By Brian Mitchell, CEO & Managing Partner.

Those not in the Executive Search profession typically have one of three perspectives on this business. Some outsiders, particularly as candidates, perceive it to be a highly mysterious, behind the scenes “game”. Other hiring executives or candidates believe there is a real and tangible value working with a qualified 3 rd party ambassador for their mission critical roles. And many others have formed opinions that all recruiters are the same based on their individual experiences receiving calls from transactional recruiters over the years. Before entering the executive search business ten years ago, I had also experienced numerous calls and courtships by headhunters as both a hiring executive and as a prospective candidate. I had a formed opinion on all recruiters and figured I knew what (quality) search professionals did for a living, but now I know most of my assumptions were inaccurate. The best recruiters, the ones that build long careers, follow a well- organized methodology balanced with their own instincts and initiative. Myths and realities include:


Yes, third party recruiters place a candidate with a company and get paid a fee for that transaction. However, the best search professionals earn the great majority of their business from repeat clients, references from clients, and word of mouth reputation. Top-producing recruiters see way beyond the closest fee and know that when they perform at an efficient pace with unwavering integrity, and deliver exceptional results, they’ve further cemented their reputation. Nothing drives business for a recruiter like a sterling reputation. The best recruiters regularly provide business insights to their clients for free because they want to help. That’s what any decent colleague should do. When a CEO calls me for my opinion or advice on a topic, I know I’ll definitely get the call when she needs her next CFO or VP of Sales. The best recruiters are unselfish business colleagues who care about their clients’ success. For anyone interested in long-term success, executive recruiting is unequivocally a symbiotic relationship business.


Companies retain a third-party search firm to help them identify, attract, qualify, court, and secure uncommon talent they can’t find on their own. Companies pay recruiters, candidates do not. The recruiter’s objective is to serve the paying client. The overwhelming majority of candidates placed by recruiters are gainfully employed, often happy professionals (if this isn’t your experience as a hiring exec, find a new recruiter!). Typically, the best candidates are immersed in excellence at their office, not combing job boards. Helping someone advance his/her career is a wonderful benefit of this vocation, but it is not the focus of a qualified recruiter.


Recruiters, like all “professional services” specialists, come in many forms. Doctors, lawyers, financial advisors are all service vocations where the quality of client experience is largely dependent upon the individual you’re directly working with. Why does an attorney who loses one client win or keep a different client? It’s all a matter of individual experiences with that attorney and personal preference. Recruiters have varying levels of ability, intelligence, work ethic, and integrity, which every client filters through his/her own experiential lens. Beyond individual characteristics, different recruiters also work on different levels and fee models. A retained executive recruiter leading a CEO search for a publicly traded company is not the contingent recruiter who is placing software engineers at a startup, nor is that contingent recruiter the same as a staffing recruiter placing interim customer service people at an hourly rate. One typically does not seek out a cardiologist for treatment of a broken toe.


Well, sort of. Small talk at networking events may be a strategy for some recruiters, but not the top producers. Top producers are certainly well-networked in their niche and attend industry events and conferences, but their relationships are built through many meaningful business-centric conversations. Friendships and trust built between busy senior executives most often stem from an initial business value and rapport. Value and credibility start professionally and personal relationships grow from that foundation. So it’s critical for the rising or tenured executive recruiter to have an additive point of view that helps that CXO and leaves a consistently sincere impression of expert competence.


Sure, however top-producing recruiters regularly choose to put in 60-70+ hours a week and require a lot of self-discipline. Top recruiters compartmentalize their days to include: phone time (conduct interviews, new client development calls, candidate recruiting calls), meeting time (clients, candidates), admin time (emails, proposals, contracts), and planning time (who will you call, what will you say, research). One perk of executive recruiting is the ability to work your schedule around other meaningful life events, however it’s a full-time vocation for anyone serious about it. It’s rarely golf and steak dinners; this is a time-consuming methodical business requiring grind and the will to be great.


Mostly true, however the process is much more consultative and more about subtle influence vs. hard-core “closing”. Winning the opportunity to represent a company and the executive hiring authority on a strategic role takes salesmanship. If you can’t effectively represent yourself with a well-articulated expression of your value, no prudent CEO will have you represent his interests in the marketplace. best recruiters are not necessarily career sellers, rather they have competent business skills and they are confident and concise communicators.


This can be a difficult business for some, particularly the first year. Unlike any other business I know of, a successful executive search assignment takes three main decisions to get to closure. First, you need to win the right to represent the client and get a suitable agreement in place. Then you need to get both a candidate and hiring authority to say “yes,” mediate terms, secure a start date, and ensure a smooth sustained transition. A lot can go wrong. The process can be predictably unpredictable. We are dealing with human beings, a frequently fickle product. Personalities, timing, location, spouse influence, counter-offers, and other circumstances are not often controllable, but they can be anticipated. The best recruiters embrace this reality, flush out variables early in the process, perpetually build alternative candidates into their workload, consistently earn new search projects, and succeed through the challenge. Easy? Not at all, but there is a path that works.

Once you have been exposed to a truly professional, well-executed executive search process, you will recognize that the best recruiters are trusted advisors whose influence in the corner office or boardroom cannot be underestimated. For those business-builders who embrace a professional process, work hard, and stay focused, it is an incredibly rewarding career.