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I DON’T NEED retained search

Many Leaders and human resource professionals still think of retained search as a suite of job search-related services that might have been of value once in a career.  They seldom find it of value twice.  It is not uncommon for experienced, senior level leaders to request money in lieu of retained search services. Is that a smart move?

Know What Service You Are Rejecting.  The retained search industry can be compared to estate planning in the legal profession.  With estate planning, there is one name (estate planning) that actually describes a continuum of services and levels of legal sophistication.  The use of one name to describe a continuum of professional services creates confusion for those who purchase and those who consume these services.  At one end of the estate planning continuum are shrink wrapped software packages that automatically generate wills.  These programs are convenient, inexpensive, and appropriate for the low end of the market where a standard solution is the best solution.  At the other end of the continuum are estate planning attorneys who specialize in taking the time to understand the family, work closely with the family’s tax, insurance, and investment advisors to establish complex legal instruments.  These instruments may involve trusts or family offices.  Such services are highly customized, complex, and expensive. 

            Now let’s apply this analogy to retained search.

            The popular image of retained search is that it is a suite of services organized along three core dimensions: (1) training modules in job search (2) job candidates sharing experiences with each other in group settings, (3) access to web-based resources. 

 This training-oriented approach may be of value for professionals whose careers fit into a standard framework.  It will have less value to executives whose professional lives require “out of the box,” consultative thinking. 

Is the retained search service provider orientated towards training or oriented towards consultation?  And does their model fit your needs?


According to McKinsey & Company consultants Dan Lovallo and Oliver Sibony, most leaders believe themselves to be in the top 20% of the population when it comes to driving, pleasing a partner, or managing a business.  Their high self-perceptions are distorted.  And this distortion often leads to an underestimation of the challenges involved to complete M&A integration, and large infrastructure projects.  In a related matter, most leaders tend to have an optimistic framework towards life.  An optimistic framework leads to longer life and less depression.  But optimists tend to be empirically wrong more than their pessimistic peers, according to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. 

When an executive expresses confidence that her reputation and network is so great, her job search will be brief is this confidence based on reality or a natural distortion of reality?


Leaders often have high levels of self-confidence in the wake of a termination.  There are financial and reputational risks to be managed. 

o       New leaders are often asked to sign non-compete agreements that preclude the ability to earn an income for a period of time in the one industry where they have the highest degree of credibility.  A competent retained search consultant can help reduce the financial downside of these non-compete agreements by aggressively working for career repositioning.

  • Leaders are increasingly operating in a business world where job tenure is short.  At some point, leaders will reach the “awkward age:” Too old to find a full-time role as a corporate leader and yet too young to retire.”  Such Leaders will require more “out of the box” thinking than they believe they need.
  • The new leadership “honeymoon” is a charming relic of the last century.  It has been replaced by “hit the ground running and don’t make any mistakes.”  The consultative-oriented retained search firms will provide resources for new leaders to increase the probability that they will be successful during the critical initial stages of new leadership on a new job.
  • How many leaders know people who “retired” and hang out a consulting shingle only to find out that everyone on the block is a retired executive who has hung out a similar shingle?  There are skills to learn in how to sell yourself as a consultant and how to appropriately differentiate yourself.

Maryanne Peabody and Laurence J. Stybel are co-founders of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire of Boston.  Founded in 1979, their focus is helping companies manage critical leadership when the stakes are high.  Their website is



Dan. P. Lovallo and Oliver Sibony.  “Distortions and deceptions in strategic decisions” MCKINSEY QUARTERLY, Spring 2006.

Martin Seligman.  LEARNED OPTIMISM.  New York: Vintage Books, 2006.