“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

If navigating the many highways and byways of executive search firms was only as simple as following Yogi’s advice!  There are indeed many different types of executive search firms and, frankly, navigating them during a job search can be bewildering at best and a debacle at worst.

Why does it matter that job seekers stay on the right track? For one thing, depending on your background and level, more and more organizations contract with executive search firms, or “headhunters” to fill senior level or highly specialized positions. It’s therefore important that you make yourself known to them and that you respond to them in a professional manner. Secondly, since these firms can operate under different business models, it is critical that you, as a prospective candidate, understand their customer relationships and parameters and proceed accordingly.

To begin with, there are essentially two main categories of firms: contingent recruitment firms and retained executive search firms. As the names suggest, retained firms are hired by an employer to fill a certain position on a project basis while contingency firms aren’t typically hired directly by a company but, instead, “sell” candidates to an employer hoping that they will “buy” the talent they present. Contingency recruitment firms fill an important role in the labor market so early careerists, in particular, often find them very useful in their job searches. However, when working with contingency recruitment firms, understand that the customer is not the candidate. In fact, truth be told, the job seeker can end up feeling more like a commodity at times. Typically, when working with a contingency firm, you should not expect a lot of coaching or feedback; nor should you expect that the agency will share a lot of information about the employer, the job at hand or the culture.

For most of our readers who are at the executive level, retained search firms offer the best path ahead. The business model is based on a relationship where the employer engages the search firm to find the best person for a particular job. While that makes the employer the primary customer, well-regarded retained firms also value and treat the candidate as a customer and therefore operate with a high-touch approach. This is based on that fact that their success – and future business relationship – with the ultimate client (the employer) depends on their ability to find the best possible candidate and cultural fit. Retained search firms also view the candidate as another potential future client. That’s why many of us are passionate about really getting to know both sets of customers – the corporations we serve and the candidates we work to place. We’re investing in our future mutual success.

Job seekers also need to be aware of yet another fork in the road: retained search firms can be further divided into two separate directions!  The first category is what are known as multinational retained search firms. Their clients typically only include large companies with global operations. Thus the multi-national search firms are usually organized in parallel fashion, with multiple specialized divisions focused on an industry or a function working across borders. Boutique search firms (such as my own) on the other hand, also operate internationally but in niche areas. As the term implies, boutique executive search firms focus their efforts and expertise placing candidates with specialized skills and backgrounds in an industry or a function. Contrary to what you might think, boutique firms are also engaged by large companies looking for a more personal and hands-on approach than they may receive at one of the multinational firms.

I’ve spent the better part of my career helping people navigate through the winding roads of a typical executive level job search. My best advice to you is to understand how search firms operate so that you can work with them accordingly. Doing so will eliminate at least one potential speed bump on your journey to your next job.

In my next article, I’ll share my perspectives on how to be found by search firms.

Brad Newpoff

About the Author

Brad is a respected executive search consultant with nearly two decades of experience in c-suite and executive recruitment in multiple industries.