March 18, 2021

Executive Search Is More Than Just Headhunting

Creative Niche
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While their titles are often used interchangeably, there are key differences between executive search firms and headhunters. With expertise in an organization’s hiring needs, recruiters and headhunters are both skilled in selecting, screening, and securing talent. However, their approach and resources are what makes them unique to the companies they serve.

What makes Executive Search different from headhunting

Headhunting, often refers to a recruiter approaching someone who is already in a similar role. While this may seem like a great tactic in theory, it is not the best approach as a person’s success at one company doesn’t guarantee success at another. Executive Search provides a consultative approach, in that these firms advise on the best ways to identify a candidate for the role, rather than simply a list of people who are similar to job specifications.

The core of the difference is who the recruitment firm will be research, approaching, and then the process to recruit an executive role.


Executive search is a broader term that encompasses a systematic and comprehensive approach to finding suitable candidates for executive positions. It involves conducting a thorough analysis of the client's requirements, creating a detailed job description, and using a combination of research, database searches, and networking to identify potential candidates. Executive search firms often build long-term relationships with clients and have extensive databases of executives across various industries.

Headhunting: Focused and proactive approach. In headhunting, recruiters actively target and approach specific individuals who are currently employed and not actively seeking new opportunities. Headhunters usually have a well-defined target list of candidates, often based on recommendations, referrals, or market intelligence. The goal is to persuade these candidates to consider a new role with the client's organization.

Read More: Learn about the process and methodology behind hiring a CMO.

Candidate Status

Executive Search: Candidates in an executive search may include both those actively seeking new opportunities and those who are passive job seekers. The focus is on finding the best candidate for the position, regardless of their current employment status.

Headhunting: Specifically targets individuals who are currently employed and not actively looking for new jobs. The emphasis is on convincing these individuals to leave their current positions and join the client's organization.

Client Relationship

Executive Search: These firms often work closely with their clients to understand their organizational culture, long-term goals, and specific talent needs. The relationship is typically more consultative, with a focus on finding the right cultural fit for the client.

Headhunting: Maintain a confidential and discreet approach, as they are actively poaching talent from other organizations. The relationship with the client may be less extensive, with a primary focus on delivering a candidate who meets specific skill and experience requirements.

Time Frame

Executive Search: With these firms projects can vary in duration but are often more extended, as they involve a comprehensive search and assessment process.

Headhunting: Can, but isn't always, a quicker process, as it primarily involves identifying and approaching candidates who are already in high-demand roles.

Read More: Learn the three fundamental aspects of how a recruitment agency can save your business time & money.

If you're already researching an executive search firms, likelihood is you need one more than you think. We've previously written about why hiring an Executive Search Firm will help your company succeed, which includes four handy reasons why.

With an Executive Search recruiter, chances are you will find a better fit than a Headhunter because they have these two key assets:

1. A Larger Network

Many recruiters or recruiting firms have access to a wider network of eligible candidates. Typically they have top talent in mind or can quickly narrow down a list of potential pre-screened hires. Having access to a variety of candidates nationally or internationally, depending on the firm, is also of great benefit. And as geographic borders (and higher costs) may have prevented top talent from relocating in the past, the rise of blended workplaces in 2021 have allowed recruiters to match their clients with talent worldwide.

2. Deeper Relationships 

A great recruiting firm or executive recruiter will have developed deeper relationships with clients overtime. Some have secured many roles and over time have gotten to know clients' needs, values, and the type of talent that would be a great fit. This allows for better placements for both the candidate and client. Specialized recruiters will also be familiar with industry specifics and role nuances, whereas headhunters may fill specific roles but may never fill that type of role again.

Remember, the difference is in the approach to finding the right executive for your business

It's evident that while executive search firms and headhunters share the common goal of identifying and securing top talent for organizations, they employ distinct approaches and methodologies. Executive search firms take a consultative and comprehensive approach, focusing on finding the best candidate for executive positions regardless of their current job status. They build long-term relationships with clients, deeply understand their organizational culture, and invest in creating a strong cultural fit.

On the other hand, headhunters adopt a more proactive approach, targeting specific individuals who are currently employed and not actively seeking new opportunities. Their goal is to persuade these candidates to consider a new role with the client's organization. This approach can be quicker, given the pre-existing demand for candidates in high-demand roles.

The key differentiators lie in the breadth and depth of their networks and relationships. Executive search firms often have access to a larger network of eligible candidates, both nationally and internationally. They also cultivate deeper relationships with clients, ensuring better placements based on a nuanced understanding of the client's needs and values.

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