What is executive search?

Executive search is a specialised type of recruitment aimed at attracting highly skilled senior management talent to an organisation. It is typically used to fill strategically important roles, including CEO, CFO, COO, HRD, and CIO.

In this client guide to executive search, we explore how the search process works, the benefits of using executive search to make the right leadership hire and what a good executive search firm looks like.

Executive search differs from the recruitment of more junior talent. When recruiting for more junior roles, an organisation will usually work with a recruitment consultancy on a contingency basis to find suitable candidates. The candidate who is successful in securing the position will usually be an active job seeker who applies for the role.

Contingent search works on a fee-for-win basis, meaning the agency gets paid only after finding the right candidate for the job. By contrast, in retained search, the executive recruitment firm is paid an upfront or scheduled fee, and works exclusively on the search.

And while contingency recruitment works for filling many roles in an organisation, your senior leadership team needs to be made up of the best people - and these people can be ‘passive candidates’ – in other words, open to discussing a new opportunity but not actively looking for a job.  This is why executive search exists.

Executive search seeks out the perfect match for both the role and the company - whether the candidate is actively looking for a new position or not. An organisation will develop a long-term partnership with an executive search firm, who acts as an extension of their business identifying and engaging suitable candidates on their behalf.

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How does executive search work?

Executive search involves working with a third party, typically an executive search firm, who can identify and engage the best senior executive talent in the market to match your business requirements.

Executive search is relationship-driven. An executive search firm will work closely with you to understand your requirements and advise on the most effective strategy to ensure they deliver the most suitable talent. A search firm will tend to have extensive knowledge of and access to board directors and senior executives across industries and functions, allowing them to build a large pool of top executive talent.

As it is a research-led approach, a search firm will be paid a retainer fee upfront. In a retained search agreement, a client pays the executive recruitment firm a proportion (typically a third) of the estimated fee upfront to begin the research and mapping part of the process. A further portion (typically a third again) is paid once a shortlist of candidates is delivered. The remainder of the fee is paid on the successful placement of a candidate. The fee is usually a percentage of a candidate’s first year annual salary and benefits package. By comparison, a retained search fee is generally higher than a contingency search fees.

A retained search approach makes room for a strong partnership between the client and agency, and it turns the recruiter into an ambassador of the company’s employer brand. This relationship can prove invaluable when looking for high-profile talent, as the recruiters have an exceptional understanding of the brand’s culture, values, and requirements and may be better poised to find the perfect fit. Executive search seeks out the perfect match for both the role and the company - whether the candidate is actively looking for a new position or not. An organisation will develop a long-term partnership with an executive search firm, who acts as an extension of their business identifying and engaging suitable candidates on their behalf.

The executive search approach combines five key elements:

  1. Establish search priorities
    • Determine the skills, knowledge, and abilities required, offering insight and fresh perspectives on how the organisation can think about their needs.
    • Develop a customised brief for the position alongside a candidate specification that details the company, the role, responsibilities, goals, and key challenges for the position, as well as the experience, qualifications, and competencies required for success.
  2. Determine search strategy
    • Conduct targeted research into companies and sectors to find people with the relevant skills, experience, and qualifications.
    • Develop a long list of the best-qualified prospects for the role.
    • Contact prospects to identify and qualify them. 
  3. Attract and evaluate candidates
    • Approach potential candidates to test their interest in the role.
    • Conduct rigorous competency-based and technical interviews with candidates based on the proven skills, knowledge, abilities, and aptitudes outlined in the position specification.
    • Develop a shortlist of candidates with the qualifications and interest in the position.
  4. Present most qualified candidates for client interview
    • Present the organisation with the most qualified candidates based on analysis and appraisal against the specification.
    • Draw on informal external views on each candidate to confirm and enhance knowledge of the candidate’s achievements and track record.
    • Perform an executive capabilities assessment.
  5. Complete the search
    • Once the organisation selects their preferred candidate, conduct thorough background checks and referencing to further assess competencies, strengths and weaknesses.
    • Assist in negotiations over compensation and other terms to help conclude the search.
    • Communicate regularly with the organisation and shortlist field during the transition.
    • Periodically follow up with the organisation and the candidate once the search is closed, checking in on ongoing fit and progress of the transition.

What are the benefits of executive search?

Senior-level executives have a significant impact on an organisation, so making the right executive appointment is critical.

An executive search firm can help you secure the right people to drive your business forward and impact your top and bottom line. They do this by:

Mapping the market - An executive search firm can provide you with access to a top network of otherwise inaccessible industry-leading candidates by mapping the market and benchmarking for particular skills, roles and salaries. This can include new geographies for a client or to inform a decision such as where to locate or relocate operations.

Delivering solutions, not CV’s - An executive search firm will match talent to the distinct needs of your organisation, considering the goals you are trying to accomplish as a business and seeking out people with the right mix of knowledge, skills, and abilities to help you achieve those goals.

Offering an objective approach - It can be easy for organisations to fall into the trap of recruiting people who fit the same profile as their predecessors, but executive search firms can encourage you to think outside the box to find people who will help your business to grow and evolve.

Approaching suitable candidates on your behalf - An executive search firm is able to make professional and qualified approaches on behalf of your company to sound out potential clients. They act as an extension to the client for the duration of the search and through the first year post-placement.

Becoming a trusted advisor - This facilitates their ability to ‘sell’ the role and understand the company politics and requirements.

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What does a good executive search firm look like?

Executive search is not just about filling an immediate need. An executive search firm should be like a partner, a strategic advisor with a relationship built and invested in over years.

A good executive search partner will strive to gain a deeper understanding of your business, your culture, the gaps you are looking to fill, and provoke new thinking. Your search partner should know your company inside out; how your business operates, your goals, your values, and your people. This will help them to find the most suitable candidates to help your company grow and evolve.

Functional expertise

A good executive search partner will have an excellent understanding of the market, rather than just one industry or market segment. They will have deep, functional expertise in their area that they can bring to every assignment.

To be successful in today’s marketplace, organisations increasingly need a blend of people in their top team. A diverse top team will have a larger pool of experience and points of view to draw from, meaning they can help you find new solutions to problems and generate new ideas that could catapult your business forward. A good search partner will be able to use their knowledge to encourage organisations to think differently and present you with candidates who can arrive with new ways of thinking.

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Strategic advice

As part of helping to drive your company forward, a good executive search partner will be able to provide you with additional support in the form of things like succession planning, organisational design, and executive coaching. Their understanding of your business, coupled with their extensive knowledge of the market, means they are well-equipped to provide a more complete people solution for your business.

Professional service

Your search partner will represent your company to candidates, so it is important that they know you well enough to promote your company in a positive, accurate, and honest light so that candidates want to work with you. As the right candidate may not be actively looking for a new position, your search partner needs to give the very best impression of your company. This also means providing a well-managed, efficient, and professional search process, as this will add to your credibility as an employer and help build your employer brand in the market.

Final thoughts

An executive search firm acts as an extension of your business, helping you to secure highly skilled senior management talent who can help your company to grow and evolve.

Your executive search partner needs to be a trusted partner. The ideal partnership means trusting the search firm enough to find the best fit for your business. This relies on having full confidence that your search partner understands your business and will represent you to potential candidates in the best possible way.


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