What is the difference between executive search and contingent recruitment?

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What is the difference between executive search and contingent recruitment?

10 minutes

What is the difference between executive search and contingent recruitment?

Discover the ways in which executive search differs from typical recruitment and get advice on which solution is best for your business.

Despite widespread misunderstanding around its meaning, executive search (often referred to as ‘technical search’) is an increasingly popular recruitment solution for employers in the STEM sector and beyond.


The term ‘executive search’ is likely familiar for anyone that has worked with recruiters in recent years. However, even for those with one foot in the field, it’s often difficult to differentiate executive search from other forms of recruitment.


Indeed, the term is frequently used interchangeably with recruitment, and while the two share the same basic objective of hiring the best people, such usage is somewhat misleading. 


To remove the misconceptions and provide some clarity, we’ll outline the various ways in which executive search differs from typical recruitment and provide advice on which solution is best for your business, whether it be pharmaceuticals, biotech, or chemicals But first, some definitions are in order.


What is executive search?

In very basic terms, executive or technical search is a specialised recruitment service that focuses on sourcing and onboarding hard-to-find talent (which is often senior appointments, such as Chief Operating Officer or Vice President) for client companies. 


Because the primary remit is finding top talent at the leadership level or within a niche sector where candidates are scarce — the very people who have the credentials and capabilities to drive business growth — executive search is one of the most sought-after recruitment models. 


Unlike other forms of recruitment (particularly contingent models), executive search teams take a strategic approach and actively seek out senior-level candidates for roles that are usually difficult to fill and strategically important.


By turning to an executive search team, a business can call on the industry-specific expertise of consultants with a track record of sourcing hard-to-find talent and conducting confidential search.

As a highly bespoke and consultative service, a search approach helps companies optimise their resourcing strategy to ensure they have the long-term capacity to attract and retain the best people. 


Using data as the starting point, this can encompass market mapping; employer branding; deciding on the most appropriate job titles; outlining salary levels; and drawing up benefits packages. In other words, it’s a holistic approach to the recruitment process.


How does executive search differ from headhunting?

Confounding the confusion behind executive search is another term frequently used in recruitment circles: headhunting.


Though similar, headhunting is not search and the two terms should not be used synonymously. Headhunting actually forms part of search, and is a technique used within a good search practice. 


In simple terms, headhunting can be defined as the process of identifying and approaching passive individuals who possess the right skill set for the role.


Is executive search the same as retained search?

Another term that frequently crops up in Google search results for executive search is retained search.


Retained search is a way to ensure exclusive recruiter focus on your role versus a competitor. The team receives a ‘retainer’ (an up-front fee) to perform a specific search and is granted exclusive rights to the project. Though there is variation from agency to agency, retained search usually has a three-part pricing structure:


  1. Project conception and search initiation
  2. Shortlist or identification of quality candidates (this step is not always included)
  3. Successful placement of a candidate

Alternatively, a fixed fee that’s based on a certain timeframe can also be established.


How does retained executive search work? 

When calling upon the services of a retained executive search agency, you can expect an advisory and consultative partnership.


After the initial agreement has been made and the up-front fee has been paid, the executive search team will want to have an in-depth discussion with you to ascertain what they need to look for in a candidate.


These conversations will allow the consultant to develop a full picture of your business needs, culture, and vision, as well as how they relate to the kind of character and skill set you want to hire. In contrast, other forms of recruitment would typically only require a job description and briefing call in which multiple recruiters may be asked to join.


Under a retained agreement, the consultant is retained, meaning a significant amount of time and resources are allocated into researching and sourcing individuals who specifically match your requirements. They will pile resources into a comprehensive understanding of the market, before reaching out directly to high-quality prospective candidates through state-of-the-art precision targeting technology.


Because of the nature of the roles that are assigned to executive/technical search teams, the consultant will weave the long-term goals of the candidate into the process — paying particular attention to any alignments between your business values and the values of the candidate. Ensuring these values match increases the chances of retention once the candidate is in position.


Retained executive search is typically more niche than contingent recruitment. As well as having extensive networks throughout your sector, executive search consultants are equipped with a thorough understanding of the client’s candidate market and associated roles. This gives consultants the tools to uncover matching candidates who wouldn’t necessarily be on your company’s radar — indeed, many of the shortlisted candidates will not be active job seekers.


Executive search recruiters offer valuable insights into the market dynamics and properly position the role within the market. With an eye on the latest psychological research, they aim to engender confidence and trust in prospective candidates. By doing so, they can also help sell the employer value proposition (EVP) to the candidate (helping them buy into your company’s culture, mission, and values). 


Finally, consultants may also deploy psychometric testing and other profiling methods to assess a candidates’ cultural fit. This kind of insight into their behaviours and intrinsic motivators is vital for measuring how likely the candidate is to stay with the business after being hired. By really getting to understand the individual and creating a rounded profile of the whole person, retained executive search helps you hire for the long-term.


Is retained executive search the right choice for my business?

When deciding which kind of agency to approach for your talent needs, you should ask yourself questions specifically related to the roles you are hiring for. Let’s run through some of these questions in further detail.


How readily available is the talent needed for the role?
If talent is abundant, calling on a dedicated recruitment provider makes sense. If it’s hard to find, partnering with a search solution is your best bet.

Do you need to hire for more than one role?
If you said yes, choose an executive/technical search solution.

Does your candidate search need to be confidential in nature?
If yes, opting for executive/technical search will ensure it remains confidential..

What is the geographical spread of talent?
Is it UK-only, does it include the EU, or is it global? If your required talent pool reaches beyond the UK, opt for search.

Are you aware of how the salary for the role aligns to the market?
If you don’t know, a search team can provide this data and help you glean further insights into your company’s salaries.

Are you aware of the benefits aligned to the market?
Again, if you answered no, a search team can provide you with the necessary data.

Is filling the position a time-sensitive endeavour?
If yes, choose search. Due to the exclusive nature of a retained agreement, executive search consultants can allocate more time and resources to the candidate search than contingent recruiters.

Do you have an up-to-date job specification?
If it needs writing or properly updating, choose search.

Do you know what type of person you want?
If you don’t already have this information to hand, you should definitely seek out a search solution. Through consultative conversations, search recruiters will help you uncover the kind of individual your business needs to succeed.

The takeaway?

Getting hiring right is pivotal for any business’ bottom line. Ultimately, your choice of recruitment provider should reflect the current state of your talent needs and aim to minimise hiring risk.


Search by SRG

Our STEM-focused search offering combines the technical expertise of SRG, Lorien, and Carbon60 to offer a data-led approach that delivers much more than just a list of CVs.

  • Search by Carbon60 – offering senior technical hires within the product lifecycle.
  • Search by Lorien – Digital, Transformation, and Technology.
  • Search by SRG – Scientific, Technical & Operations, Commercial, Medical & Clinical Development, AI, Machine Learning, and Bioinformatics.

Specialising in your niche, we can help you to attract and retain the right talent with:


Search by SRG workflow


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