Executive Recruitment

What is Executive Recruitment?

Executive Recruitment is a generic term to describe finding and selecting candidates for senior-level jobs and/or for jobs where a very specific or exceptional skill set is required. Executive recruiters can be large generalist firms but often are “boutique”, operating within a specific sector or job function. As such they may have particular expertise in sourcing and screening hard-to-find talent with the relevant experience.

This approach to recruitment is also known as ‘executive search and selection’ or ‘headhunting’. It is often characterised by a proactive approach to sourcing candidates.

Executive Recruitment firms are talent acquisition specialists. They focus on helping their clients identify, attract, and hire the most qualified individuals for their unique and particular organisational needs.

How does ‘executive recruitment’ differ from a recruitment agency?

Executive Recruiters work proactively on behalf of their clients. The relationship will be consultative and advisory. They will work with their clients to create an assignment specification that will attract both active and passive job seekers and will also approach candidates who have been identified through a targeted ‘headhunt’ process.

A targeted approach takes time due to its research focus and because non-active candidates often take more time to consider the role and respond. However, it will require minimal client HR and management involvement until interviews begin.

Executive Recruitment Consultants will commit a significant amount of time from the outset. They will listen to clients to fully comprehend their objectives. And understand address any challenges they’ve experienced and understand the culture of their organisation.

Recruitment agency focus

In comparison, recruitment agencies focus their approach to matching CVs from their database or advertising response. Agency recruiters may be quicker but are likely to deliver more CVs (and often less relevant) in order to increase the odds of making a placement. Therefore the recruitment process often requires a significant investment of time from the company’s HR team to screen and review CVs and potentially could mean they interview less relevant candidates. Because a client is unlikely to be using just one agency, the agencies’ emphasis will be on trying to deliver CVs to the client swiftly. Speed may override selectively because they are in competition with other agencies. They are effectively “working for free” unless they make a placement.

Comparing executive recruitment with an agency approach

Employers often assume that more agencies means more candidates to choose from. Unfortunately what it actually means is that the agencies will only be able to afford to spend a limited amount of time in finding candidates. As well as being fairly unselective they are also likely to be working with the same candidates who are applying for jobs and registering with multiple agencies. Agencies often have huge candidate databases in theory. But usually, the recruiters will only look for candidates who they’ve had contact with in the last 4-6 weeks.

By contrast, as well as proactively finding and contacting prospective “new” candidates an Executive Recruiter will have a huge range of people known to them and their firm. Prism regularly look back to candidates we first spoke to 10 or 15 years ago.

Executive Recruitment Firm Agency
Overall Fee Typically 25% -30% gross salary Typically 15%-25% base salary
Retainer & shortlist fee Yes Nil
Exclusivity Yes Variable
Candidate Source Executive search including LinkedIn approaches and known contacts (nb Prism also advertise and use our database) Advertising, database, some search
Candidate interviewing Yes No
Presentation of screened shortlist Yes No
Detailed face to face meeting to understand the employer, the job, the candidate profile and the “selling points” Yes No
Detailed proposal confirming the requirement, the services to be undertaken and likely timescales Yes No

Why use an executive recruiter?

Any organisation must attract and retain top talent in order to optimise performance and returns. This is particularly important in a professional services firm where the biggest asset is its people. The challenge of finding the right senior executives to fill critical talent needs is most effectively achieved with the support of an executive recruitment firm with expertise in identifying and recruiting top talent. Such firms have the experience and well-defined processes in place to attract and secure the best candidate for the job.

An executive search firm has a large network

Executive recruitment firms can save considerable time (and therefore expense) by accessing a network of people in the industry they serve. By using their network they can confidentially approach potential candidates who may not be actively looking for a career move, but who have the required experience. This is particularly useful when recruitment requires sensitive handling.


When a consulting firm is hiring for a senior position that will have a positive impact effect on the revenue and profitability of the firm. Using an executive search firm can be very cost-effective. An executive recruitment firm that finds a great candidate with a swift and effective process will cover its cost many times over.


An executive recruiter with deep knowledge of your sector or the type of candidates you seek will not only save you considerable time through effective shortlisting but also be much better placed to find the talent you seek.

Employing an executive recruiter is also very beneficial when a firm wishes to hire from a different industry with skills the hiring company has less familiarity with. As an example, a corporation may wish to hire someone from a consultancy background. Alternatively, a consultancy firm may seek someone with particular skills and experience from the industry. The executive recruiter will draw on his or her expertise and experience in attracting and securing talent from a different sector.


Internal recruitment functions are most effective for lower-level positions. Or when the competencies of the successful candidate are clear and easy to assess. However, for more senior management consultancy jobs this is not always the case. In particular, internal recruiters are often under considerable pressure to find candidates for a range of roles. They will not have the time, or possibly the expertise and contacts, to devote to all these vacancies. If a junior role lies vacant it is unfortunate. However, if a senior opening is not filled or there is an inadequate shortlist, that will have a material and potentially significant business impact.

Small and mid-sized consultancy firms frequently do not have an internal recruitment department with the resources to generate and screen a pool of candidates. Used effectively, executive recruitment firms can save time and money by performing this task.


Executive recruitment firms understand the importance of diversity within an organisation. However, many employers focus their recruitment activities on platforms and channels that are likely to deliver candidates from similar backgrounds. Executive recruitment consultancies can be highly effective at helping employers connect with a more diverse range of candidates.

One way this can be achieved is by helping employers to consider how job adverts are worded, ensuring that the language used does not result in a bias towards applicants from a particular background.

How does an executive recruitment firm work?

For the client

A good executive search firm will take time to understand not only the nature of the role for which it is recruiting but also the culture of the firm and the team dynamic.

Most assignments will follow a similar process:

Determining the scope of the assignment

  • Initial discussion between hiring firm and executive recruiter to ensure there is a “good fit” and the recruiter has the expertise to deliver the best candidate.
  • Meeting with the hiring manager (and HR if relevant) to discuss the role and the “ideal candidate” for the job. This will involve discussion of salary and package, the timescale for the selection process and any problems which may arise.
  • Proposal submitted, which will agree on the nature of the candidate to be found, the approach to be adopted, the likely timescale and the fees.

Screening and shortlist

  • The recruiter will screen several hundred candidates, maybe thousands, from a range of sources (adverts, LinkedIn searches, database etc.). Of these, potentially hundreds may be approached. Initial discussions held with 20-30 and a shortlist of 5 or 6 (as agreed) presented to the client. A key part of this process will be “selling” the role to the candidate, honestly and professionally, so they are aware of the attractions of the opportunity. Employers are often wary of doing this themselves or simply not very good at it!

Facilitating the process

  • During the final stage of the selection process, the executive recruiter will be closely involved in facilitating the interview process. They will gather feedback from candidates and acting as an intermediary in the salary negotiation.
  • Once a job offer has been made and accepted, the search firm will oversee the transition of the candidate to the client. Whilst this may seem the easy part, it is not uncommon for candidates to be susceptible to a counteroffer from their current employer. Furthermore, a new employee may take a month or so to settle in a new job. The recruiter, with whom they have developed a rapport, will be able to help with the onboarding process.

The recruiter will seek to ensure that the hiring company is able to avoid the common frustrations of job seekers and provide an excellent candidate experience.

For the candidate

This will depend to an extent on whether a candidate responds to an advertisement (and is therefore active in the job market) or is identified by the recruiter as a ‘passive’ candidate who may be open to a career move.

Having identified potentially suitable candidates for the management consultancy job, an executive recruiter will have an informal chat with a potential candidate about the role to ascertain interest and suitability. At this stage, it is likely that the recruiter will give a broad outline of the position. However they may not reveal the identity of the recruiting company. This will also help to indicate how receptive the potential candidate is to a move. There is no obligation on either party to proceed further.

Candidates who fit the required profile will be assessed in more detail by way of an interview with the recruiter, either face to face, by telephone or via a video channel. This will explore:

The latter aspect is often overlooked and is a key aspect of assessing the “fit”.

The shortlisted candidates will be thoroughly briefed on the role and hiring company. Following the interview, the candidate should have a debriefing and be provided with feedback.

In all cases, whether the candidate is successful or not, the executive recruitment company should provide regular progress reports.

Importance of the management consulting recruiter’s experience and expertise

It is easy to overlook the impact of a professional and ethical recruitment process. It’s not just the recruiter’s reputation at stake but the employer’s. The professionalism of the process and the recruiter will make it more likely they can secure the best candidate for their client.

The recruiter should be available for discussion and advice on handling your resignation from your current company and the possibility of a counteroffer. They will also be happy to discuss any aspect of onboarding with the new company to ensure the process is as painless as possible.

For unsuccessful candidates, a good recruiter will always be happy to give general career advice plus specific advice assuming the candidate is within their area of expertise. This might include advice on:

Prism has a wealth of information for candidates on these subjects and other topics such as interview advice on its candidate services pages.

How to select an executive recruitment firm for retained search

Once you have identified the need to use an executive recruiter it is important to take time to select the most appropriate firm. It is certainly not the case that “one size fits all” and particularly in a specialist sector such as management consultancy recruitment, it is crucial to identify a recruitment firm with the relevant expertise with whom you can work effectively.

In selecting the best executive recruitment firm it is worth considering a number of factors as part of your decision making:

  • How is the search process managed and how will they find and attract the best candidates?
  • How well will the firm represent the hiring company? Are they suitable brand ambassadors?
  • Does the search firm have in-depth knowledge of the industry and type of position you are recruiting for?
  • Will your assignment be handled by a named individual and are you confident in their experience?

The importance of selecting a recruitment partner with integrity cannot be overemphasised. We explore in more detail how you can ensure you are selecting the best executive recruitment for your management consultancy jobs in our client services section.

How Prism sets itself apart from other executive recruitment firms

The deeper AND broader the candidate sourcing, the better the talent that can be uncovered. This guarantees the quality of the shortlist our clients can choose from.

First-rate people can be found as both active job seekers and passive candidates. The notion that the latter is always superior is a myth backed by traditional head-hunters. In fact, there are good reasons to avoid focusing exclusively on such candidates.

Naturally, as a headhunter Prism does approach passive candidates:

  • via LinkedIn
  • we deep mine our own talent system built over 20 years
  • relationships with MBA schools and alumni associations
  • candidate search
  • we know lots of people who aren’t actively looking for a job. However, they could be receptive to an exceptional opportunity

In addition we also target active candidates: we advertise across numerous job boards, online channels and our own website. We search our own candidate database of job seekers and the CV libraries we subscribe to.

Many executive selection firms utilise some of these methods but no others in our field do all of this.

Therefore an assignment for a senior role could involve reviewing and screening over 2,000 potential candidates from which there may be 200-300 initial approaches, 40-50 exchanges and conversations and 10-20 interviews before shortlisting relevant and qualified individuals.

Our deep understanding of this market and of the motivations of this specific candidate population subsequently underpins our management of the process to a successful conclusion.