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8 Rules of Executive Search Firms

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As a potential executive search candidate, you need to learn some of the new rules for dealing with executive search firms. If you understand the way they operate, you will have realistic expectations and gain more control over the entire search process. What follows is a brief overview of what you should know about executive search firms.

You will find two types of recruiters, contingency and retainer.

Companies usually use contingency firms when:

  • Salaries are less than $100,000
  • A company must screen many qualified candidates for a few open positions
  • Filling multiple vacancies with similar candidates
  • Hiring organizations want more involvement in screening, interviewing, and selection
  • Fees are an issue. Typically contingency firms receive payment only when the candidate is hired


Companies usually use retainer firms when:

  • Salaries exceed $100,000
  • Highly unique or specialized candidates are needed
  • A hiring organization wants a third party to screen and interview candidates
  • A company wants to persuade an executive to leave an organization and needs assistance
  • Fees are not an issue. Typically they are paid to retainer firms regardless of the results of the search


The companies, who hire search firms to fill a position, typically charge a fee of roughly one-third of the job’s first year compensation. Keep in mind that search firms are not working for you, but for their paying clients. Therefore, do not expect firms to be overly responsive if you contact them. For the record, this practice should be avoided unless you personally know the recruiter.

Work with multiple search firms. If you currently work for a company that has hired a specific search firm to fill positions with them during the last year or two, you will be “off-limits” for any positions it may have, no matter how well qualified you are. Why? The search firms will not raid talent from companies that previously hired them to fill positions. For this reason alone, it is important to be known to multiple search firms.

Some recruiters may promise you the moon. In today’s job market, recruiters and sometimes the companies they represent will paint a far rosier picture of a given job than is actually the case. This can lead to a very bad career decision on your part. You have to think of this search process as if you are buying a car: You wouldn’t take the salesperson’s word would you? Do your own due diligence, so you can compare and contrast information with what the recruiter tells you.

Most recruiters work nationally; so don’t limit your search by geography. At the lower salary levels, companies may be reluctant to consider out-of-town executives because of the expense of interviewing and relocating them. In these instances, search firms may focus on local candidates. However, for many executive appointments, search firms will look nationally or even internationally. It is in your interest to be known to search firms who fill positions in your industry, function and salary level.

Don’t take it personally. Of 200 “potential candidates” uncovered in initial research, perhaps 50 will make the first cut, five will be finalists, and one will get the job. Don’t take it personally: the search process aims for a perfect fit. However, one-way to improve your present and future standing, is to tell the recruiter everything up front – no surprises.

Be Visible. For those seeking an employment move, the simplest way to get discovered by executive recruiters is to be visible. Job seekers are advised to accept speaking engagements, get quoted in magazine articles, and network at industry luncheons. Moreover, it is helpful to scrutinize industry contacts for individuals who could make references to recruiters.

Do not expect search firms to tip you off about a possible merger or downsizing. Even if they know, they won’t tell you – because they are legally required to stay silent. It’s not the recruiter’s responsibility to point out the problems that exist within a company. After all, they work for the company, not for you.

Keep it short, but always send your resume with a cover letter. A well-crafted cover letter can explain the type of position you are seeking, the area of the country you would like to live and what your future career goals are. The cover letter is your opportunity to seem more human, more personal, and more genuine. Above all, avoid sending “To Whom It May Concern” type letters.

When emailing your resume, it is best to copy and paste it into the body of your email. Many job seekers try to attach their resume to email messages in many different types of software. While they may look better as an attachment, many recruiters may be unable to download them in the format received, and many times are reluctant to download attachments due to fears of receiving a document with a virus.

If you change jobs, keep recruiters informed of your new situation. Once you make an initial contact with a search firm, do keep them informed if your status, location or job changes. It is really helpful to simply send an update letter, revised resume or postcard to the recruiters when your information changes. I strongly advise that you do this immediately after every job change.

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