When and Why to Hire an Executive Search Firm

by Bill Weber


Posted February 15, 2021

Engaging an executive search firm is an investment of time and resources, which means that it requires careful consideration. Keep these key considerations and questions in mind during your decision-making process.

 Consideration #1: The significance of the role

Does this search represent a strategic investment in the long-term success and growth of your organization?

Recruiting an exceptional senior-level candidate can be a pivot point for an organization. It’s a chance to reassess and set goals, strategies, and your long-term vision. An executive search firm can help you design a process that will effectively assess candidates’ ability to embrace your mission and build upon the current success. They can also partner with you to ensure the right hiring and on-boarding conditions, so your new hire is ready for impact from day one.

Consideration #2: The challenge of finding great candidates

Is this role the first of its kind at your organization? And/or are you looking to engage candidates in areas you never have before? Have you already started the search and are finding it difficult to attract the kinds of candidates you’re seeking?

Conducting a search for a new kind of position can be an exciting yet daunting undertaking, and the same can be said when you are looking to attract candidates with a certain expertise or experience that you haven’t recruited before. In both cases, engaging an executive search firm can provide invaluable help in a highly competitive marketplace. Executive search firms provide access to an expansive and ever-growing pipeline of potential candidates, while drawing on their industry, function, role and geodemographic expertise to help you define and position the role in a way that will attract and secure the best candidates.

Executive search firms also have the time, resources, and skills to engage ‘hidden’ candidates – professionals who fit your ideal candidate profile but are not actively seeking a new position. Both active and hidden candidates value the confidentiality, consistent communications, and well-managed search process a firm provides, which will give you a leg up amongst competing organizations who are focused on the same highly sought-after talent.

Consideration #3: The importance of a trusted and effective search process

Is ensuring a fair, equitable process with buy-in from all key stakeholders a top priority? And a potential challenge?

A thoughtful search can surface lingering and/or complex internal misalignments, which can slow the process and make effective decision-making difficult. In these cases, an executive search firm can act as an impartial mediator, attuned to every stakeholder’s needs and focused on achieving alignment. By providing a focused, efficient, and communicative process, an executive search firm helps keep all relevant parties informed and engaged, while also ensuring that each candidate is given full, fair consideration. The end result is a final decision made with confidence and support from internal and external stakeholders.

Now that we have explored the instances where hiring an executive search firm is a worthy investment, allow me to address a few common misconceptions…

Misconception #1: Our internal recruiter/HR department can conduct the search just as effectively as a firm.  

Internal recruiters usually focus exclusively on candidates who have applied or can be found in active candidate databases. As mentioned, this means a large and highly valuable pool of ‘hidden’ candidates will be overlooked. And while, there are some (less common) cases where an organization’s internal recruiter does conduct active outreach, there are still limits to their influence and time, as they usually lack the authority to reshape the role as needed, and they must attend to multiple responsibilities in addition to filling the role. An executive search firm can also prove helpful in handling the sometimes-tricky situation of internal candidates. And through every stage of the process, they act as a partner to the internal recruiter rather than a substitute, providing a sounding board and a fresh, external perspective and methodology.

Misconception #2: Hiring an executive search firm is too expensive.

Of course, hiring an executive search firm won’t always be the right decision. If it’s a lower-level position and/or a non-critical hire, then the financial investment won’t be necessary. But if any of the considerations outlined above apply to you, then hiring an executive search firm is a worthy investment that will very likely save you money in the long run. A firm’s partnership increases your probability of recruiting a highly talented professional who stays. This means you are more likely to avoid the costly outcome of a hire’s short tenure.

Misconception #3: It makes sense to hire an executive search firm for the sole reason that you lack the time/capacity to manage the process yourself.

If you are hoping to be minimally involved beyond sharing your ideal candidate profile and interviewing finalists, then hiring an executive search firm probably isn’t the right decision. An executive search firm strives to be a true partner at every step; it is a highly collaborative relationship. If you are solely seeking their help to manage/speed up the process while you attend to other priorities, you may end up feeling unsatisfied with their approach and/or unwilling to accept their advice.

One final note…

All search firms are not alike. There are two main types: retained and contingency. Retained executive search firms are paid a consulting fee, usually in agreed-upon installments, and provide a hands-on partnership through each stage of the search, from defining the opportunity to building the candidate pool to the interview and selection process. A contingency search firm, on the other hand, is paid when a candidate is placed. They generate resumes in response to the priorities identified by the client, and they focus less on extensively screening, prepping, and advancing candidates than a retained executive search firm does. You can learn more on the AESC website.


We pride ourselves on our rigorous, fair, and transparent executive search process. Learn more about our nonprofit executive search services or how to become a candidate.