Executive Search – When To Use It & How It Works

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October 2019

Written by Adam Richardson (adam.richardson@arresourcing.com), Managing Director and Owner of AR Resourcing. Adam has 20 years’ experience recruiting preconstruction, procurement and commercial professionals across the built environment industries.

Clients often turn to executive or retained search only as a last resort, shying away from it over fears relating to costs or of having all their eggs in one basket (thereby reducing the size of the pool of candidates considered). In many circumstances, these perceptions are wrong, and it is often worth at least having a conversation about executive search with a trusted consultancy – you can always decide against it. 

Roles that are business critical (senior management) or require a rare skillset executive or retained search should generally be the first port of call as it will likely deliver better candidates, faster than contingent recruitment and it actually works out cheaper.


While an executive search project will typically involve an upfront payment, the true cost is often less than that of a contingent search project. 

Briefing (and re-briefing) multiple agencies takes time. So does reviewing the dozens of CVs they send through. The time spent is a significant cost to the business. Furthermore, the candidates submitted are likely to be the best active candidates as recruitment agencies will generally limit their focus to candidates in their database or those who are active on the jobs boards. 

Having seen CVs from a relatively small talent pool, companies are more likely to interview and subsequently hire someone mediocre, something that rarely works out in the mid term and so the costly and time-consuming process begins again.

For many harder to fill roles, the few thousand pounds a retainer costs will save time, reduce the chances of mis-hiring and deliver better quality candidates. 


In contingent recruitment, not only are recruiters only paid if successful but they are also in a race with one another to be first to secure each candidate, meaning not only are you likely to see the lowest hanging fruit e.g. active candidates, rather than the best candidates, but those candidates may not be fully qualified. 

Having a retainer gives recruiters a licence to scope the market, identify, approach and qualify the best candidates whether active or passive. The lack of competition also gives them the chance to qualify these candidates fully. Essentially you are paying for a more thorough search and selection process in the expectation you will get better candidates and a more efficient process. 

Reputable recruitment companies will typically staff projects with an industry specialist senior consultant supported by a dedicated resourcer. The consultant will shape the search parameters and methodology as well as leveraging their network. Under the consultant’s guidance, the resourcer will scope the market and identify the most promising candidates. Having reviewed the candidates, the team will interview them in person, assessing each against technical and competency questions, as well as understanding cultural fit before checking references. Typically they will expect to present you with between 3 and 5 fully qualified candidates.

Given the thoroughness of the process the interview to offer ratio for executive search is far higher than that for contingent recruitment and it frees up you and your team to get on with your day jobs.


Retainers can be structured in different ways depending on the brief. In most situations the client will pay a small fee (a few thousand pounds) up front, showing their commitment to the role and to the recruitment agency delivering against the brief. The remaining fee will then be paid on completion. While they will generally be the only agency working on the brief, recruitment consultancies prioritise executive searches both because they are contractually obliged to deliver specific actions and because of the increased certainty of a return from the time they invest in the project. 


As with any client-recruitment consultancy relationship, trust is important so look for agencies that you have a good existing relationship with and understand your business; or who come highly recommended. They should be clear and transparent about how they are going to approach the process, providing you with clear time frames for delivering each stage of the process. 

Choose well and you can expect better candidates and a more efficient process. 

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