Executive search vs contingent recruitment – do you know the difference?

Executive search and contingent recruitment are two terms often used interchangeably, and it makes sense; both practices aim to fill your vacancy with the very best talent. But treating executive search the same as contingent recruitment (or assuming your recruitment agent can do both) can be a costly, time-consuming and talent-missing mistake. 

Do you know the real difference between executive search and contingent recruitment? Let’s find out. 

What is executive search?

Executive search is the process of actively identifying someone for a vacancy, discretely making contact with them and positively convincing them about a new position. 

Accordingly, an executive recruiter (also known as a headhunter or talent scout) requires an array of specialist skills, including:

Expertise – knowing how to identify the ideal candidate for a position.

Research – knowing where to find and how to contact that person.

Discretion – working anonymously and confidentially in the interests of candidates and clients.

Storytelling – convincing someone who wasn’t looking for a new job that this is the next step for them.

Negotiation – knowing how to negotiate the best package for both parties.

How does executive search differ from contingent recruitment?

As you’ll gather, the main difference between executive search and contingent recruitment is the method of sourcing. An executive search involves finding candidates and inviting them to an interview, whereas contingent recruitment involves attracting candidates (using advertisements and job boards) and sifting them for interviews. 

A quick note on costs: some people consider executive recruitment the more expensive recruitment method because you pay fees in instalments throughout the process (rather than upon success). However, the speed and success of headhunting make it a more cost-effective option for critical, challenging and senior-level positions that may sit unfilled using traditional methods. 

Both are highly effective methods of recruitment when combined with the right skills and vacancies. The trick to success is knowing when to use executive search and if your recruitment partner is capable. 

When should you use an executive search?

At Profile Resourcing, we recommend executive search in the following situations:

Exec-level recruitment

As the name suggests, executive recruitment is ideal for mission-critical, senior positions. It not only protects businesses who don’t want to announce exec-level shake-ups publicly, but it also connects vacancies with senior candidates who aren’t actively searching for roles. 

Rare skillsets

If you’re looking for a candidate with a rare skillset or unique background, executive search can speed up this process by finding them, rather than waiting (and hoping) for them to find you. 

Time-critical positions

We’ve all been there – something happens, and you need a position filled last week. Executive search facilitates quick hires by promptly identifying suitable candidates and inviting them to an interview. 


Diversity is a big and topical issue, with many businesses struggling to attract a diverse range of candidates to vacancies. Headhunters use numerous networks and databases to provide a shortlist of candidates from a variety of backgrounds – helping you increase diversity, especially in senior positions. 

Further reading: BAME, recruitment and job adverts – are you doing enough?

Unfilled positions

If your internal search functions have failed to fill a vacancy, it might be time to try executive search. This will help to maximise your pool and quickly identify suitable passive candidates. 

What to look for in a headhunter?

There’s a famous recruitment saying that says: “All headhunters are recruiters, but not all recruiters are headhunters.”

As mentioned above, headhunters have a specialist skillset that makes them successful in finding, contacting and engaging executive candidates. But that’s not all. When looking for an executive search consultant in Milton Keynes or anywhere else in the UK, it’s important to look for:

Hard work – someone who puts the time, effort and passion into finding the best candidates.

Tools – someone with the tools, data and experience to run executive search campaigns successfully.

Transparency – open, honest and competitive pricing.

Trust – someone you trust completely.

If you want to know more about our executive search service at Profile Resourcing, get in touch – we’re here for you. 

About Profile Resourcing

Profile Resourcing is a recruitment and executive search consultancy in Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. We have 15 years’ experience placing candidates in senior and executive positions and work with businesses of all sizes. 

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