Differences between Executive Search Firms and Recruitment Firms

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Differences between Executive Search Firms and Recruitment Firms

Recruitment is not just one big melting pot that requires the same approach from candidate identification to selection. Specifically, different approaches are needed according to the type of role being recruited for. It is along this dividing line that you will uncover the biggest differences between executive search firms and recruitment agencies.

Importantly, both recruitment and executive search firms are of immense value to employers. When they fulfil their distinctive roles, employers get the best value for money within that particular area of recruitment. Both take away administrative hassle and the complexities of recruitment, both save time and usually money, and both will find the right candidate for the job – assuming you pick the right one for the type of role you have a vacancy in.

What is executive search?

However, most non-recruitment experts will struggle to define an executive search firm or partner as being distinctly different from a recruitment agency.

Executive search firms specialise in identifying, enticing and securing highly-skilled and highly-experienced talent at the top levels of organisations. They deal with the executive level and above, as their name suggests.

Yet, they aren’t simply a recruitment agency which specialises in more senior positions, much like an agency may specialise in a particular industry e.g. finance or hospitality.

An executive search firm does things distinctly differently from a recruitment agency. An executive search company can be understood as a headhunter: they go out and scour the employment landscape to find someone suitable for the role, and then negotiate with them to bring them on board. A recruitment agency allows huge amounts of candidates to come directly to them and they carry out something more akin to a matchmaking exercise.

Some of the complications in jargon and labelling these different styles of recruitment business come about because, of course, not all are created equally. You can get recruitment firms which will undertake elements of headhunting, such as pre-screening candidates or carrying out the interview process. You’ll also find businesses which call themselves ‘executive search’ when their process isn’t actually any different to a recruitment agency, they just only focus on senior roles.

However, there are key differences between executive search firms and recruitment firms.

1.     The role

As stated above, the biggest difference is the nature of the role being filled. Typically, junior to mid-level roles can be filled by recruitment agencies with ease, because there are a large number of candidates with the right skills, or potential. At management level and above, there are fewer suitable candidates, certainly active ones. The skills, experience and aptitude needed are harder to come by. These roles are best filled through executive search.

2.     The role filling process

At the executive level, rarely are the ideal candidates actively looking for a new position. Instead, they are currently using those skills that you want to drive a competitor’s success. They aren’t found on job boards sending out their CV to multiple employers. As such, executive search specialists use different methods to identify and entice these individuals. Processes such as networking and negotiation are important. It may also be necessary to be very discrete, and therefore not place adverts.

With recruitment agencies, the process can be quite different. They can place a highly visible job advert and sit back and let the CVs roll in. There are lots of active candidates and it’s a case of matching skills and experience to a job description and person specification. Expect to do more of the admin and legwork for positions you’re filling through a recruitment agency.

3.     The candidates

As explained above, the nature of the candidates varies quite notably between executive search and recruitment firms. With the first they tend to be passive (meaning they are currently employed elsewhere with no immediate intention to leave). With the second they are usually active (meaning they are either out of work, or are actively looking to change jobs soon).

4.     The location

Typically, recruitment agencies will work with a relatively small geographical pool (and as such have multiple branches if they are large) whereas executive search firms will cast the net wider. It’s far from unusual for an executive search firm to identify prospects from beyond regional or national borders; part of their role is to enable this movement of skills.

5.     Beyond job descriptions

Recruitment agencies can be highly effective at matching individual candidates to a specific list of skills needed.

Executive search firms don’t just want anyone who can do the job. They want someone who is going to actively underpin the future success of the organisation. This means they need to plug any skills gaps at the executive level, even if the employer doesn’t recognise them. It also means that the prospect needs to absolutely slide into the organisation’s culture whilst also enabling the company to benefit from diversity and inclusion. These are business critical roles and require very specific talent.

6.     Quantity versus Quality

With executive search, the primary focus is on quality of candidates. With recruitment agencies, the focus is on quantity. As such, an executive search firm will usually work on a retained fee basis, whereas recruitment agencies work to a commission, if they are successful making the placement.

How to choose between an executive search firm and recruitment agency

Use the differences above to decide which the best solution is for the type of role you need to fill – there is no hard and fast rule that one or the other is the best overall. It really comes down to the role. Find out more about choosing a headhunter or executive search firm, if you are recruiting at the executive level.

Then you’ll need to know how to choose between different executive search firms.

Eagle Headhunters is a specialist executive search firm focusing on headhunting for senior, executive and board level positions across a range of industries. Read more about how we carry out your executive talent search, and what makes us different from others and please do get in touch so that we can help secure your high-level talent.