Retained Executive Search vs. Contingency Recruiters

When the stakes are high and you need to secure executive-level talent, navigating the recruitment landscape can feel daunting, especially when you are looking for a new senior leader. Two distinct options emerge: retained executive search and contingency database recruiters. Deciding which route to take depends on your unique needs and priorities but the potential implications of the decision can be considerable.

Engagement and Fees:

  • Retained Executive Search: Here, you invest in an exclusive partnership. You pay a retainer fee upfront, securing the firm’s undivided attention and expertise and then further payments are made as the project progresses – usually on delivery of milestones. The fee is generally still based on a percentage of the remuneration for the role in question, but paid throughout the search.
  • Contingency Database Recruiters: Generally there are no upfront costs here, but the reward structure aligns differently. Recruiters compete for your attention, presenting you with suitable candidates from their databases and networks. You only pay a fee if they successfully place someone.

You can find out more about retained executive search fees here.

Focus and Approach:

  • Retained Executive Search: Think meticulous tailoring. Search firms delve deep into your company culture, target industry, and desired candidate profile. They utilise their extensive networks, headhunting techniques, and in-depth assessments to unearth talent which you probably didn’t even have in mind, and who are probably not actively looking for a new role. They take a very consultative approach, rather than the ‘transactional’ approach often experienced with contingency database recruiters. Retained search firms will present a fully assessed shortlist to you to select from ‘the best of the best’ across the whole market.
  • Contingency Database Recruiters: Think broad net casting. They source primarily from existing databases and job boards, focusing on readily available candidates actively seeking new roles. While efficient, the level of personalisation and deep-dive research might be limited. They will often submit CV’s to you ad-hoc and expect you to filter through them and decide which ones to interview, there is often no more than a CV and an initial screening call with the candidate to go from.

Time and Guarantee:

  • Retained Executive Search: Patience and focus is key, but time to hire is often reduced through focus. The thorough research and personalised approach translate to a more structured and focused search process. However, the success rate tends to be higher, and you benefit from ongoing guidance and candidate evaluation throughout, getting the best of the best from the whole market, not just those CV’s which happen to come from active job searchers. Ultimately you are retaining professional consultants to perform a specific function, rather than rewarding the off-chance of success.
  • Contingency Database Recruiters: Speed can be their advantage. They often deliver candidates quickly, but the fit might not be perfect which is a greater risk as the strategic significance of the role increases. Remember, multiple recruiters might be working on the same role, creating potential competition and diluted focus. They may submit to you a good candidate, but as the approach is transactional you have no benchmark as to how good that candidate is against the talent across the market.

Choosing the Right Path:

  • Consider Retained: When the role is mission-critical or strategically significant, requires niche expertise, or demands the absolute best fit. This is when the investment in retained search yields significant value. In most senior leadership roles the talent pool is very low but the impact is very high, so it is often better to get a focused and exhaustive active search which looks beyond active job-seekers. Retained can also be helpful for long-term partnerships and building a talent pipeline.
  • Contingency Database May Suffice: When time is of the essence, the role is well-defined, and readily available candidates exist in the market. Typically contingency works for general roles or mass-hiring of professionals such as in frontline healthcare roles or general business roles.

Ultimately, the choice depends on your unique circumstances and priorities. Consider the criticality of the role, your budget, and your desired timeline. Weigh the value of personalised attention, deep-dive research, and ongoing guidance against the efficiency and affordability promised by contingency search.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution and it very much depends on the role. Both retained executive search and contingency database recruiters have their strengths. Typically we would suggest you draw the line at the ‘Head of’ / ‘Assistant Director’ level, meaning that below that level (for non-specialist roles) contingency database recruitment is likely to suffice, but where the role is ‘Head of’, ‘Assistant Director’ or above, most businesses will use retained search to benefit from the focus, exhaustive search and consultative approach.

Key Takeaways:

  • Understand your needs and priorities. What skills, experience, and cultural fit are crucial for the role? How much time can you afford for the search? What risks are you willing to take, for example not exhausting the entire market of talent by using a database contingency recruiter, for example?
  • Research both options. Explore the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, delving into the specific methodologies and expertise offered by different firms. Don’t be afraid to ask for references and case studies to understand their track record.
  • Embrace a collaborative approach. Open communication and clear expectations are vital with any recruiter you choose. Clearly articulate your needs, desired candidate profile, and communication preferences. Be an active partner in the process, providing insights and feedback to guide the search.
  • Look beyond the immediate fit. While technical skills and experience are essential, prioritise cultural alignment and leadership potential. The ideal candidate should not only fill the role but also become a driving force for your organisation’s growth and success.
  • Invest in talent beyond the search. Building a lasting relationship with your chosen recruiter can yield long-term benefits. Leverage their expertise for ongoing talent acquisition strategies, succession planning, and leadership development initiatives.

Ultimately, finding the best executive-level talent requires a blend of strategy, intuition, and trust. We often work with clients who have tried their existing contingent recruiter to find senior-level roles before turning to executive search firms. Whilst both have their places, think of it this way – you wouldn’t expect a car mechanic to repair your boiler – but they are both engineers on the face of it. Executive search firms specialise in senior roles exclusively and take a consultative approach, working with passive candidates who are not searching for a role, meaning they address the entirety of the market to find the best fit of talent for the role and business. Contingency recruiters often use marketing-led and job board-led campaigns to cast a wide net, which often only captures those actively looking for a role, but can be effective for mass-hiring such as Nurses or general business roles.

Find out more about retained executive search here.

Chris Percival

Chris is the Founder & Managing Director of CJPI and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership.

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