A guide to executive search (plus 10 benefits)

Chris Cave our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 21 September 2022

The phrase that always comes to my mind when I think about the comparison between retained executive search and contingent recruitment is ‘quality over quantity’. While contingent recruitment is all about placing as many candidates as possible over a short period of time, retained search focuses more on building lasting relationships with excellent individuals who are very senior or who have niche functional expertise within a particular sector.

Retained search is a deep dive into the ocean, while contingent is a quick dip in the pool. In the words of my colleague Marcello Mosca, “contingent recruitment finds the best in the database, those who are active in the market, while retained search finds the best in the market.” In a nutshell, the executive search process leaves no stone unturned to ensure you get the best candidates in a specialist field or functional area. 

What is executive search?

Let’s take it back to the basics. What is executive search exactly? Broadly speaking, it’s an in-depth recruitment process used to find highly-skilled candidates for senior level positions.

Executive search recruiters usually have invaluable insights, experience and connections specific to their niches, giving them an instant edge over alternative recruitment solutions. Executive search is commonly used to fill vital roles such as CEO, COO, CFO, CIO and HRD, as well as many EXCO leadership roles. 

The exact process involved is likely to differ from company to company, but many individual recruiters will specialise in a particular sector, much like I do in the financial services industry.

Why do you need executive search? 

Executive search doesn’t just place someone who’s already looking for a new role in a job. It finds the passive job seeker - or even someone who’s not looking for a new role -  who can make a positive impact on your company and performs like a pro from the outset.

It lowers the risk of a bad hire, reduces the placement process and allows you to have more of a back and forth with your recruiter, making for a collaborative experience. 

The main draw of executive search is the guaranteed result. For evidence of this in action, these are the retained business I’ve worked on over the last year:

  • I started 14 new assignments

  • Nine of these are complete, with a view-to-complete on at least two of the remaining roles in the next few months

  • That’s 11 completed out of the 14 started projects within 12 months

  • In fact, in my experience, only one executive search project has failed to complete, and that was down to a change of strategy from the client’s end.

10 benefits of using a retained search partner 

Ultimately, the benefits of using a retained search partner are:

  1. You’re the priority - The placement (usually of senior roles) will be a priority, making for a more efficient experience for you. Behind the scenes, a recruiter will work on a project basis and devote many hours to each one, working as a team of between two and four people.  The total time the process may take a recruitment team is between 125-175 hours.

  2. Better candidates - Chosen candidates will be the result of an extensive and exhaustive process, which is why there’s much less risk of a bad hire. 

  3. Larger pool of talent - Executive search recruiters access candidates who are already employed, casting the net across a much wider market and securing those niche, passive job seekers. 

  4. Pre-vetted candidates - Any candidates you review as part of the executive search process have been subject to a sophisticated vetting process and hand-selected, rather than taken from a pool of jobseekers. 

  5. An outstanding shortlist - The chosen number of candidates is usually between three and 11, and they’ll all be a good fit for the position after a thorough interview process. This is a direct contrast to candidates procured via CV screening and brief telephone calls only. 

  6. Smooth process - During retained search, the recruiter takes the time to appreciate your company culture, your business objectives, your DE&I objectives and the exact role that needs filling - this makes for a much more customised, collaborative process that better represents your brand. 

  7. Years of experience - The professional recruiters carrying out this search for you often have years of experience within a specific sector, meaning they are better equipped to locate and approach the top-level talent that you’re looking for. 

  8. Holistic market overview - Retained executive search maps the entire market, whereas contingent recruitment hinges on those who may have recently been actively looking for a job by applying for a role or signing up to social media alerts. 

  9. Unlimited mapping - This mapping of the entire market mitigates the common risk that clients often don’t know what a ‘good’ candidate looks like, and therefore limit themselves during the search. 

  10. Great working relationship - A retained search model requires transparency at both ends for the client and the candidates, meaning all parties will have a better understanding and idea of what to expect, as well as foster better relationships. 

The easiest way to understand the importance, efficacy and benefits of executive search is to take a look at the process itself, step-by-step. You can read about Hanover’s search process in my related article, Hanover’s executive search process explained.

In my personal experience at Hanover, we have more than a 95% completion rate within a specified timeline. As I mentioned previously, I’ve only had one scenario in which we did not complete, and this was due to the client having a last minute strategy change within the company.

Final thoughts 

Ultimately, with retained search you get results. In my previous experience as a contingent recruiter, I’ve regularly seen success rates for filling roles at less than 5%. If you’re concerned about cost, you’ll appreciate the insight that you don’t actually pay more for retained search - in fact, this type of recruitment process often works out as better value for our clients. While we recognise that the retained search model is more expensive up front, due to the seniority of the roles being filled and the negative impact if the process goes wrong, it often works out as better value.

For example, let’s say you give five recruiters the task of filling a CIO role. You’ll get a fair number of good CVs back, but what about your hours spent sifting through these CVs? What about the risk of the contingent approach not paying off as you had hoped? What about the possibility of your recruiters dropping your search for something more lucrative, or not prioritising it because they know other recruiters are trying to fill the same position? When you consider and compare the success rate of retained search, the cost is often less - and that’s not even taking into account the fact that contingent search recruiters often speak to candidates who are actively looking for a new role. 

So aside from cost, it’s important to also consider the value of quality. The thorough mapping of the entire market, the consistency of message across each approach, the representation of your company and the collaboration that retained executive search provides throughout is far superior each and every time. In addition, the connections and expertise of industry-specific executive search recruiters means you have access to candidates who aren’t actively seeking a new role. 

Ultimately, when you work with expert executive recruiters who are really invested in your job search journey, you’ll be presented with so much more than a faceless CV. 

If you need to fill a senior level position at your company, contact me and let’s set up time for a chat.

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