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What is executive search?

Executive search (also called executive recruiting or even headhunting) is the process of recruiting for very senior positions in an organization. Often, the recruitment is done by a board of directors or by an outside executive search firm hired for that purpose.

What are executive search firms?

Executive search firms are hired by client organizations. The client organization has an open executive position and the organization needs assistance in filling it. 

Usually, the client organization has very specific requirements for the position--skills, background and style/culture fit. If the position were easy to fill, the client organization would conduct the recruitment themselves and not need to retain the services of an executive search firm.

Why do organizations hire executive search firms?

There are any number of reasons that an organization might hire an executive search firm, but some of the most common reasons are: a sense that an external third party is the most appropriate conduit to a certain category of candidates, a confidence that an executive search firm can develop a more appropriate “network” of potential candidates to contact about the opportunity, a lack of resources internally to manage a large recruitment project, etc.

What do executive search firms actually do?

We work on recruitment projects for our clients. Each search professional usually has a handful of open searches at any one time. Our work consists of 1) up-front client work in order to understand the position and the organization, 2) research work to find the right people to contact about the opportunity, 3) outreach work to contact potential candidates and sources, 4) candidate evaluation, including interviews, 5) management of the recruitment process including client interviews, reference and background checks, offer negotiation, etc.

What’s the difference between contingency recruiters and retained recruiters?

The main difference is that a retained recruiter has an exclusive arrangement with the client on the search. Because of that, the recruiter has probably spent more time with the client and probably has a deeper understanding of the position and the organization.

Contingency recruiters are not exclusive. When a client has a contingent arrangement with a recruiter, it means that there are multiple firms working on the recruitment for that position. The contingent recruiter manages many more projects at a time and usually has less deep knowledge of the position and the client organization. This is not always the case, but it is typically the case.

What types of fees Do search firms charge?

Most retained executive search firms charge their clients a percentage of the successful candidate’s first year compensation. That includes base salary, bonus, and other components. Percentages typically range from 25-35% of first year compensation.

Do candidates ever have to pay for executive search services?

No, never. Executive search is always paid for by the client organization. There are companies out there that provide some services and collect candidate fees. They are not executive search firms.

What are recruiters looking for? 

At any point in time, recruiters are looking for candidates who fit what their clients have hired them to find. Usually, a full-time executive recruiter is working on a handful of assignments. Each of those assignments is likely to have some very, very particular specifications. We are looking for pools of candidates who fit our current assignments.

Beyond that, we are always pleased to know of other talented executives who we can add to our active database in the event a future client project would be a fit.


How do you go about finding potential candidates for a search?

The search firm has worked closely with the client to understand the client’s thinking about key requirements for the position and has discussed the types of individuals that the client thinks might be the best fit for the job.

The search firm then considers the key elements to finding the right candidates: industries, companies, job titles, size & scope of experience, years of experience, educational credentials, etc. The search firm then thinks about where these candidates work, what their job title is and how to find them. These are just a few of the points that search firms think about at this stage.

After that, the search firm compiles a “call list” for the project. We normally need to call at least 150 people per search project, so we know that we need a robust list to start the process. 

Some firms have a research professional on staff to coordinate these efforts. Other firms subcontract the research work or the recruiters do their own research. Either way, the search firm starts the process with a target list of potential candidates and sources.

I’ve heard that some executive search firms will not represent candidates in transition. Is that true?

Yes, that is true in some cases. That philosophy is based on a sense that candidates in transition are “easier” to find and therefore may already be known to the client. The search firm may see their role as representing only candidates who are not “in the market” and “not looking.” Don’t take it personally. 

How do most executive recruiters view potential candidates in job transition?

Most search firms understand that even the most talented people can be in transition. Most firms will consider unemployed candidates on their merits and compare them to other potential candidates. Keep in mind that recruiters will not “favor” candidates in transition over other candidates or give them special assistance. 

Why do I have to wait until you have an assignment where I fit? Why can’t you send my resume to your clients?

Executive search firms are consultants in the field of senior executive recruitment. We are paid to manage a detailed and often rigorous search process. Research has shown the importance of careful vetting in order to hire the best-fitting executives. Our work is getting to know our clients and potential candidates on an in-depth basis. We are not in the business of sending resumes around, loosey-goosey. Again, search firms don’t exist to find you a job. It is your job to find your next job.

There are times when a search firm doesn’t call me and I know that I’m a “perfect fit.” Why?

What you are probably referring to is a situation where you hear about a job opening that a search firm is working on. On the surface, the job appears to be a fit, yet you don’t receive a recruit call.

Go ahead and contact the search firm, if you’d like. Be prepared to have an open discussion about what the client organization considers to be a “fit” for that position right now. 

The point is that, unless you are working intimately with the client, like the recruiter is, you probably don’t have enough information to determine if you are a “perfect fit.” You might know enough to guess that you could be a possible fit, but you’ll have to trust the recruiter to help make the final decision.

But I’m multitalented! I can do all sorts of jobs!

That may be, but our clients are looking for candidates whose backgrounds are strongly related to the needs of their particular job. Most VPs of Programs are not qualified to be banking executives. Most academic Deans are not qualified to lead the sales function at an insurance company.

Almost never do recruiters feel that they have enough perfect candidates for a client. They are not trying to “screen you out.” If you are a possible fit for a search, the recruiter will want to talk with you about it.

Will you please find me a job?

We do understand how difficult it can be to be in transition. We wish the best to everyone who contacts us. However, we are only working on the searches that our clients have hired us for. Therefore, we are only looking for people who fit those particular job descriptions. We wish we had twice as many clients; then we would have twice as many job openings!

There isn’t any search firm out there who will “find you a job.” Finding a job is your job.


At what point in my job search should I contact recruiters?

Contact recruiters early in your job search. That way, you’ll be in the active databases of a number of firms in case any of the firms are hired to conduct a search for someone with your background.

How do you prefer that we get in touch with you… phone, email, stop by?

We prefer email. That way, we can peruse your information when we have time to focus on it. One follow up phone call is okay. Stopping by the search firm’s office unannounced would be strange.

How often is appropriate to follow up with recruiters?

Feel free to follow up with recruiters and others in your network if something significant has changed. For example, you have moved or changed your contact information in some way. Or, you’ve taken on a lengthy interim assignment. Or, you’ve completed your MBA. Send a message with the update and attach a revised resume. You should not need to do this more than once or twice in a year.

Do search firms share information about potential candidates with each other?

No. Search firms each maintain their own databases and do not share any candidate information with each other. Therefore, it is in your best interest to contact each search firm separately. 

What if I only want to contact a few recruiters? How do I know which ones are the best?

The “best” recruiters are the ones who might have an assignment that could be a fit for you. That could be any recruiter on your list. We encourage potential candidates to cast a wide net and contact a broad network of recruiters. 

Do I need an introduction to contact a recruiter?

No, you don’t need any special sort of introduction to contact us. If you don’t have the name of a particular recruiter, call the search firm’s main number and ask to be directed to the appropriate person.

How can I be sure that the information shared with executive search firms is treated confidentially?

You can be extremely comfortable. 

Should I contact every recruiter at each firm?

Some firms have more than one recruiter, but it is probably not necessary to contact each one of them separately. Most search firms have a shared database. Contact one recruiter per firm, if you can. Then, spend your time focusing on general networking contacts, rather than doubling up on contacts in the same search firm.

How do you manage your database?

Every search firm has a database, whether it is elaborate software designed for the retained search industry, or a filing cabinet. 

Many search firms have fairly elaborate databases and in-house experts who manage them. These databases contain thousands or even tens of thousands of individual records.

We create an active file for each person who contacts us who is not already in the database. We attach the current resume and connect the individual record to industry and job title designations, functional expertise, education and other credentials, and many other characteristics. It would be almost unheard of for us not to be able to “find” your record if a fitting search came along. This is a big part of what we do. 

We don’t know of any search firm which does not highly value its database. Therefore, we take great care in managing and updating this information. It is part of our livelihood.

How do I get into your database?

You can call or mail a letter to us, but the best way to get into a recruiter’s database is by email. That way, we can easily share your information within the firm and we can attach your resume electronically in your file.

What candidate information is added to your database?

We put as much information about each candidate into the database as we can. If you’ve shared a resume with us, we will enter your name, address, employers and years at each, job titles, functional and industry background, education-degrees and institutions, special licenses or certifications earned, compensation history (if provided), professional connections with the firm (if applicable) and other key information.

That information is the basis of a candidate’s record in the database. From there, we will continue to track and log all correspondence, meetings, etc. that take place between the individual and our firm.

I’m worried that my information will be lost in your database.

We hear this all the time. In my experience, I’ve never run across a retained executive search firm that did not manage its database and its candidate information with care. It would be extremely rare for an executive’s file to somehow “get lost” in the search firm’s database.

Are there particular “code words” that I should put on my resume to assure that I am found in your database?

No. Your resume should be an appropriate executive resume with your work history and related accomplishments as the highlights. There are no secret code words.

How long do you keep resumes in your database?

Most search firms keep resumes and other candidate information for at least a few years. We attempt to keep the database accurate, so we appreciate knowing of any changes in your status.

I’d like to follow up every few weeks to see if I am still in the database. Is that helpful?

No. You can trust that you remain in the search firm’s database. 


How should a resume be laid out?

Most people who receive resumes like them laid out chronologically. A functional resume is not right for most professionals.

How long should my resume be?

Most executive resumes are three or four pages. Keep in mind that recruiters and hiring executives want to have a very full picture of your background. 

We don’t recommend one-page “summary” resumes. They do not contain enough information. 

I’ve been told to “leave certain things off” my resume. How do you feel about that?

We strongly encourage executives to be fully honest in how they present themselves, and that includes the resume. You should account for all of your professional experience. Not every position you’ve ever held requires a lengthy description on your resume, but it should at least be mentioned.

At the senior levels, recruiters almost always eventually learn about missing jobs or gaps of unemployment. Trust that it is never better to be dishonest and gamble on not being “found out.” 

Should I have multiple versions of my resume; you know, to highlight different things for different jobs?

Normally, organizations are seeking an executive who has a clear functional area of expertise. Maybe two. If you do have several areas of expertise, we would still recommend crafting one resume that is a full and honest reflection of your work.

I have a list of references. Do you want those right away?

Usually not. It’s great if you have a list of people who are willing to give you a positive reference. Hang on to that list. We don’t want references right away. Rather, the recruiter will ask you for references at the appropriate point in the search. The recruiter may also tailor the types of references requested. 


What does it mean if a recruiter wants to meet with me about a specific opportunity?

If you have shared your resume with a recruiter and have had some introductory conversations about a job opportunity, the recruiter may request that you come in to meet in person. You should consider this to be a job interview for the position.

What should I expect in an interview with a recruiter?

You should expect several questions about your background, your work/leadership style, your interests, aspirations and strengths. You should be prepared to walk through your work history, pointing out the job changes you’ve made and your reasons for each change. You should be prepared to highlight your unique accomplishments in each position.

How should I prepare for the interview?

Your research should focus on learning as much as you can about the client organization as well as the industry/sector, if you are not currently in that sector. You should also re-read the job description and any other information that has been provided to you by the search firm.

Should I get to the recruiter’s office quite early, in order to make a good impression?

No. Recruiters often have very busy schedules and may not be able to meet with you until the agreed-upon time. It is sometimes uncomfortable to know that a candidate is sitting in the lobby when there is still 30 minutes until the interview. Arrive five minutes ahead of time.

How important is “image”?

Each search is different, of course. A role as CEO or Vice President, for example, would value image more than a position in a research lab. You probably have a good sense about what is expected in your industry and function. Ask the recruiter for assistance if you ever have questions.

What personality style are recruiters looking for in candidates?

Every hiring organization has its own personality and culture and we are usually tasked with finding candidates who fit the unique culture for each search. However, general characteristics such as sound judgment, strategic thinking, honesty, integrity and authenticity are valued in almost all situations.

What does it mean to be “represented” or "presented" to a client by a search firm?

If a recruiter tells you that he or she intends to “represent” you to a client, it means that he or she will be sharing your candidate information with the client and recommending you as a potential candidate. Typically, the recruiter shares your resume, current employment status, and most recent compensation with the client. If you have provided other information to the recruiter, such as a completed assessment, that information may be shared as well.

Usually, the recruiter will represent more than one candidate to the client and will present all of the candidates to the client at one time.

What will happen if I am invited to interview with a search firm’s client?

The recruiter will let you know if you are selected to interview with the client organization. The search firm will provide you with more information about who you will be meeting with and will assist with scheduling and other logistics.

What kinds of questions should I ask a hiring executive in the interview?

Ask what you sincerely want to know. Put yourself in the hiring executive’s place. Ask what challenges he or she is facing. Ask what current problems can be fixed by filling this position. Ask about direction and strategy. Ask what he or she expects the new hire to focus on in the first 90 days.


How do I know what the culture is at a client organization?

The truth is, people often don’t learn the culture of an organization before they take a new job. That’s a big mistake.

Culture is a real determinant of both “fit” and long term job satisfaction. People who are compatible with an organization’s culture will perform better, be happier and stay longer.

You should do everything you can to learn about an organization’s culture, if you are pursuing them as a prospective employer.

First, you should ask the recruiter what their experience has been with the client. Ask about turnover on the executive team. Ask what kinds of people have been successful there. 

Second, if you have an opportunity to interview with a client, ask the people you interview with. “What’s the culture like here?” “What kinds of people are most successful here?” “What kind of people do not last long here?” You can also do some research on the internet, blogs, etc. to see what, if anything, is being written about the organization. 

You can ask around. Perhaps you know people who are connected in some way to this company. What has been their experience? How would they describe the culture?

How do I know if I will fit into that culture?

If you are working with a recruiter, the recruiter can help you think about “fit.” But, at the end of the day, it is up to you to decide.

Start by knowing yourself well. Get feedback from others about your style. Take some personality inventories to get additional language about your style. Think about the cultures you’ve worked in where you’ve thrived. Think about any cultures you’ve worked in where you have been miserable.

Try to get a real and balanced picture of the culture of the organization, warts and all. Make an intelligent discernment about fit. Then, test your discernment with trusted advisors.

What’s your advice on how I should evaluate an opportunity?

I encourage people to take a holistic view. I’d consider all of the following elements of the position:

  • Skill Fit: What activities do you most enjoy?
    Will this position let you “shine”?
  • Style Fit: How would you describe your personality style?
    Will the company and people around you fit your style?
  • Culture Fit: How would you describe your core values?
    Will the culture at this company complement your core values?
  • Logistics Fit: What are your most important needs (pay, benefits, commute time, hours, etc)
    How does this position and company fit with your logistics needs?
  • Future Fit: What are you looking to get better at?
    Will this position allow you to “stretch”?