Using an external search consultant

A guide on how your board could use an executive search consultant to recruit a new CEO.

Hiring a CEO can be complex and time-consuming. You may want to consider hiring an executive search consultant to help.

A good consultant will bring expertise, an objective perspective and resources.

If your entity is large, complex or high profile, hiring a consultant can be a good investment.

But if your entity is small, has a strong pool of CEO candidates or the recruitment is simple, it may not be worth it.

If you hire a consultant, ensure they have the capacity to engage with your board, chair, recruitment sub-committee and selection panel. Remember to follow your entity's procurement policies.

What you can use a consultant for

You can use a consultant to help your board:

  • attract candidates to the role
  • undertake initial assessments of the candidates
  • prepare a shortlist
  • gather detailed evidence about candidate capability and ‘fit’
  • keep records.

What you can’t use a consultant for

Even if you hire a consultant, your board and chair must still do these tasks:

  • identify the strategic direction of your entity
  • be the direct contact with candidates and be diligent in decision-making
  • decide who to recruit on the advice of your selection panel
  • conduct final negotiations on terms and conditions of employment, though the consultant can provide general information to all candidates.

What to ask a prospective consultant

Use these themes and questions to help you find a good consultant for your entity.

Understanding your entity

A good executive search consultant will:

  • know the industry and public sector
  • know how other CEOs in similar organisations operate
  • be aware of current events relating to your entity, industry and the public sector
  • ensure the board defines its entity’s needs and takes part in decision-making
  • have experience recruiting at CEO and board level for similar organisations.

To understand your entity, a consultant may want to meet with your chair, some of your board’s directors, some senior employees and stakeholders.

Some questions you can ask are:

  • How would you gain an understanding of our entity and the CEO role?
  • What would you need from us?

Efforts to find candidates

A good executive search consultant will have a variety of strategies to look for candidates – even those who aren’t looking for a new role.

This could include print and social media advertising, referrals, networking and database searches.

You can ask them:

  • What activities will you undertake to seek candidates who are not actively looking for a new role?
  • How will you ensure your search efforts are inclusive and supportive of diverse candidates?

Candidate management

A good executive search consultant will have a system for regular communication with candidates throughout the recruitment process.

They’ll be able to give candidates the information they need at different stages, so candidates understand the role and its challenges.

You can ask them to:

  • Describe how you manage candidates.

Expertise in evaluating CEO capabilities

A good executive search consultant will:

  • have a research basis for their work
  • be able to communicate ideas that make sense to you.

You can ask them:

  • What is your methodology and research basis for how you assess a candidate’s capabilities and fit?


A good executive search consultant will have:

You can ask them:

  • How do you assess a candidate’s ethics?
  • How do you assess the extent to which a candidate will accept and behave in line with the values of our entity and the public sector?

Reference checking

The executive search consultant should use reference checks to verify a candidate’s experience, capabilities and behaviour.

You should:

  • discuss with your search consultant the specific areas and questions you are interested in for each candidate
  • ensure your search consultant has done your reference checks properly

Working protocols

There may be a situation where a candidate put forward by an influential stakeholder may not meet the requirements of the CEO role.

In such cases, a good executive search consultant will be able to justify their assessment with evidence related to the key selection criteria.

You can ask them:

  • How will you deal with a situation in which you feel that a candidate suggested by a board director or stakeholder isn’t suitable for the role?

Commitment to outcomes

A good executive search consultant will provide a payment schedule that reflects your entity’s interests.

For example, they may base their payment schedule on the achievement of key milestones such as:

  • the creation of the short-list
  • the appointment of a candidate from the short-list
  • on the CEO completing the probationary period.

You can ask them:

  • What is your payment schedule?