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Executive Search vs Recruitment: 6 Key Differences

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One of the biggest challenges for any human resources employee is finding potential candidates for a new position or a backfill. Effectively sourcing active job seekers means writing engaging job descriptions, identifying quality applicants, poring over resumes, and conducting insightful interviews.

The terms ‘executive search’ and ‘recruitment’ are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the process of finding and placing the best talent. Though both activities are valid ways of identifying high-quality candidates, there’s a significant difference between them.

Below, we’ll explore the differences between these two processes and how they work.

What is Executive Search, and How Does it Work?

An executive search is a highly specialized, targeted approach to recruitment that aims to identify, engage, and land top talent for an organization’s executive positions. These senior-level positions typically require candidates with a specialized skill set, which makes the staffing search process challenging - and high-risk.

As a result, many firms turn to retained executive search over traditional recruitment services when filling executive-level roles.

In fact, using executive search firms is one of the most predominant talent acquisition trends in high-level role hiring today. To correctly place executives, retained search firms conduct an in-depth hiring process where they thoroughly research, vet, and interview only the best candidates. This valuable service offers capabilities beyond the bandwidth of even top-tier HR departments, which have myriad other responsibilities besides hiring.

What Do Executive Search Consultants Do?

Executive search firms’ business models focus on placing candidates in exclusive, challenging C-level and upper management roles that often require a specific mix of education, experience, and soft skills. Executive search firm fees reflect their ability to deliver on almost any specialization.

Candidates with the proper bona fides are typically few and far between, so executive recruiters focus almost exclusively on “passive candidates” in their search. These candidates are currently employed but open to networking, making new contacts, and hearing about new roles. A recent study by Zippia found that 73% of potential candidates are passive job seekers.

Recruiting passive job seekers for executive roles requires executive recruiters to get proactive. They may find promising candidates on social media platforms like LinkedIn through a series of specific and targeted searches; or they may lean on the extensive networks they’ve built through previous work and connections. From there, executive recruiters engage with candidates, discuss the open position, and gauge their interest.

Once candidates are identified, the executive recruiter can conduct interviews, dive into specific job details, and talk salary and benefits—all while representing your organization and encouraging the candidate’s interest in the opportunity. If you want to ensure your firm offers competitive compensation, check out our executive salary guide.

What is Recruitment, and How Does it Work?

Standard recruitment processes focus on hiring staff for more general entry-level and mid-level positions. Since these roles are usually not specialized, your human resources team may be able to handle these tasks entirely themselves, or may work with a recruitment firm to outsource talent acquisition.

Firms that offer standard recruitment services often work on numerous open positions simultaneously, posting jobs on hiring boards to reach the largest talent pool of active job-seekers possible. Because standard recruitment for lower-level roles isn’t as specialized, these recruiters can source candidates quickly, cultivate a large stack of resumes and applications, and quickly fill your new positions.

What Does a Recruitment Consultant Do?

Unlike executive search consultants, who focus on passive job seekers, recruiters reach out to active job seekers through conventional channels, including:

  • Social media: Recruiters post about open positions on popular social media channels to gain visibility for the job. For example, recruiters might post the job description, location, and required applicant competencies on LinkedIn.
  • Job boards: Advertising on popular job boards is another way to connect with active candidates.
  • Email/E-newsletters: Recruiters sometimes promote new opportunities via E-newsletters, sent to a massive email list of job-seekers. Only once applicants apply are they reviewed to see if they qualify for the role.What a recruiter says about a position is one of the most important parts of the recruitment process. Regardless of the channel used, job descriptions that are thorough, easy to read, and upfront about requirements, company culture, benefits, and pay will typically garner the most relevant responses.

Standard recruitment agencies cast a significantly wider net than executive search firms. However, the larger pool of applicants that recruitment agencies offer is less qualified for high-level roles.

6 Key Differences Between Recruitment and Executive Search

Understanding the differences between traditional recruitment and executive search is crucial for matching the right professionals with the appropriate roles. The key distinctions between recruitment and executive search consultants involve the roles they help businesses fill, their search and selection processes, business models, focus industries, and the candidates they target.

Types of Vacancies Filled

Recruitment and executive search serve different segments of the job market. Executive searches focus on high-level roles like the C-suite, Senior VP, VP, and Director. These positions often require a particular blend of educational background, certifications, and industry experience. Standard recruiters can help fill mid- and entry-level roles across multiple industries.

Search Process

Executive search consultants identify and pursue specially qualified candidates who may be interested in a job change but are not actively seeking new employment.

In contrast, recruiters cast a wide net across multiple communication channels and job boards, collect many resumes, and recommend candidates from their pool of applicants.

Selection Methodology

Executive search consultants employ a hands-on approach and collaborate closely with hiring managers to mitigate risks. Their tactics may include market mapping, direct outreach, assessments, and interviews. Only once an executive recruiter is sure of the candidate’s fit in your role will they recommend him or her to your organization as a potential hire. This in-depth selection process maximizes the chances of the candidate meeting the job requirements and being the right cultural fit for the organization.

Recruiters find larger pools of candidates for hiring mangers to select from. While they may narrow down qualified applicants to a base level, their services largely involve providing a large selection of candidates for hiring managers to then interview, run background checks, and reach a decision.

Business Model

An executive search leans heavily on recruiting high-level, large-salary roles. These searches take more time and resources, so companies must pay a retainer in advance for their services. Although this can be costly, the inherent risk for placing these roles is higher, so there is tremendous value for companies who need to find suitable candidates for top-tier positions.

A recruitment agency, in contrast, may only be paid once they fill a role, or they may work as a contingency recruiter. So, while these firms still want to supply good candidates to keep up their reputation, they must prioritize a high volume of quick placements to stay profitable.

Industry Focus

Companies' needs can vary widely across industries. What a steel manufacturer needs from a CFO may be totally different from what a hospital expects from the same position.

As a result, executive recruiters often specialize in one or more very similar industries. Doing so allows them to build a thorough network of connections within the industry, creating close relationships that both ease and speed up the search for any new role they begin working to fill.

Standard recruiters, meanwhile, operate more as generalists than as specialists. They’ll often take on recruitment responsibilities for several types of positions at once, across several industries, drawing in large groups of candidates for the hiring company to sort through.

Candidates Considered

Higher-level roles demand a unique blend of experience, education, and skills. Executive recruiters may only find a handful of qualified candidates to send clients. Further complicating matters, candidates for these roles typically understand their value to an organization. As a result, they can be difficult to find - and challenging to engage with. This is exactly the challenge that executive recruiters excel in overcoming.

Regular recruiters trying to fill mid- and entry-level roles may also face some education, experience, and skill requirements. However, these are typically general enough that recruiters can find talented applicants in one industry with skills that can suit a role in another industry entirely. As a result, recruiters may send any number of candidates for the first round of interviews—often into the hundreds.

Engaging the Right Executive Search Company

It’s hard to overstate the benefits of working with an executive recruitment firm when filling your upper-level roles. Their extensive connections within your industry and ability to connect with and capture the attention of executives who aren’t actively seeking a new role go beyond anything a standard recruitment agency could offer.

TDS Global Solutions offers all of these benefits, and more, including onboarding assistance and post-placement check-ins to ensure that your new hire is acclimating well. Our more than 30 years of industry experience shows a proven track record of placing quality candidates for top-tier positions at companies like JPMorgan Chase, Genpact, and Convey Health. And soon, we can do the same for you.

Check out our customer testimonials to see where else we’ve made an impact, then schedule a call to learn how we can make your next executive hire the best one yet.

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