What is the difference between a headhunting firm and a recruitment agency?

Clearing up the common misconception about what a “headhunter” or an “executive search consultant” actually is.


There seems to be a common misconception about what a “headhunter” or an “executive search consultant” actually is and when it may be beneficial to engage a headhunting firm.  A number of phrases are used very loosely within recruitment to describe certain services and there is confusion especially since the growth of LinkedIn. Many recruitment agencies now position themselves to include ‘search’ in their process. However, there is a big difference between a traditional, experienced headhunting firm and a recruitment agency/search and selection firm… and the benefits of using the service. It is a confusing market for both candidates and potential clients.

When a company has a vacancy that they need to fill, they normally task a recruitment company with finding a suitable individual to fill the role. More often than not the person who is successful will be an 'active' jobseeker. i.e. someone who is actively applying to roles or responding on LinkedIn, contacting recruitment companies or posting their CV onto job boards. With the ‘active’ approach clients are missing out on large numbers of suitable candidates, who, potentially would make a move for an exciting opportunity if they are approached by an experienced headhunter.

A Traditional Headhunting or Executive Search professional will take a different approach.  They proactively search the sector or industry for the highest calibre individual for the role and approach them directly, rather than relying on the candidates who are responding to online adverts or registering with agencies. Good headhunters are not relying on actively looking candidates and this does NOT mean simply contacting numerous individuals on LinkedIn and calling it headhunting or search! More often than not, those candidates will have been referred to the headhunter in terms of their background, experience and suitability for a role.

As such executive search agents target the “grey area” of the market i.e. people who are not actively looking for a new challenge but when presented with an opportunity may move. It is estimated this is somewhere around 70% of the workforce and when we find these candidates, we find out that they are not registered with recruitment agencies or actively out interviewing. They are a great pool of candidates, don’t play off one opportunity or offer against another and are often the successful recruit!

Headhunting is very effective for ‘difficult to fill’ roles and more senior positions within a firm when tapping into that 70% is key.

Headhunted candidates will have been through a confidential process with the search firm to determine if the skill set and opportunity is right for both parties. No details will be released until both parties are happy to proceed, working in confidence is key. Moreover, candidates are not flooded with irrelevant opportunities, a good search firm will only approach candidates with suitable and relevant roles.

The other major difference with Executive Search recruitment is the way the consultancy works in partnership with the client. Executive Search is a more resource intensive approach and can be a huge source of information for a client and a good search firm will:

  1. Have a true customer centric proposition, they will work in partnership with clients and candidates to build long term relationships.

  2. Have an extensive network of contacts across a range of specialist industry sectors. This network will have been built over many years and not be a LinkedIn network! Headhunters tend to ‘think’ proactively and creatively as skill sets cross widely between sectors.

  3. Through the search process, give the client a thorough understanding of the role within its wider industry context, demand for certain skill sets, salaries, employer brand perceptions and the types of individuals they may attract.

  4. Provide the client with a specific time line and project plan.

  5. Approach candidates in a confidential and respectful manner, ensuring that their background and experience is fully understood. Candidates will not be progressed for an irrelevant opportunity wasting both parties time.  Candidate details will not be passed on without their permission. Many headhunted candidates do not have a CV prepared, this is a good sign as it means they are not actively looking and are doing well where they are!

  6. Have an excellent understanding of the candidate’s background, experience and aspirations.

  7. Have a proactive headhunting approach and  understand how to manage senior individuals who are not looking for a role (this is a real strength and advantage of using a good headhunter - many potentially excellent candidates will be put off by the wrong approach/style)

  8. Continue to ensure they understand the client’s ongoing role requirements (which may change within the process)

  9. Present candidates selectively, good headhunters do not just send over a CV. They TALK to the client about a candidate’s background and experience and why they would be suitable for a role. Headhunters seek feedback from the client in order to tailor the search.

  10. Advise and manage the interview process for both the client and candidate. Provide both parties with as much specific detail as possible to ensure an effective meeting.

  11. Build long-term relationships with clients and candidates over many years. Headhunting is far from sending over a few CVs in the hope that one will match! With many of our clients we are advising them at board level who the best candidate is, for a certain role.

Executive Search is an in depth and thorough process which is at a higher fee rate but provides a great deal more for the client. In order to provide that service, headhunters work exclusively or retained, there is a great deal of resource and effort put in to each assignment. It is not about searching a database and competing with other agencies in a time wasting CV race!

At Lawson Ware, we help clients to secure industry professionals at both middle and senior management when they are looking for the highest calibre individuals and do not have the time to sift through CVs and conduct numerous interviews.  Although Executive Search can be used on any vacancy, it is usually most effective for senior appointments, strategic hires and roles that are hard to fill. We provide this service on a retained basis but unlike our true competitors do not charge an upfront fee; we project plan to present candidates to clients within 20-25 working days. Our proposition is both time and cost efficient.


© 2020 by Lawson Ware Ltd.