Retained Search vs. Traditional Recruiting: Who Wins in the War for Executive Leadership?

executive search firms vs recruiting

Executive search firms provide people — and who doesn’t need people? In a low stakes position, you can probably rely on the tried and true methods of recruiting. After all, there are lots of ways to fill a seat. So if that’s all you need, finding a candidate is relatively straightforward. Who knows…you might stumble upon an exemplary employee. Your executive placements, however, are not so easy.

Top schools? Check. Aligned experience? Check. Stable job history? Check. But is it the right person? Remember: There is a human behind every resume. Companies are beginning to realize that the old paradigms for success are no longer relevant. Mark Zuckerberg is a Harvard dropout. Sir Richard Bronson, owner of Virgin, struggled with dyslexia and abandoned high school by age 16. 

In today’s fiercely competitive environment, there are few opportunities for plug-and-play leaders. You need to hire with the same sense of purpose that differentiates your company from all the rest. That’s why it’s important to find the right partner for your executive search.

There are good, better and best ways to conduct a search. Since you may start on the internet rather than with a firm, we’ll begin there.

Good: Professional Networking Websites for Lots of Resumes

LinkedIn is a great place to market your services and extend your professional network. You can put your best foot forward and showcase your talents in the most flattering light. But here’s the problem you’ll encounter if you try to use LinkedIn to find your next executive: The Easy Apply option means you’ll be inundated with resumes that don’t fit your needs. Consider, too, that over 30 percent of people lie on their resumes. It’s highly probable that even more exaggerate. You’ll spend lots of bandwidth trying to find a gem in that huge pile of CVs. 

Also, in many cases, the best candidates are already employed. They simply aren’t looking for you. LinkedIn is just one example. There are many more similar sites. A better approach is to proactively look for the best people. Executive search firms, including both traditional headhunters and retained search firms, fill that role. 

Better: Traditional Recruiting Agencies Find People Looking for a Job 

Traditional recruiting firms seek people who are looking for work. They’re paid on a contingency basis, i.e., when they fill a seat. Their priority is to place someone in the role before a competitor beats them to it. Consequently, the wrong behavior is rewarded: speed versus best fit. Remember, too, that many stellar candidates are already employed. 

Today’s most progressive companies need luminaries who complement their cultural norms and values, as well as align with the future vision of the organization. Traditional firms are adept at identifying general skills, but they struggle to tease out the nuanced requirements for an executive who adds to your culture and meets your specific needs. It’s not as simple as a skill set. It’s no wonder that traditional recruiting methods are dying a slow death. 

Best: Retained Search Firms Find the Best People

Research estimates that up to 70 percent of executives fail within 18 months. Part of it has to do with the onboarding process, but a fair portion is attributed to the inability of companies to clearly articulate their culture and “the way things are done around here.” Your new executive should come in with eyes wide open. 

This is where a retained executive search firm has the advantage over traditional firms. Retained search firms partner with your company to understand your culture, represent it accurately, and identify the best person for the job. Retained search firms work exclusively and collaboratively with your company to curate the unique characteristics you require. 

It’s also not enough to fill all of your leadership positions with clones of the people you already have. Yes, your executive hire must embrace company values. They must also complement your existing strengths and capabilities while adding something more. Ideally, you want cultural alignment as well as a diverse representation of the changing world. These two things are not mutually exclusive; you need both. When the best leader is hired for a role, they not only ignite the opportunities in front of the organization, they ignite new opportunities that the current team might not even know exist.

If you want the best chance for success in your recruiting efforts, identify and describe the elements of your culture so that you can provide an in-depth cultural orientation which includes:

  • Key factors that define the existing culture
  • Unspoken norms and customs
  • Key individuals that occupy positions of influence
  • Decision-making processes
  • Predominant leadership styles

Even better, share these elements with your retained search firm. Enlist them to help you create a crystalline vision not only of who you are now but where you want to go in the future. Once you build cultural awareness into your hiring process, your company can turn its attention to ensuring that your onboarding process helps executives avoid cultural landmines and find success. 

A retained executive search firm like Y Scouts understands and assists this process. We go beyond checking the box, using a covert and purpose-driven technique that finds the leaders that are organically aligned with your company’s mission and values. It’s how you win the war for talent and hire leaders who will make a lasting impact on your business. 

Interested in learning how Y Scouts can find the leadership you need to take your business to the next level? Reach out today to begin your search.


Pamela Fay is a writer with over three decades of business writing experience. She is a graduate of the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and is a former international business strategy and leadership development consultant from Chicago now residing in Spain.