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Recruiting at the Executive Level

Every business utilizes recruiting tactics to fill open positions, but not every approach is the same. Knowing the difference between standard recruiting and executive search is critical in attracting the best talent to meet your organization’s specific hiring goals. What are the main differences, and which approach makes the most sense for you?

Standard recruiting

Standard recruiting sources individuals best suited for entry- and mid-level positions. These candidates are typically hired as “blank slates,” meaning they are expected to have a reasonable skill set but will also need significant on-the-job training once placed in their new roles. They will need to learn about their new companies’ cultures, maybe even about their industries, gaining knowledge through experience. Recruiting agencies typically target “active” candidates for these roles, meaning either unemployed individuals seeking employment or currently employed individuals looking for a change. Active candidates typically constitute about 30% of the talent pool.

In the standard recruiting business model, recruiters usually charge a fee only after a candidate has been successfully placed. Since standard recruiting agencies are abundant, there is heavy competition to fill similar roles. These agencies are more likely to prioritize candidate searches consuming fewer resources — namely, time, money, and energy. Often, this means they support recruiting at the local market level. Standard recruiting agencies usually do not support international businesses, which don’t typically fit their model or sourcing abilities.

Trainable, urgently needed roles are a good match for standard recruiting. But a business looking to fill specialized roles requiring specific skill sets is not best served by this recruiting model.

The executive search difference

In comparison, executive search firms take a far more focused approach to talent recruitment. They fill senior-level business-critical positions, concentrating efforts on attracting only experienced professionals who possess particular skill sets and savvy. Often, these agencies specialize in specific industries, referring to their clients only candidates with the business acumen necessary to succeed in senior positions. These firms target “passive” candidates. Often called “tip-toers,” these individuals may not be actively seeking new roles but maintain a strong network of connections should an opportunity present itself.

Passive candidates comprise approximately 60% of the talent pool. That’s not to say executive search firms never consider active job seekers, but that approach is far less common, usually because the roles they are sourcing candidates for are highly confidential in nature.

Unlike standard recruiting agencies, executive search firms charge an upfront fee known as a retainer, which reflects the heavy investment and meticulous processes required to succeed in the extremely competitive executive search market. They typically charge 30-35% of the total retainer up front, at which point the executive search consultant collaborates with the client — taking time to fully understand their business, role requirements, and even big-picture business goals. They then write the job profile, which often undergoes multiple iterations before client approval. The remaining retainer fee is typically charged as key milestones are reached, for example, after providing the client with a short list of qualified candidates. A guarantee or probation period typically accompanies the retainer. Should a placed candidate leave their new role prematurely, a firm may offer to redeliver the search. An experienced executive search firm tailors its searches to meet the needs of both client and candidate.

Is executive search the career for you?

Working in executive search not only is lucrative, but also frequently provides a healthy work-life balance, so you can find success without burnout. It also provides an opportunity to create meaningful impact, collaborate with CEOs and senior executives to gain insight into their specific industries, and find candidates who will provide tangibly positive impacts on their businesses. You become a trusted advisor for your clients, building a lasting, mutually beneficial consultative relationship. It also gives you a chance to introduce diverse candidates who might have been overlooked previously, driving inclusion and perspective diversity.

Furthermore, executive search careers provide great mental stimulation. The variety of projects and companies you work with, as well as the wide range of challenges you’ll face, makes for a rewarding career encouraging knowledge, creativity, and resilience. For those who enjoy research, this career path also involves examining analytics, mapping markets, collecting references, and speaking to various sources to gain market knowledge.

If you are a driven, results-oriented recruiter who values work-life balance, works efficiently in a remote environment, thrives under pressure, and enjoys building long-term relationships, consider executive search as a career option.


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