Key Differences Between Recruitment And Executive Search


Key Differences Between Recruitment And Executive Search

When it comes to effective recruitment, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The most suitable approach will depend on several factors, including the requirements of the business, the nature of the role and current trends in the employment market. In comparing recruitment and executive search, while they share the same end goal, their methodology is actually quite different. There are two key areas that distinguish a recruitment agency from an executive search business – the type of candidates targeted and how they partner with your business.

To help you decide which approach is correct for your business and specific role requirements below we’ve broken down the differentiators as well as the pros and cons for each.

Active vs. Passive Candidates

One of the fundamental differences between recruitment and executive search firms is their approach to sourcing candidates. Recruitment agencies are primarily reactive when searching for talent and although there are exceptions, their focus is usually on active jobseekers who:

  • Are applying for live roles
  • Contacting the agency directly
  • Posting their resume onto CV databases such as Indeed or Seek

Although not their core target, good recruiters will also include an element of proactive search via their immediate networks, databases or referrals. However, for executive search and positions like CEOs, CFOs and Finance Directors, candidates are typically not searching for a new role. Consequently, an executive search agency mostly adopts a more proactive strategy. The nature of exec-level roles means the ideal person is likely already in an existing role and not actively seeking a new position, but may consider a move for the right opportunity. Naturally, this approach takes longer with more focus on selling the requirement.

How they Partner with the Client

When comparing recruitment and executive search, another major difference is the way that agencies work alongside your business, whether that’s contingent or retained.

Recruiters are generally engaged on a contingent basis, which is better suited to high volume or lower level roles. In contrast, executive search businesses purely work on retained projects. This is primarily due to the time and energy spent on a C-Suite appointment, with more of a mutual time commitment from both parties. It also tends to be more of a resource-intensive approach, with a range of talent mapping and sourcing tactics applied. At a senior level, there is more publicly-available information as well as established networks to tap into, so extensive research forms a larger part of the search for the perfect candidate. For the same reasons, businesses that focus on specialist roles (like OnTalent) and recruiters that focus on mid to high level positions, will generally only engage on an exclusive or retained basis.

Different Methods of Engagement

  • Contingent (non-exclusive) recruitment is a model where recruiters are often competing against multiple agencies, and only charge a fee upon successful placement.
  • Contingent (exclusive) recruitment works in the same way as the above – the difference being that recruiters will only take on the project if their search is carried out exclusively.
  • When working on a retained basis (as is common with executive search), employers are charged a ‘fee for service’, often paid in several instalments at key stages of the process.


Regardless of the differences between recruitment and executive search, each one has its own strengths and plays an important role in a business’s talent acquisition strategy, ensuring it has the people it needs to stay competitive in the long term. We work with employers on C-Suite/Senior Management appointments, transformational roles and unique positions holding a strategic remit. If you’re not sure about the approach to recruitment you should be taking, we’d be more than happy to discuss these options further – get in touch.

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