5 Differences between Executive Search and Contingent Recruitment

30th August 2021

As a person considering your career options in the staffing industry, you might have found yourself wondering what the difference between Executive Search and contingent recruitment is. Maybe you have even wondered if you could make the switch from contingent to Executive Search recruitment?

Although Executive Search consultants and contingent recruiters share the same objective – to find the right person for the role – there are some key differences between the industries they operate in.

In this article, we take a closer look at the main characteristics of the roles of Executive Search Consultant and contingent recruiter to help you decide if a career in Executive Search could be the right choice for you.


Business Model

Let’s start by looking at the business models of recruitment agencies and Executive Search firms to better understand both roles in the wider context. Generally speaking, contingent recruiters work on many assignments with multiple clients at the same time. They’re paid upon successful placement of a candidate, meaning they focus on placing as many candidates as possible in the shortest time possible. Due to the limited scope of their work, fees are generally lower than in Executive Search. In addition, as a contingent recruiter, you work on a non-exclusive basis, which places you in direct competition with recruiters from other agencies.

In contrast, Executive Search consultants work on an exclusive, client-centred basis and focus on a limited number of assignments at one time. They engage in all aspects of the process – from defining the search, through interviews, to candidate integration. At the start of the searching process, they are paid an upfront consulting fee (also known as a retainer) that can total even as much as £100,000. As an Executive Search professional, you focus on building long-term relationships based on trust, meaning you truly partner with your client.



In terms of methodologies, contingent recruiters target active job seekers – either those who are unemployed or actively search for a new role. They utilise traditional recruitment channels, such as advertising, online databases, and social media to find a large number of candidates who meet the role criteria. Next, they present the CVs to a client who reviews and evaluates the candidates. Because they’re paid upon successful placement, they focus on presenting as many CVs as possible to the client. That’s why the role of a contingent recruiter has a strong sales orientation.

In turn, Executive Search consultants utilise highly sophisticated methodologies, such as market mapping, competency-based interviews, 360-degree referencing and due diligence processes, as well as psychometric tests and broader assessments. They focus on understanding the client’s industry, business strategy and unique needs to present a few of the top talented and highly qualified candidates for the specific position. It is worth emphasising that Executive Search consultants target passive talents and candidates who are not actively looking for a new role (and may even work for a direct competitor!). A part of the role of an Executive Search consultant is convincing the candidate to accept an attractive employment offer.


Levelling and Types of Assignments

Next, let’s look at the types of assignments. Contingent recruiters usually concentrate on finding candidates for junior positions and lower-level management. Some agencies may differentiate themselves by recruiting for a particular experience level, for instance, graduate jobs, or experienced non-managers. Yet, contingent recruiters generally focus on more generic positions in organisations that do not require a specialised skill set and thus have a lower potential impact on the business.

Executive Search professionals, as the name implies, seek to attract highly skilled and experienced senior managers and executives for strategically important roles within organisations. Typical roles may include C-suite, president, director, or senior manager. Those roles are crucial to the business in terms of leadership and require unique abilities. As you can see, as an Executive Search Consultant, you not only build your client and candidate network at a significantly higher level but also make placements that have a high potential impact on your client’s organisation.



What about the level of specialism? Contingent recruiters usually work across multiple sectors and functions. Yet, as we have mentioned earlier, some companies have developed a focus on particular industries (e.g. Healthcare or Engineering), functions (e.g. Marketing or HR), or levelling (e.g. graduate or entry-level jobs).

In contrast, Executive Search Consultants specialise in a particular industry (e.g. Product Supply) or business function (e.g. Financial Services). Some Executive Search firms even employ specialist teams who focus on a particular function within the industry sector – for instance, an Asset Management Executive Search firm may designate headhunters with specific legal expertise. This allows Executive Search professionals to develop a strong understanding of the industry they operate in.



Finally, let’s have a closer look at the types of assignments in terms of geography. Contingent recruiters usually serve local markets as they seek candidates located near to the client’s office. Yet, large recruitment firms with multiple branches can offer national or international coverage.

Executive Search consultants operate internationally as clients are prepared to look beyond geographical boundaries to find the best talent for the top positions within the business. This is specifically the case for multinational firms who are eager to hire candidates with international experience. As an Executive Search consultant, you can gain exposure to working on global mandates and expand your network internationally.


Contingent Recruitment to Executive Search

At this point, you might be wondering whether it would be possible to switch to a career in Executive Search after having a few years of experience in contingent recruitment. The answer is: yes! At Carlin Hall, we have observed that contingent recruiters who are at the top of their game can build very successful careers in Executive Search.

Our experienced consultants have many years of experience helping candidates make the move from contingent to Executive Search recruitment. Whether you’re actively looking to make a move into Executive Search or would like to find out more about opportunities available to you, we’re always happy to have a confidential conversation.

See our latest opportunities in Executive Search and get in touch with one of our experienced consultants