Why is a headhunter best for executive recruitment?

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Why is a headhunter best for executive recruitment?

a businessman walking in front of a window


Executive recruitment is a completely different ballgame to recruiting for other levels. It can be tempting to apply your same hiring methods to all roles, however senior. However, at top levels, this can lead to poor fit at best and expensive mistakes at worst. A headhunter, sometimes known as executive search, is the solution for executive recruitment.

It’s vital to understand why executive recruitment can be difficult so that you can understand how a headhunting approach will help you identify and secure the ideal candidate.

What is a headhunter?

Headhunters specialise in finding candidates for executive level positions. They sometimes specialise within a particular sector, or have a broad pool of experience, knowledge, experts and geographical reach, like we do at Eagle Headhunters.

What sets headhunters apart from standard recruiters is that they take a proactive approach. They don’t simply bash out a bunch of digital adverts, trawl their database and flood you with CVs. Instead, they learn about the specific objectives of your vacant role and your organisational goals, and go out and unearth the talent that is already proving its value elsewhere through clear and tangible results.

Executive talent is notoriously difficult to find, if you rely on traditional methods of sourcing. The best candidates aren’t simply biding their time, looking for opportunities. These individuals require the skills of a headhunter to track down. They are busy being successful for a competitor.

How does the executive search process work

When you have a senior vacancy, it’s time to approach your chosen headhunter or executive recruitment company. Unlike with traditional recruitment, you give the headhunter exclusive rights to fulfil your recruitment needs for this position. This ensures a dedicated and focused approach.

From here, the headhunter will work with you to truly understand the needs of your company and the role. They get to know your organisation so that they gain exceptional insight into what an ideal candidate could bring, and therefore, the skills and aptitudes any applicant needs to display. This takes place alongside intense market research and talent mapping within your industry and sector.

This groundwork happens before they begin looking for candidates and it is the bedrock of executive recruitment success.

After this preparatory work, the headhunter focuses on identifying and sourcing suitable candidates. As these candidates aren’t usually actively looking for a new role, they are called passive candidates. These candidates take a more intensive and nurturing approach to entice interest in the role. They are already delivering results elsewhere.

Typically, headhunters are closely involved in short-listing and helping with negotiations and early stages of onboarding, in order to secure success.

How are headhunters paid?

You’re probably familiar with the standard recruitment model whereby agencies rush to provide you with a candidate and you pay a set percentage of the successful candidate’s salary to the agency.

With headhunting, it works differently. This isn’t just a case of getting any vaguely suitable candidate into the role. Therefore, headhunters typically work on a retained basis. By paying the recruiter in this way, it ensures they are 100% dedicated to your executive vacancy.

The specific nature of retained fee arrangements can vary, but there will likely be staged payments according to the headhunter’s success.

On the face of it, it can seem that a headhunter is an expensive recruitment option. However, this crude comparison doesn’t account for total and long-term recruitment costs of a poor hire. Making a mistake with executive recruitment can be immensely costly in the longer-term. As such, headhunters are usually extremely cost-effective for the nature of the role.

Executive recruitment vs standard recruitment

It can help to lay out the differences between these two types of recruitment in a head-to-head style. Here you can see why they both serve very different purposes.

Differences between executive recruitment headhunters and standard recruitment agencies
Executive Recruitment Recruitment Agency
Finds the ideal candidate for the role in terms of skills, knowledge, aptitude, results and characteristics Finds a suitable candidate for the role based on the job description
Identifies and sources passive candidates who are already ‘proving their worth’ elsewhere Draws candidates only from an pool of active candidates looking for work
Focuses on executive and senior level positions only, usually within certain sectors Will recruit for all roles at all levels across all industries and sectors
Works to understand the company and the culture, as well as the role objectives Focuses only on the role and its duties
Works on a retained fee basis Works on a contingency basis


Do I need an executive recruitment specialist or a traditional recruiter?

Your first consideration should always be the specific role you are looking to fill and its strategic importance and value to your business.

Broadly speaking, if the role is within senior leadership, is central to business success, or is high-profile, then you will need executive recruitment. With these roles, headhunters are cost-effective and take the stress out of the process. They bring far greater assurance that you’ll get a strategic hire that drives the future success of the organisation. At less senior levels, it is usually far more cost-effective to choose a recruitment agency.

It’s not as clear cut as placing a clear salary cut-off for deciding whether the vacancy is suited for a headhunter or recruiter. However, if the role is management, C-suite, or exceeds £100,000, we definitely recommend a headhunter. Typical roles for headhunters include CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, COOs, as well as senior management within accounting, HR, geographical regions and technical departments.

Generally speaking, a headhunter is usually looking for long-term permanent placements. However, they may take on fulfilment of interim management positions in some situations.

Is executive search and headhunting better than standard recruitment?

Again, the answer isn’t either/or. These recruitment methods are very different and suited to different roles. Therefore, which is best depends entirely on variables such as the nature of the role, the industry and the skill of the individual headhunter or recruiter. Nonetheless, a headhunter is undoubtedly best for executive recruitment.

Where it can get confusing for clients is that in recruitment circles there is a perception that ‘headhunting’ is a more favourable term than ‘recruiting’. The result is that many recruitment agencies will market themselves as executive search firms or headhunters, when this isn’t actually the model they follow.

To identify a true headhunter, look at their process of recruitment, as well as their fee structure. With a true headhunter or executive search firm, you will find they work on a retained basis.

The benefits of choosing executive recruitment

When you choose an executive recruitment firm or headhunter you should expect service at a much higher level. You should expect the best and you should expect the following benefits:

  • Market knowledge: Expect the headhunter to speak with insight and understanding about your business, sector, competitors and geographical scope.
  • Networking skill: Headhunters succeed in identifying ideal candidates because they have their ear to the ground and make use of exceptional networks.
  • Discretion: It’s vital that you can trust the headhunter to identify and entice passive candidates whilst operating with discretion, so that your business interests and reputation are well-managed.
  • Candidate access: It’s fair to expect the headhunter to be able to approach and build excellent reputations with leading passive candidates in your niche.
  • Time to hire: At the executive recruitment level, it’s reasonable to expect lengthy notice periods. However, a skilled headhunter will still be able to reduce the time to hire by working quickly and skilfully.
  • Value: A headhunter won’t just recruit based on a job description. They will identify knowledge, aptitude and diversity gaps which, if filled, will propel business success.
  • Reduce risk: Always expect your chosen headhunter to reduce the risk of a bad hire, as these can be extremely costly at the executive level.
  • Competitive edge: A skilled headhunter will work to ensure the successful placement gives your business the edge over your competitors in terms of talent.

How to find a headhunter or executive recruiter?

As candidates, you don’t specifically need to look for a headhunter. They will find you, if you are right for a role they are working on. Remember, the headhunter is very intensely focusing on a specific position. They focus on quality over quantity.

For employers with executive roles to fill, it’s worth choosing your headhunter with care. Expect a confident online presence but notable discretion. Identify they are a true headhunter, and not a recruitment agency capitalising on the name.

Find out more about Where to find a good headhunter. Expect a business partner. Expect an expert in executive recruitment.