What is Executive Search and why does it matter to a Management Consulting employer?

The definition of Executive Search seems very simple….

What is executive search? Executive Search is the process of actively seeking, or “hunting”, an individual to fill an Executive level role. In the case of Prism Executive Recruitment, this could typically be a Senior Management Consultancy job, or a Director role in a management consulting firm.

…..in practice it is considerably more complicated.

There are different views on what is involved, which can vary depending on who is being asked!

The explicit point is the term “Search” and the implication is that this goes considerably beyond a trawl of active candidates. This. kind of trawl could include job advertisement applicants or active and recently registered candidates on a recruiter’s database.

This links to the other word: the importance and seniority of the role implied in the term “Executive”. This suggests that there is more of a business imperative to find the best available person for the job (rather than only active job seekers). This, therefore, justifies the (often) greater cost and considerably greater effort involved in this broader remit.

Why does it matter?

In summary the payment structure and exclusivity aspects provide a recruiter with a massively increased incentive to fill the vacancy AND because of the extra time and effort to reassure the employer the candidate is the best available.

So what does Executive Search involve?

In days gone by Executive Search firms enjoyed a sense of mystery and exclusivity. They were seen as “head-hunters” with the fabled “Black Book” of contacts. Alternatively, they were seen as having mysterious open-door access to leading Industry movers and shakers. Who knows, perhaps they went to the same school!

In practice, the ability of such firms to do a good job relied upon excellent researchers. They would produce a list of target employers i.e. places the Executive might currently be working. This would allow them to find the name of the relevant Executive, and be able to get through to them, usually by telephone.

These days some of the same skills apply but the process has of course been revolutionised by the internet. This has enabled a bewildering range of sources and information on the potential Executive “candidate”. It has also produced myriad methods of contacting the individual.

In practice the key elements that make up Executive Search are:

1. A retainer payment from the hiring employer to the recruiter

This covers a small part of the recruiter’s costs but more importantly ensures the commitment of both parties. The recruiter knows the employer is serious about hiring while the employer is paying for a specific service and knows (via the agreed contract) that the recruiter will put time and effort into performing the service. An overlooked aspect is that candidates can be reassured by this “serious” engagement and know they won’t be wasting their time. Another important part of the contract is agreement of the role and candidate descriptions.

2. A structured approach to identifying potential candidates

This structure can encompass a range of routes, for example both advertising and active approaches of potential candidates. However, it is undertaken with the aim of casting a wide net across both active and passive job seekers. The latter might involve agreeing with the hiring company a list of potential employers where the Executive could currently be working. The research phase of the Executive Search project would be to look at each of those companies and identify relevant people. This is immeasurably easier than before because of LinkedIn. However, this is not the only source of information. In many cases, other methods are used alongside this. Note that the quality of the final shortlist and eventual appointment will be wholly dependent upon the quality and thoroughness of this process. If the recruiter/researcher only does a bit of basic LinkedIn searching that will have a big impact later. It is also important to cast a wide net: active job seekers are of course a great resource and it is a myth that the best candidates have to be headhunted or aren’t looking for a role.

man on a mobile phone call

3. Approaching potential applicants

Often the strongest candidates are inundated with approaches (via LinkedIn for example) and will ignore 95% of them. A quality Executive Search approach will get the balance between persistence and being an irritant. The researcher or consultant will try several different routes and will have the market knowledge to draft a short but compelling message. They will also have a quality reputation such that the candidate is happy to respond. The key aspect is to “intrigue” the Executive who is happy in their current role but without wasting everyone’s time!

4. Compiling a shortlist

Many elements apply here but the most important is to continue to enthuse and excite the candidate about the role and the employer. A key aspect of the service is often quality documentation in the form of a comprehensive job spec or assignment brief. At the same time, the executive recruiter will assess the strength of the individual. This could be against the agreed candidate specification with some form of a structured interview. Communication between the recruiter and the client at all stages is key and especially agreement on the process. Some employers only want to see the CVs of the “best” three candidates. This is the traditional Executive Search approach and may seem a bit “headhunter knows best”! Other employers are keen on being involved, discussing and selecting the shortlist from a much longer list of “possibles”. This approach can play an important part in reassuring the employer that they are indeed seeing the candidates that are most suited to the role and company.

5. Managing the process

While it is understandable to consider that the Executive Search is done and dusted at shortlist stage, the reality is that the influence and role of a quality, experienced recruiter is only just starting! They should at all stages be transparent and honest but will be gently herding both parties towards a successful conclusion. A “successful conclusion” is not just the recruiter’s fee”. For the client it is a talented new employee who will achieve the impact that they were hoping for. For the candidate it is great new step in their career where they will thrive. Only with both of those elements in place can the Executive Search assignment be a success!

If you would like to discuss executive search in more detail and how we can help with your talent acquisition strategy, please contact Chris Sale, Managing Director, Prism Executive Recruitment on 01344 636 426 or [email protected]

Prism are specialists in finding exceptional consulting talent for a broad range of management consultancies, large and small, also including the professional services arms of major systems integrators.


Executive Search is the process of actively seeking, or “hunting”, an individual to fill an Executive level role. This could typically be a Senior Management Consultancy job, or a Director role in a management consulting firm.
A retainer, a process to identify the right candidates, approaching candidates on an employer's behalf, interviewing or otherwise screening candidates, compiling a shortlist to present to the employer, and successful management of the process
A retainer is a way to demonstrate serious intent to fill the position and to ensure the recruiter will invest the time and resources in finding the best candidates. The employer needs to be clear what service the recruiter has agreed to undertake by means of a proposal and contract.
Headhunting or Executive Search involves approaching senior employees, perhaps who are not actively job hunting, to interest them in a new role. Executive Recruitment may include this but is broader, also involving finding candidates from advertisements and the recruitment firm’s database.

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