• Scott Whipkey

Rise of the Confidential Search

Updated: Jul 2


By Scott Whipkey, CEO Ascend Executive Search

June 24, 2020


Confidential Executive Searches have long been used by companies seeking to fill executive and high-profile roles. Below we’ll explain ten reasons why some talent searches flat-out require secrecy. And it’s not just for executive roles anymore. We’re getting requests to conduct confidential searches for professional positions across the board. So here are:


Ten Reasons for a Confidential Search


1) Competitive Advantage:

Companies opt for confidential searches when they are looking for specific skills to develop new products, services and technologies, or expand into new areas, navigate mergers /acquisitions, or anything they don’t want their competitors to find out. And to maintain competitive advantage, the circle of those in-the-know must be kept small and leak-proof (sometimes I don't even tell my employees or my family what I'm working on).


2) Dirty Laundry:

I had a client who asked me to conduct a confidential search for a new CFO because he thought the current CFO might be going to jail (he did, for reasons that had nothing to do with the company). Filling vacancies that were created by in-house crises, family disputes, legal issues, financial troubles - requires discretion and delicacy.


3) Succession/Retirement:

A key player, perhaps an owner or founder, has decided to retire effective at a future date. A premature announcement might hurt the company’s market position, or unduly affect employee morale. The employee may have even personally requested confidentially if they are leaving for reasons such as illness or family.


4) Termination:

The GM plans to fire the Plant Manager, but needs a replacement ready to step in immediately. This particular role cannot go unfilled, so the company will conduct a confidential search, and once they’ve found a replacement, then they’ll drop the axe.


5) Defection:

Years ago I did a search for a tech firm whose owner had found out his 'guru' was leaving - going to work for their most-hated rival. The guru was simply waiting for his bonus check before announcing his resignation. The owner was livid and insisted on finding someone better, and fast. I found them a guru-Rockstar, and her hiring was announced fifteen minutes after the alleged-traitor’s resignation was made public.

6) Company Branding:

Every company wants to be viewed as a great place to work, but have you ever seen a job posting and thought to yourself, “They’re looking for a Chief Information Security Officer, again? What the heck is going on over there?” Sometimes it’s better to keep things on the QT.


7) Right-Sizing:

This is true for any company that has downsized, and even more applicable in the wake of the pandemic shutdown. The skills that companies needed before are different than the things they need now. Tens of millions have been downsized, and many will not be re-hired. They’ll be replaced with people with more upside and value (i.e. younger and cheaper). So to avoid the deluge of applicants and the awkward pleas from ex-employees, companies will opt to keep some openings on the down-low (see my previous article, The Music has Stopped).


8) HR Considerations:

Several client executives have told me of push-back they get from HR for ‘using outside agencies.’ HR Managers sometimes feel that, “Recruiting is my job. Let me do what you hired me for.” Indeed some of the best executive search professionals in world work ‘in-house’ - but others may not be experienced in confidential searches, where mistakes and leaks can be devastating. Confidential headhunting is a mysterious world of reconnaissance, investigations, subterfuge, cryptic cold-calling and vague voicemails, ironclad NDA’s and clandestine hotel-room meetings using aliases. I’m pretty sure that even Cornell’s Doctorate of Human Resources program doesn’t offer a curriculum on Stealthy Corporate Poaching.


9) Plausible Deniability:

Even if a company has the best talent acquisition team on the planet, do they really want their internal TA team to actively headhunt their competitor’s best people? Or might it be preferable to have a third party handle the task? Plausible deniability is for when the CEO gets a call from their rival CEO asking if they really want to start a talent war.


10) Skip the Red Tape:

Job descriptions must be written. Applicants must be entered into the ATS system. Internal processes and procedures must be followed. Approvals must be garnered. Salary guidelines must be followed. Regulations must be adhered to. Candidates must be responded to. Internal employees must be given consideration. Politics, infighting and rumors must be dealt with. So skip the red tape and get straight to the business of hiring the best. Your company's success depends on it.

"People aren’t your most important asset. The right people are." - Jim Collins, Good to Great



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