News & Insights

POSTED Wednesday 30-03-22

What on Earth is ‘Executive Search’? 5 Key Differences to Recruitment

As you may know, at Aspen we are an executive search organisation rather than a recruitment agency. This might sound pedantic to the layman, and we often get confused for the latter. However, there are actually quite a few key differences between the two, and we promise we’re not simply self-aggrandising by adopting a fancier label. Executive search (formerly called ‘headhunting’) is a fundamentally different task than recruitment, both by nature and by strategy. Furthermore, as a result of these differences, we find executive search to be a more worthwhile endeavour.


  1. Specification of position/candidates


Executive jobs are notoriously difficult to fill, partly because the level of experience and/or qualifications required usually belong to a select few who have been in senior positions for long while. But the other reason is that these positions require a high level of specificity, whether that’s specific insights into the industry they work in; specific leadership skills such as boosting team morale, clear communication, and coming across as knowledgeable and confident, but also approachable and willing to listen to others; financial knowledge and insights into cost-saving; and crucially, creativity and innovation based on industry insights that will help the company grow. Finding the ideal candidate for such high-level positions requires taking all of these into account, whereas other positions may be more of a box-ticking exercise; for instance, finding someone for an administrative role will be more focused on whether they have the right IT skills and experience, and there will be a wider pool of candidates to choose from.


Executive positions are more difficult to quantify in that way, and it’s much harder to know if a candidate is a good leader, negotiator, and innovator from a CV alone. Executive search therefore deals with much higher specification requirements than recruitment usually does, which means we have to take a different approach and use a much wider array of resources. Which brings us to…


  1. Resources available


This specification is why part of the role of executive search organisations such as ourselves is to have a wide pool of connections that we’ve met or have worked with previously. Our four CEOs, who all work in different sectors and industries, all have wide pools of people they have formed relationships with over many years. This means they know precisely what various companies or organisations need when it comes to finding new candidates; they are likely to know a handful of people who would be ideal for the role; and they have good insights into where their respective sectors are heading and what to look out for. Consequently, what this means is that we are more assured that the candidates we put forward for a role are a good fit, rather than basing the candidates we put forward on a superficial search or read over of their LinkedIn or CV. This brings us to:

  1. Strategy


Even if we do pull from candidates we already know, part of what we do is implement long-term strategies to ensure they are a good fit. We take time to talk to both clients and candidates, and because we do not have the pressures of KPIs, we can afford to ask for deadlines to be extended if we don’t feel we’ve found a selection of ideal candidates for the position. Our interview process not only helps us secure the best of the best, but helps candidates build up knowledge of what they’re applying for as well as their confidence as they approach a new open position. This long-term strategy means that in contrast to recruitment agencies, we aren’t playing a numbers game, but instead relying on evidence-based research to put forward a small selection of suitable candidates.


Further, while recruitment tends to be more candidate-focused, executive search has the benefits of really getting into the specifics of what the employer needs; sometimes, this can even be at odds with what employers want! Part of our role in executive search is to really understand very specific competencies and skills an organisation needs, and from there, finding the right person who has them.


Lastly, because of the nature of executive search (meaning we are looking to fill specific, high-level roles), our strategy involves looking more so at ‘passive’ than ‘active’ candidates. ‘Active’ candidates are those who are actively looking for a new job, and as recruitment agencies tend to strategise around job and CV postings, they are more likely to be looking at active candidates. Meanwhile, executive search organisations are aware that the best person for executive positions is likely to already be in one. We call these candidates ‘passive’, because they aren’t likely to be looking at job postings or sending off CVs. As such, our strategy is far more geared towards finding the most suitable person for executive roles because of this difference in focus between active and passive candidates.


  1. Privacy


A major benefit of using an executive search organisation is that a strategy is a more private one, relying less on job advertising and more on using our own resources to find suitable candidates. As a result, competitors in your industry are less likely to know that you are looking to fill a major, high-level executive role, but you’ll still be able to get the word out that you’re looking to fill the position. This gives you the privacy to reorganise accordingly and without exposing that this is a more insecure period for the company.


  1. Cost


Admittedly, we are more costly than recruitment agencies typically are. However, because of our approach, we are better value for money. Sending costly job adverts into the void of the internet and recruiting uninterested or unsuitable candidates are simply not part of our MO. Our research-based and long-term strategies require more time and commitment on our behalf, and thus more compensation for our employees, but ultimately, we are more effective at securing the ideal candidate, saving time and money for employers in the long run. Here at Aspen, too, if we don’t fit a good fit the first time around, we are happy to try once more for no added cost.


Executive search and recruitment, although similar, are fundamentally two different beasts. We may be biased in believing that executive search is better (and it is more costly), however we do definitely feel that our strategies are more effective and economic. This is true more so for executive positions, but can be applied to any organisation with specific needs for an incoming role. So, if we correct you when you refer to us as ‘recruitment agency’, we promise we are not being pedantic!