What Is an Executive Search?

Dale Marshall

An executive search is a specialized recruiting effort designed to identify and hire a person who will assume a senior leadership position for an organization. Typically, executive searches bypass traditional recruitment tactics and strategies such as classified advertisements and Internet postings. In many cases, companies will contract with executive search firms to perform the search.

Executive searches typically bypass typical recruiting tactics.
Executive searches typically bypass typical recruiting tactics.

Under normal conditions, when a vacancy occurs in a job, it generally falls to the human resources (HR) department to hire someone. It’s seen by many as inappropriate for an HR department to be significantly involved in the process of hiring an executive, though, because that executive may ultimately be making decisions about the HR department. Practically speaking, the kinds of qualifications sought by an HR department during the recruitment of production workers and mid-level managers are also frequently far different from those sought in an executive. For these reasons, many organizations, when conducting an executive search, employ the services of specialized executive search firms.

Candidates for executive openings are often interviewed more than once.
Candidates for executive openings are often interviewed more than once.

There are basically two types of executive search firms: those that operate on a retainer basis, and those that operate on a contingency basis. Retained search firms are paid portions of their fees at periodic intervals in the search process, and may actually receive their entire fee before a new executive has been hired. Contingency firms, on the other hand, generally aren’t paid until a candidate has been hired. They often have exclusive contracts, though, which means that they’re not competing against other contingency-fee search firms.

Executive search firms are successful because they establish and maintain networks of executives they work with to identify potential candidates for new openings. When they’re searching for an executive to fill a particular job, they’ll contact all the executives in their networks that match the qualifications they’re looking for, often going outside a region’s geographic boundaries to find their candidates. In most cases, they’ll also concentrate on the currently employed far more than on unemployed executives, reasoning that an executive worth hiring is already working for someone. Unlike conventional employment agencies, they don’t work to find openings for people, whether or not they’re employed. Instead, their mission is to find people to match openings.

When candidates have been identified, the interview process for an executive search is both similar to, and different from, the traditional interview process. What makes the processes similar is that both seek to verify that the candidate possesses the skills necessary to do the job. The main difference is that an executive’s skills aren’t as easily evaluated as are those of production workers or department heads.

Candidates for executive openings often are interviewed more than once, and often in variable settings. One interview might take place with the organization’s CEO, while another might involve the entire senior leadership team. Some organizations will require the candidate to meet formally with the entire board of directors. In all cases, though, while the search firm is responsible for finding the candidates, it’s the responsibility of the organization, and usually its board, to make the final hiring decision. If there’s no acceptable candidate, then the firm must continue searching.

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