It usually hits you right after the euphoria of getting an addition to staff starts to fade. Or, it comes with the resignation of a valued staff member. It's the realization that you need to fill this position fast and with the right person. Fast is easy, getting the right person, that's another thing altogether.
You may luck out or have already planned well. You may have already groomed the person you want for this position. They may already be in your organization. However, in a great many cases you will need to go "outside" to fill your critical need. That's what's scary!
Here are your alternatives. Run an advertisement in the classifieds, trade publications, etc. Post the position on the internet. Talk to a recruiter. Network with your peers. These methods are guaranteed to generate resume and applicant flow. If you have the time and patience to sift through the paperwork, screen resumes, and do a large number of initial screening interviews, you may be able to reduce the field to a few possible candidates. You will then need to spend time interviewing these candidates in-depth. The result of these in-depth interviews may be that you will find the individual your looking for. Or not. If you don't find the person, you've wasted your time.
The other alternative is to use an executive search firm. If your cost of the position remaining unfilled for any period of time is high, If your management time is limited, and if the total compensation for the position will be at or above six figures, an executive search firm is the most cost effective strategy for filing your position.
An executive search firm offers you search expertise, industry knowledge and experience. And of equal importance, they are working exclusively for you with the goal of filing your open position quickly and with the ideal person.
The retainer you pay to an executive search firm is a sound investment in ensuring that you find the right person. It guarantees you that the firm is working exclusively for you and committed to complete the search. This commitment is extremely important to you. For this reason, you need to consider the difference between an executive search firm (retained) versus contingency recruiting firm.
Since you do not pay a retained fee to a contingency search firm you cannot be assured of the same level of commitment and focus. Simply follow the money. They only receive payment from you if they are successful in placing a candidate with you. Their motivation is geared toward ensuring that they receive a payment. If the search becomes difficult. Or, if it becomes unlikely that they will be successful, there is no motivation for them to waste their time and continue the search. They simply move on to a search which has a better chance of success. My experience has been that contingency firms also tend to push candidates who may not actually be a good fit for the position. Again, they want to get paid. Often the flow of candidates from a contingency firm is not unlike the candidate flow from running a newspaper or internet advertisement. Lots of candidates, very few who actually meet your needs.
By contrast, you've hired the executive search firm (retained) to solve a very specific management problem for you. If it's the right firm they will be a seasoned, knowledgeable, outside expert working for you to meet a very defined objective. Measuring the ultimate success of an executive search firm against the cost of your unfilled opening shows a bottom line return for your investment.
As I mentioned above, hiring the right firm is critical to ensuring the return on your investment. Make sure you evaluate their prior success record. Firms with significant experience in your industry will be more effective than those that dabble in several different areas.