Executive search is a type of recruitment that aims to attract senior-level talent to organisations. Sometimes referred to as headhunting, executive search is used by businesses to identify and attract the perfect candidates for senior management and top-level executive positions.

But how does executive search work, how does it differ from regular recruitment, and do organisations need to hire an executive search firm to do it? Here’s our comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about executive search.

The executive search process

Executive search teams work strategically by first gaining a comprehensive understanding of the organisation’s requirements. By considering company culture, long-term business goals, and other specific needs, the executive search firm, consultant, or internal team can gain a thorough understanding of the type of person required to fill the executive role.

The next step in headhunting is to identify potential candidates with the right experience, skills, and characteristics. These are carefully chosen using the headhunters’ existing networks and with rigorous research.

Potential candidates are then invited to an interview, but the process doesn’t end there. The headhunters or internal recruitment team will conduct multiple rounds of interviews, thoroughly check references, and use assessments to gain a better understanding of the candidates’ suitability. This can be a lengthy process because of the importance of selecting the right candidate for this leadership position.

How does executive search differ from regular recruitment?

To highlight the differences between executive search and normal recruiting, let’s compare a few key features.

Types of positions the recruiter is trying to fill

One of the key differences between executive search and normal recruitment is the type of positions that need to be filled. In regular recruiting, recruiters may try to fill a wide range of positions in the organisation at various levels: entry-level, mid-level, and sometimes senior-level. These positions can be across a range of different departments, from marketing to HR and operations to customer service.

In contrast, executive search or headhunting is specifically aimed at filling top level, executive roles, usually at the C-suite level. This means that there are fewer roles to fill overall and the range of role types tends to be more limited. Instead of trying to find lots of people whose qualifications match the requirements of the open roles as regular recruiters may do, executive search experts are looking to narrow down the search to a smaller group of candidates for a few specific roles.

The recruitment process

The difference between executive search and regular recruitment can also be seen throughout the hiring process. For regular recruitment, recruiters will often post job advertisements, review applications, shortlist candidates, interview promising candidates, and select the best individuals for the job. There’s no denying that this can sometimes be a lengthy and difficult process, but compared to executive search it tends to be relatively straightforward and formulaic.

In contrast, the executive search process involves substantial research and consultation before promising individuals are even identified. The internal recruiters or agency tasked with executive search will spend a long time getting to know the precise needs of the organisation before even contacting potential candidates. Then, the interview process will typically include more stages, assessments, and reference checking than regular recruitment. This means that executive search can take a lot longer.

The skills and qualifications being sought

In regular recruitment, the skills and qualifications needed are typically specific to the job description. These may include a bachelor’s degree in a particular field, a certain number of years’ experience in a similar role, or particular technical skills. Soft skills are also considered in recruitment for these roles, although these may receive less focus than particular qualifications or past experience.

On the other hand, executive search tends to involve looking for candidates with broader experience and skills. The candidates will likely still need some skills and experience in a particular sector, but more importantly they will exhibit the leadership abilities, strategic focus, and decision-making skills that are necessary in roles of an executive level. Attributes like the ability to motivate others with a shared vision, strategic and analytical thinking skills, strong communication and interpersonal skills, and business acumen are often more important when hiring executive talent.

What positions does executive search tend to fill?


The chief executive officer is the organisation’s highest ranking executive and needs to be a person who can oversee all operations, make major decisions, and set the vision and strategy for years to come. Challenges of executive search for CEO roles include finding a person who aligns with the company culture and has the diverse set of skills required for the role. Sourcing candidates for this role requires high levels of discretion and can be complex due to the different expectations of stakeholders, the board, and internal candidates. As a result, executive search for CEOs can be a lengthy process.

Vice president

While the search for vice president candidates is less critical than for CEO candidates, it’s still an important and often challenging task. Vice president roles and responsibilities may differ between different organisations and sectors, so it’s essential that the headhunters have a clearly defined set of expectations for the role. Moreover, as is the case for CEO candidates, vice president candidates are in high demand and attracting the best executive talent can be challenging.


The chief financial officer oversees the organisation’s financial strategy and therefore recruitment for this role involves managing risks and seeking out candidates with demonstrable financial expertise and industry knowledge. Of course, like any other executive-level position, CFO candidates also need to be culturally aligned with the organisation and demonstrate strong leadership and collaborative skills.

Director-level positions

Sometimes, executive search may focus on finding candidates for director-level positions to head specific departments of functions within the organisation. These individuals need to be great leaders and have significant expertise and experience in their particular area, strong management skills, and deep industry knowledge. Of course, they also need to be a good culture fit for the organisation.

Is executive search always outsourced?

While some organisations may choose to use an executive search firm or consultant to find the right talent for executive roles, other organisations may use internal talent acquisition teams. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

Executive search firm pros

  • Agencies have vast networks and talent pools to tap into.
  • They have established procedures for discretion and confidentiality.
  • Using an agency can save time for internal recruitment teams.

Executive search firm cons

  • Can be expensive – executive search agencies or consultants may charge their clients a retainer fee as well as a percentage of the candidate’s salary for their first year.
  • Executive search companies have less understanding of the client’s organisation and culture, meaning that candidates are not as effectively vetted.
  • Internal recruitment staff have less control over the process.

Internal talent acquisition team pros

  • In-depth knowledge of the organisation’s culture, goals, and core values, which makes it easier to find candidates who align with these.
  • In-house executive search can be more cost-effective because there is no need to pay a retainer or a percentage of salary to an agency — perfect for organisations with budget constraints.
  • Close collaboration with other departments and stakeholders.

Internal talent acquisition team cons

  • Juggling executive search alongside regular recruitment can be time-consuming and challenging.
  • Internal teams may not have the large external network of talent that executive search firms can offer to their clients.


Executive search is a specialised and strategic form of recruitment that differs from regular recruitment procedures in a number of ways. With its strategic, discreet, and meticulous approach, executive search seeks to find the perfect people for executive, senior-level positions such as CEO, CFO, and directors.

While some organisations may choose to outsource this task to executive search firms, others choose to use in-house talent acquisition teams which have a better understanding of the company’s values, requirements, and culture.

One tool that can enhance internal teams’ executive search capabilities is Hireserve ATS, an applicant tracking system with powerful talent search and talent pool management capabilities. Allowing recruiters to build and manage a curated talent pool and apply complex filters to identify the most suitable candidates, the ATS helps the team track and engage top-level talent.

Ready to find out more about how Hireserve ATS can aid your search for those high-performing candidates? Book a software demo today or get in touch with our team.

About the author

Tristan Potter

Tristan has a decade's worth of experience writing content and copy for organisations across Bristol and the Southwest of England. He has written on a diverse range of topics, including technology, philosophy, politics, and recruitment. His writing has appeared in The Drum, HR Grapevine, and The Guardian, among other publications. He joined Hireserve in March 2022.