The Profession

Understand the Landscape


The right leadership at the executive and board level is critical to achieving business success. The cost of a wrong executive hire can result in staggering losses for a company. Executive search and leadership consulting firms provide customized executive talent solutions to meet the long-term needs of their clients. 

A business can take one of three general approaches to hiring executive level personnel: executive search consulting, contingent recruiters, or in-house recruiting.


Retained Executive Search vs Contingent Recruiting

Unfortunately, executive search consulting and contingent recruiting are often thought of interchangeably, but are completely different professions.

Retained Executive Search


Executive search firms are specialized management consultants retained by clients in an advisory capacity. Executive search firms partner with a client to identify, assess and select the very best possible candidate.

Business Model

Executive search firms operate on an exclusive, client-centered basis and work on a limited number of assignments at one time. They are engaged in all aspects of the process, from defining the search through candidate integration. They often find candidates with diverse backgrounds and have access to candidates who are not actively seeking a new position.

They charge a consulting fee (retainer) for the assignment, consistent with their in-depth advisory work. Executive search firms deliver high-quality services beyond placement, a slate of highly qualified candidates, and develop long-term relationships built on trust.


Executive search firms begin an assignment by understanding their client’s industry, business strategy, and unique needs. They employ highly sophisticated methodologies including competency-based interviewing, 360 degree referencing and due diligence processes that may be augmented by psychometric testing and broader assessments.

They identify a slate of the most qualified candidates that fit well with the client’s culture and have the right background and experience for the specific opportunity. A firm’s success is defined by the long-term commitment and impact of the person hired, therefore they are motivated to help secure a lasting, successful executive hire for their client.

Target Assignment

Executive search firms are typically used for senior-level executive positions and board directors. Assignments are generally for positions where the best candidate is harder to find and harder to persuade to make a move, and where the potential impact of success or failure is greatest.

Candidate Perspective

Executive search firms often access senior executives who may not be actively seeking a new position, and treat their potential interest with a high degree of confidentiality. They can help these hidden candidates see the potential advantages of making a move for the right opportunity.

Contingent Recruiting


Contingent recruiters are hired to present a pool of candidates that fit certain criteria. Contingent recruiters generally works the front-end of the process, leaving the assessment and selection work to the client.

Business Model

Contingent recruiters seek to place as many candidates as possible in the shortest possible time, delivering broad access to “ready to move candidates”. They tend to work with many assignments concurrently. If a particular assignment is not getting traction, contingency recruiters have little incentive to continue.

Contingent recruiters offer their service with no money up front and are paid for candidates who are hired from resumes they present. Fees are generally lower, reflecting their limited scope of work.


Contingent recruiters leverage networks, advertising and online databases to identify a large number of resumes of candidates who likely fit the client’s criteria. Resumes are shared with the client who then takes a more hands-on approach to reviewing and evaluating the candidates. By virtue of the payment upon placement nature of this business model, contingent recruiters are motivated to get many resumes in front of many clients, as quickly as possible.

Target Assignment

Contingent recruiters are most often used for mid-level positions or positions where there are a large number of qualified candidates. They focus on candidates actively looking for a new role, and positions that are of lower potential impact within the client organization.

Candidate Perspective

Contingent recruiters access candidates more likely to be in mid-management roles, most of whom are actively looking for a new position. They have a strong sales orientation and focus on working with a lot of clients and candidates, which can be an advantage to mid-level candidates looking to make a move.

In-House Recruiting

Large organizations likely have in-house recruiting departments that utilize firm-wide skills inventories, access to traditional recruiting tools and a network of potential candidates. Generally, in-house recruiting departments are best resourced for mid- and low- level placements.

For senior-level and Board positions, many in-house recruiting departments work directly with an executive search and leadership consulting firm to leverage their expertise, confidentiality and access to senior candidates who may not be actively looking.