What Trust Means in Executive Search

In every search for a new executive there are layers of complexity baked into the process. From competing agendas, to strong personalities, to internal dynamics – no search is simple.

In particular, specializing in executive search within the human capital industry means being the ultimate in relationship and trust building. In an industry with people at the epicenter, these executives are especially astute.

In fact, most of the C-suite I work with have grown up in the human capital space. Whether it’s HR technology, staffing and recruiting, vendor management systems (VMS), or managed service providers (MSP), the net end is human. We’re not product-based, we’re people-based. As such, working in these industries is reputational – and it’s almost entirely built on trust.

Senior executives of any organization naturally have one eyebrow raised when a search firm is engaged to find them a new leader. And the other eyebrow goes up when a new executive is brought in – whether through a search firm or not. In my 20 years of experience, there are, of course, ways to minimize the level of skepticism, but the real solution is almost always founded in trust. And the ability to build it quickly is important.

Building Trust Fast, With Integrity

In a critical function, like executive search, where the wrong hire could take years to recover from, guidance, thoughtfulness and consultation is what it takes to identify the right person capable of doing the job. As the saying goes, “It’s lonely at the top,” and the higher up you go in executive search, naturally the less options there are. At the C-suite level, there are rarely multiples to choose from. It takes precision and expertise to make recommendations that come from a highly detailed process, but it takes stakeholder trust to accept those recommendations. So whether it’s a family owned business and the founding CEO is moving on, or a private-equity backed company with funding on the line, wisdom and having conducted searches under similar circumstances means providing critical input and direction to lead the company into the next phase of business.

What may take years for an executive to do with their teams and direct reports, an executive search consultant does in a matter of weeks. In order for communication to be effective and helpful, it has to be well-received – no matter what the message is. And if there isn’t trust, conversations can quickly become counterproductive.

I’ve observed leaders who think they’re being effective, and who falsely assume they’ve developed trust with their executive teams, only to find out there’s a lot of head nodding when they’re in the room but naysaying when they’re not. If an executive does not have trust, they miss out on important information and perspectives – and people will rarely disagree with them. This, of course, only adds to a false perception of how effective they think they’re being.

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In addition to getting a read on the people and dynamics involved, simultaneously – and quickly – an executive search consultant is working to build trust and credibility with each stakeholder. If the search consultant does not have the trust of the board and the current CEO, they’re not going to be able to effectively lead them through the executive search process and towards the best decision for the business.

In executive search, there can be uncomfortable conversations that happen along the way. In my experience, as long as you are leading with integrity and continuously building trust, the results will follow.

You Either Have It or You Don’t

The executives who are successful in the human capital industry arguably have to be more honed into people – at all levels.

In human capital, the CEOs are not just board room executives, they are the people’s people. Their ability to communicate and be effective leaders depends largely on their ability to build trust. In fact, Staffing Industry Analysts recently released a study that found that “transparency and communication are the top recommendations suggested by internal workers to build trust with their staffing firm, with respondents indicating that a large part of establishing that trust is simply being candid.”

The same is true in executive search. To be an effective – and genuine – leader, you have to be willing to make decisions and give advice that do not always result in quick and easy wins. I’ve taken companies through the executive search process, mapped out the industry and come to the conclusion that there’s simply not a better person, right now, than the current person they have in the seat. Providing that kind of objective advice takes a level of selflessness and honesty, and to me, you either are that person or you’re not.

In all leadership capacities, trust comes down to a willingness to put personal interests aside. And when you do, your track record will speak for itself. People will know you for being honest and a person of integrity; the level of trust you build will be palpable.

Building this level of trust isn’t a destination; rather, it’s the foundation from which all great relationships, careers and people grow.


Lisa Maxwell

Lisa Maxwell
Lisa Maxwell is managing partner at Gerard Stewart, a global executive search firm.

Lisa Maxwell

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