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The Perils of Serving Two Masters

January 13, 2020

In executive search, we do our best work when we work in partnership with our clients. When our clients engage in regular and open communication with us, and we have a very clear and defined mandate, arrived at through a robust sharing of ideas and exchange of views, only then can we find a fantastic pool of candidates that will integrate seamlessly into our client’s business.


But what happens when our “client” is not one individual person, or not one team working together in harmony?


As executive recruiters, we too often find ourselves serving two (or more) masters under the banner of one client. A classic example is trying to work for both an HR leader and a business leader, who have competing visions of what a successful hire will look like. Another example might be working with a Board of Directors, where there can be several cooks in the kitchen. We have even seen cases where we are working with a particular business leader, only to find months down the road that someone else in an entirely different department who we’ve never engaged with will ultimately have the final say on who the successful candidate should be – and they have some strong opinions.


In these and other situations, we can find ourselves spending more time navigating the tricky political landscape within a client organization instead of focusing on what we do best: executing and advising on a search. Nothing is more frustrating than to receive instructions by a team during a group kick-off meeting, only to have one client party call us in later weeks to advise us on the “real” mandate, with the other client party in disagreement, or worse, unaware. Spoiler alert: this scenario never ends well for anyone.


Equally difficult is working with a client when there is clear conflict among the client participants. When individuals within a client are not communicating well with each other, we are left to play an uncomfortable moderator role between search participants, like being invited to someone’s home for dinner only to watch the husband and wife bicker all night. Trust us when we say it can be hard to move a search process forward when Joe and Linda don’t talk to each other about something as simple as when they can meet for an interview or as difficult as to which of the several excellent candidates on the short-list they should extend an offer.


Indeed, in our experience, the clients that are best served in a search process are the ones who enable us to serve only one master, acting on one set of instructions and engaging with one unified decision-making authority. If your organization is considering going to executive search, it would be wise to first consider how well your search team functions as, well, a team. Is there alignment across the team on the final result of the search? If decisions need to be made along the way after facing market realities, how will those be decided? And for organizations deciding the make-up of a search team, our advice is always: less is more!