SO THE EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT has left to start a solo venture, and you think you're a shoo-in for promotion. Your track record is exemplary; your institutional acumen is sharp; and your knowledge of projects under construction, under management, and in the pipeline is second to none. Then why are the brass interviewing other candidates?

"Even with internal candidates ... the tendency is to test them against other candidates," says Matt Slepin, managing partner for San Francisco-based multifamily executive search firm Terrasearch. "Decision-makers need a range of choices. Executive search services help companies gain relativity to prove that internal candidates are the best."

Plus, qualified internal candidates are available for promotion into positions only one-third of the time, Slepin says. Consequently, search firms work the other way, finding a home for the senior executive looking for a new challenge or a change of scenery. If you count yourself in that group, recruiters say to plan strategically and conduct some self-analysis.

"What is your career strategy? And what is your success in executing that strategy through other people?" asks Robert Baron, president of New York City-based American Real Estate Executive Search Co. "You have to consider what your selling proposition is before you hit the market. Citing how-do-you-like-what-I-have-done-so-far accomplishments doesn't work because everyone being considered for executive positions is bringing in comparable levels of experience."

Although executive placement typically takes about 100 days, positions can be filled overnight or may languish empty for more than a year, depending on the complexity of the job and the availability of qualified talent. "Companies are different and have different types of personalities," Slepin says, adding that professionals are driven by their past decisions and experiences. "The path that someone takes to get where they are helps define how they eventually do what they do."

The best rule of thumb is to research, soul-search, and go into any opportunity with eyes wide open. "Some companies are building a profit team and don't care if people get along?if you want a friend, get a dog," Baron says. "There are others where the culture is paramount, and the last thing they want is a prima donna, whether they make money or not."