Discrete search is a sophisticated psychological science combined with the art of well-honed recruiter skills

9 min.

Hello, let's start another conversation, this time on the topic of discrete search. What exactly is it, and how does it differ from regular executive search?

Hello, executive search is inherently a very discreet discipline. Typically, a client tasks us with finding the most suitable candidate for their business, often someone who is currently with a competitor. Naturally, the client doesn't want it to be known in the market that they are actively approaching people from competing brands.

Discrete search takes this to an even higher level of complexity. Essentially, it involves a situation where a client has someone in a key position within their company with whom they are not satisfied in the long term, but for various reasons, they cannot address this person's departure openly.

Why is it done this way?

Imagine a company where you have a sales director with ties to key customers whom you need to replace. The reaction to such news can vary, including refusal and active resistance or even sabotage of your decision. It might also result in anger and the person "slamming the door" on their way out. If a client anticipates such a situation, it is useful to have a candidate ready who can take over the role immediately. Discrete search helps find, recommend, and prepare such a candidate without anyone in the market or within the client's company being aware.

That sounds like a challenging task. Is it manageable?

It is challenging, and you need to be extremely careful. First, we discuss with the client whether such a level of discretion is really necessary and what risks it poses internally and externally. If it is important, we can respect that and work with a high degree of discretion.

How does it work?

After clarifying the assignment, we map the market. We identify all companies in the relevant industry and region where a suitable candidate might be. We then use our methodology to add specific names and contact details of people working in relevant positions. This creates a list with many companies and individuals, which we review with the client. Many of them are known to the client, who can provide recommendations on some.

But you haven't spoken to the people yet.

No, this is still background work. But now the discreet work begins. We start contacting the identified workers, usually by phone outside their working hours, and initiate a conversation along the lines of, "Hello, I have an interesting project you might want to know about, but it is discreet, and I cannot reveal the client's name. Let's talk..."

How do the contacted candidates react?

This depends on the experience of the specific headhunter. If you do it well, everyone will talk to you. You can offer something interesting for everyone. However, you must be extremely cautious about what you reveal and what you don't. Saying you are looking for a CEO for the largest Czech electricity producer with state participation would be too direct. We often fine-tune with the client in advance what, to whom, and when we can disclose.

What happens next?

Now it's time for the first personal meetings with candidates in a discreet environment such as a private room in a good restaurant or hotel.

That sounds exciting. What's next?

This is where the real magic begins. It is often likened to dancing between raindrops. You work with the candidate's fears and uncertainties as well as their curiosity. You must arouse enough interest in the details, understand their true motivation for change, but at the same time, carefully protect sensitive information about your client. Discrete search is a sophisticated psychological science combined with the art of well-honed recruiter skills.

Can this be learned?

Everything can be learned; it just takes time, patience, and talent. We build on 16 years of experience with top managerial positions, have faced many risky situations, and sought new solutions to mitigate risks. We have a wealth of studies, texts, and experiences. Yet, we still occasionally get surprised. We must always be vigilant, help both sides meet their expectations, and avoid threats.

When do you reveal the client's name to the candidate?

Primarily, always after agreement and consent from the client. Most often, this happens after the second or third meeting with us, often even after the first meeting with the client in a neutral environment like a hotel lounge or our office.

How do candidates handle this secrecy?

Honestly, most of them understand the process. It is crucial to carefully explain everything to them, guide them through the process, and prepare them for the next steps. They must always know what will happen, what will be discussed, who they will meet, etc. Our candidates are often at the level of directors of large companies and understand that such a process has its reasons.

Do you ask them to sign an NDA?

This again depends on the agreement with the client. Personally, I think emphasizing discretion and asking the candidate to respect it is usually sufficient. We sign paper NDAs with candidates in about 10% of such projects, always at the client's request.

Is discretion important for the candidate as well?

Of course. All of them are key top managers of successful companies. From the first contact with us, they must be assured that we also take care of their risks and protect their interests.

How does the process proceed further?

Here, the standard selection process begins, usually involving two to three meetings between the candidates and the client, preparing a case study or other assignment, and presenting it. In the end, the client usually selects from two or three finalists. We then present the chosen candidate with an offer, negotiate its details, and once we have a deal, we confirm everything with a written agreement.

Do you assist the client with internal communication about the replacement?

Occasionally, very rarely, a client asks for our cooperation, but it is not common. Our clients are experienced managers who can handle such situations themselves without us. However, often part of the process includes an "outplacement package" for the departing manager, where we help them navigate the job market and obtain interesting offers at the client's expense.

How successful is your discrete search? Are there leaks and disclosures?

We have been refining our methodology for a long time; there are always risks. After all, it is work with people who often operate in the same market. We warn the client about such risks and prepare possible crisis communication. However, we haven't had any major issues in the last 5-6 years.

Good luck with your work, and may you continue to succeed.

Thank you, and I look forward to our next conversation.

Pavel Plachý is the founder of Flow-r Executive Search. He began his career in business intelligence, working for both Czech and multinational companies in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom. He has also held international top management roles, leading teams in three countries with a total of more than 700 employees.

In 2008, he founded his own company focused on finding strategic candidates and, since then, he and his colleagues have been dedicated to executive search. He finds top managers and strategic experts for his clients.

more about Pavel