Understanding Retained Executive Search Practices

There are a wide variety of recruitment firms, encompassing a vast gamut of talent and echelon. From the more basic levels of talent acquisition firms comes the term “Headhunting”, though the term is less pertinent to high level business. Within areas of more prominent, highly specialized business roles, there tends to be a greater sense of competition in the job market when it comes to acquiring the top talent in a given field, be it CEO, VP, or other board positions.

Job and key concept

Many companies in need of top talent commission third-party organizations to — not only research into the credentials, accomplishments, and aspirations of selectees — but also to reach out and make contact with prime candidates; notwithstanding establishing the state of their availability while working within a competing company or related organization.

Among the first steps for such firms (or occasionally, the stand-alone consultant) is to draw up a short list of candidates based upon a cross-section of the client’s requirements and the individual’s qualifications. Once top candidates are narrowed down, the firm may then reach out in an intermediary capacity to contact the candidate in order to ascertain his or her potential interest in working with the client company.

So to recap and summarize: Executive search firms work with their client companies to follow through with initial screenings, negotiations of compensation and benefit details, and often preparing the final contracts.

Retained vs. Contingency

Before delving further, it’s important to distinguish between the two main types of employment search firms, namely, Retained Executive Search and Contingency Search firms; as the distinction is a market one.

The contingency approach essentially has successful candidate placement as its sole bargaining chip, given that the entire model operates around the “No Win, No Fee” credo. The firm doesn’t get paid until the job is filled. This means a fast-paced, best-chance process when engaging this type of firm.

The retained firm, on the other hand, accepts an upfront fee as retainer from the client company.  While they may require a notably greater share of a company’s fiscal resources than a contingency search firm, the upside to working with a retained firm is considerable. Unlike contingency firms, retained firms take great care and measured time to work closely with their clients and in seeking out the most promising candidates; often presenting clients with a choice of several candidates of all equally proper skills, locations, and salary expectations. At which point, all the client has to do is select which candidate they feel is the best fit for the role.

Related: Behind the Scenes of Corporate Recruiting

What Should Candidates Know about Retained Search Recruiters?

Once prospective job candidates understand the basic concept of what a retained executive search firm does, they must be sure to obtain a more detailed understanding of the actual role of the retained executive recruiter.

Even top level job seekers may find that confirming a meeting with a retained executive search recruiter may sometimes be more difficult than anticipated.  However, prospective candidates should not take this personally, as an executive recruiter may often have a professional network of approximately 250 contacts for a single search project.  As we can see, this creates a steep recruiter-to-contact ratio; however, capable job seekers should not lose hope or their sense of determination. In the meantime, executive job seekers should work on enhancing their own professional networks in terms of recruiter contacts to increase their odds of being noticed within a vast market of competitors.

Once you have made initial contact, executive-level job seekers must remember that in order for a retained executive recruiter to put you on the top of his or her list, you must show your preeminence as a candidate. If you can inspire your executive recruiter through your genuine enthusiasm, mutual interest in the position, and unrivaled motivation, you have a greater chance of rising above your competitors.  However, it’s also crucial that c-level job hunters remember that retained executive recruiters are not paid per placement; therefore, the incentive for a retained executive recruiter does not lie within simply filling the position, but rather finding that one candidate who stands out among a great many vying for the same role within that company.

While seasoned executive job seekers may already be aware of the fact, it is still important for all candidates to realize that a retained executive recruiter is not likely to market you to multiple employers in order to find you the best deal for your needs, as a contingency recruiter might.  When meeting with a retained executive recruiter, candidates must keep in mind that the recruiter has been taken on as a consultant by one individual organization.  Although retained recruiters may be working with several organizations at one given time, executive job seekers still should not expect this type of recruiter to act as a personal job advisor.

Retained Search Firms - Professional in suite with thumbs-up


When seeking high placement services, it’s a very good idea to garner insight through the experience of others in order to properly fine-tune your expectations. Essentially, it’s best to treat the entire affair as though it were the job interview itself, because in a very real way, it is. This means approach with professionalism, engage respectfully, but don’t hesitate to “sell yourself” as a quality candidate by spotlighting your greatest employee assets. Be honest with the firm if a potential position is not quite right for you; then explain why, so that they can refine their searches with you in mind. Also, remember that networking runs in all directions.  Who knows when you’ll be in need of an excellent and available candidate for a newly vacant position in the future?  Maintaining good professional relationships always pays off.

Fred Coon, CEO


Stewart, Cooper & Coon, has helped thousands of decision makers and senior executives move up in their careers and achieve significantly improved financial packages within short time frames. Contact Fred Coon – 866-883-4200, Ext. 200