Executive Headhunters vs. Executive Recruiters


The executive hiring process is a high-stakes undertaking. Line and operating vacancies are based primarily on assessing a candidate’s skill set, experience, and knowledge. These roles are usually filled rapidly. When filling an executive position, on the other hand, additional, complex requirements call for a longer term view, where leadership, people skills, vision, and cultural fit are crucial.

With so much on the line for organizations, it’s not surprising the field has developed its own different specializations and niches. Organizations without deep in-house recruiting teams often turn to retained executive search firms to fill an open leadership role. To fill line and operating vacancies, they may hire one or more contingent search firms which will supply a greater volume of available candidates (read more on the difference between retained search vs. contingent search).

Either one may be called a recruiter, a search professional or a headhunter.  Is there a difference?


What is a Headhunter?

The term Headhunter is out-of-date slang for a person who works to recruit candidates with specific talents… in other words, someone hunting heads.  Most recruiting professionals feel it is pejorative and dislike the description.

Nonetheless, headhunter is a more inclusive term.   Calling yourself an “executive search firm” or a “contingency search firm” specifies quite different methodologies that will produce different results.  Both types, however, can be called headhunters – even if they don’t like it.


Meet the Executive Headhunter

There are some claims that the term is re-acquiring some respectability by calling it the executive headhunter.  In this re-incarnation, headhunter is presumed to mean an executive recruiter who actively seeks out the “passive” candidates – the ones who are currently employed and not among the thousands competing to make their availability known.

But this is already one of the core differentiations of the executive search methodology.  So, the result is to tack another description on to executive search.  (One unlikely to be widely adopted given the past, derogatory associations).

Executive recruiters or executive headhunters are experts in not only finding great talent, but the right talent for the role.

Since they are contracted exclusively by one company,  their loyalty lies with the company rather than the job seeker. Their only purpose and goal is to fill the executive seat. An executive headhunter contacts the candidate to see if his or her professional skill set, attitudes and goals match the demands of the executive role they have been hired to fill. They are focused and efficient—they do not focus on every candidate and move on quickly if the candidate does not match the demands of the role.


What is Retained Executive Search?

Retained executive search is a type of management consulting, referring to the contract under which consulting and recruiting advice is performed. The search firm brings industry-specific expertise and insight on the client’s needs and demands for the executive vacancy. The retainer provides professionalism, credibility, and partnership between the executive search firm and the employer. It also insulates the organization and job seeker in a sensitive environment where considerable damage can be caused if the proper process is not known, recognized, and followed.

Potential hires can rest assured that their professional skill set and career history will be held in the highest degree of confidence and only disclosed with their agreement. Search consultants serve as a trusted intermediary between the organization and the candidate.


Which One is Best for Your Organization?

 While executive headhunters and retained executive search are used interchangeably, there are nuances between each role, based primarily on precedent.  The description of an executive headhunter as representing the in-depth search qualities and methods of the executive search specialist is comparatively new and perhaps not yet widely accepted.

The term executive recruiter, or executive search professional, on the other hand, denotes a specialist with a clearly defined methodology known around the world.

The AESC (Association of Executive Search and Leadership Development Consultants) has 16,000 consultant members who must adhere to uncompromising standards to be eligible.

There is no known association of executive headhunters.


How Cornerstone Can Help

Finding the right candidate to fit your vacant executive seat is difficult. With an unparalleled global footprint, exceptional service delivered by experienced consultants and best practices, Cornerstone International Group utilizes a model for retained executive search that represents the optimum path to building a winning executive team. Contact us today if we can help as your organization explores building your team for tomorrow.


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