How Executive Search Firms Find Candidates

Many employees are contacted by contingency recruiters at some point in their career. LinkedIn has made the process even easier. And in today’s job market, recruiters are fighting for the same candidates, meaning those candidates may be getting bombarded with requests. Understandably, this is flattering at first, but then candidates start to figure out that more does not mean better contingency recruiters and the allure falls away. As they now understand how the process works, they want to get on the radar of retained executive search firms. This is a different process and they often don’t know how executive search firms find candidates.

The first thing to point out to candidates looking to executive search firms is that these firms work for the employer, not the employee. Contingency firms also work for the employer, but have motivation to place their candidate over another recruiter’s candidate or even an internal HR department’s candidate. In this way, candidates get the impression that the recruiter is like their agent. This is not the case with a retained executive search firm. They are paid by the employer and are the only search firm working on the search on an exclusive basis. Their only motivation is to find the best possible candidate for their client’s opening.

The next thing to remember is that executive search firms primarily tend to only focus on executive level roles. These are c-suite, vice president, board of directors, and depending on the size of the company, perhaps director level roles. Reaching out to one of the nationally known firms such as Heidrick & Struggles or Korn Ferry is not going to solicit a response if you’re only at a manager level. And even if you are at an executive level, there is a good chance that any outreach you make to those firms will not receive a reply. 

So, what worked for you earlier in your career is not going to work for you now. As noted above, executive search recruiters are looking for the best possible candidate for their client. This means they are not just looking to active job seekers. They are looking for people who are not only the right cultural fit, but those who also have the skills that match the opening, whether they are looking for a new position or not. It is a specific skill set and sometimes industry experience that is most important, and if you meet these specifications, you may be contacted.

The key takeaway from this is that an executive recruiter will reach out to you if they have a search that you’re qualified for. And assuming you pass the initial screen, you’ll be added to their candidate database. Since there is only one opening, there is a high probability that you won’t be selected by their client for the open position, and remember, they work for the client. But you are now in the database and as applicable searches arise, you’ll be on the list of potential candidates. It is critical that you understand that working with executive recruiters is a long term proposition.

To find candidates, most executive search firms have research specialists that identify existing database candidates, and find new candidates using software that helps identify transferable skill sets. One way to help yourself is to build out your LinkedIn profile to include your accomplishments. Use keywords in your description for areas that you excel in. 

One of the most obvious ways to be found by executive recruiters is word of mouth. This means you need to continue to work on your own network. We are not recommending you build a digital network with hundreds of connections. We mean developing a professional network through face to face interactions and be giving of your time and energy. Nearly every executive recruiter is looking for referrals. Those are going to come from their existing network and if you have a strong network where you have built trust and of course performed well, your name will be at the top of the list. 

There are many benefits of working with executive search firms. For example, they often work on openings that are not public. The positions are not advertised so you will not see them on a company’s website or on a job board. The only way you would be considered is through an executive recruiter. So, what can you do to give these firms a reason to contact you?