be followed:

1.    Protect the confidentiality of the firm: The company name should be left out if possible (this is of course difficult if the company with the recruitment need is conducting the mailing). If the recruitment is official, the position specification can be very detailed. If the opposite is the case, then you need to be careful about what information you present, as you do not want anybody to be able to guess what company it is. This confidentiality can only be ensured if an external executive search firm is conducting the mail-out.

2.    The source letter must be well written: Get to the point quickly, and stick to the basics. Be sure that there are no grammatical errors in the letter. Mistakes indicate sloppiness and give an adverse impression about you, the sender. Every source letter must be addressed to the receivers as sources. If you plan to mail a position specification to somebody at his or her workplace, be aware that the mail will likely be opened by a secretary or assistant before it reaches the target. This means that you cannot afford any misunderstandings. Even though you try to reach a target that you feel could be a great candidate, still write to him as a source. If you already have spoken to somebody who has shown great interest and wants to receive the mail at home, you can use a so-called potential candidate letter. Keep in mind that this kind of letter can never be sent to someone's work address.

3.    The receivers of the mail-out are all the people on your target list: Each mailing (envelope) should contain a source letter and a position specification.

4.    Never wait for your target group to call you: Right after the creation of the target list and the mail-out, start calling. You can never afford the luxury of waiting for the mail to reach the targets.

Note: Do not call anybody before you have created the target list. It will, to a great extent, slow the process later in the search if you have to stop because you did not make a complete list in the beginning.