Exec Search, Recruitment Agency or Personal Network: Who Holds the Key to your Next Career Step?

As an ambitious executive, the future is a prospect always on the mind. What’s my next step? What’s the endgame of my five/ten year plan? Am I doing enough now to secure my best laid plans?Then in the midst of an already stressful minefield, there’s weighing up who is best to support you in reaching for the stars; and though I don’t mean romantically, choosing the right people could mean securing hugely beneficial backing for a lifetime. Who are the right people then? The three obvious pools of people to draw from are Executive Search firms, recruitment agencies and one’s personal network; but what are the benefits (and drawbacks) of utilising each of these prospective choices?

Starting with one’s personal network: the benefits of utilising friends, family, colleagues, peers, et cetera wildly vary depending on who you know – the old adage of it’s not what you know, but who you know springs to mind. To give an example of this, your close personal friend Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder and CEO) might deliver greater clout in leveraging your next vocational move than John Smith on the street; thus it is nigh on impossible to offer an objective general analysis of the power of the network and this should be evaluated on a case by case basis. It would therefore be better for you to determine the strengths of your individual network and move your pieces accordingly.

Executive Search firms, on the other hand, are what you might consider to be the traditional option of the two professional services we are considering when it comes to unlocking doors to top level management positions. For those that might have stumbled across this article without a clue as to what these types of organisations do, I offer this definition from the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants:

Executive search firms are specialised management consultants…[that] partner with a client to identify, assess and select the very best possible candidate [for a wanted position][1].

I think it’s most easily understood in the following metaphor of going to a pub with a friend: it’s a new place to you, but your friend has been before and has a good understanding of what’s on offer; you know what you want in terms of flavour and cost of a beer or soft drink so your friend does their best to find and recommend you a drink that best matches your interests; you then save spending the whole night (and a Hell of a lot of money) churning through the wrong drink choices till you’ve found what’s good for you because your friend has done the work for you.

The obvious benefits to a company utilising these sorts of services, therefore, are that there are reduced costs in terms of finding the right candidate the first time around rather than the company paying out in ‘Duplicated recruiting investments for the replacement’[2], et cetera and that the final candidate who takes on the role is usually of the best quality to drive the business’s value in the future; mainly because Executive Search firms don’t just work the front end of the process like with contingency recruitment – think better return on investment. All of this is of course great for the client business, but what benefits are there for an executive? Simply put: not as much as you would hope. The issue lies within the fact that a lot of companies know the kind of candidate they want for their next hire and if they desire, let’s say, a new Chief Executive Officer with years of experience in similar previous roles, Executive Search firms aren’t going to be tripping over each other to grab you from your Chief Financial Officer role even though you might be more than ready to step up to a new position. Moreover, Executive Search companies run on the principle of being mandated to search for a specific position for a client so it’s not in their best interests to get in contact with you presently if it doesn’t suit furthering their current business agendum. That’s not to say that they might not chat to you about future positions, but the seedy fact of it all is that they might be using up your time not to further your interests, but to garner leads for placing candidates in your current company at a later date.

What would be the difference for an executive using a recruitment agency then? The good news for executives looking for a job is that recruitment firms are always on the look out for potential candidates to place in new positions so that they are always interested in making new connections; the drawback with these companies is that they traditionally deal in contingency recruitment work which means they are targeting ‘Mid-level positions or positions where there are a large number of qualified candidates’[3] so that they are not dealing with top end roles and there is exorbitant competition for the positions they wish to find candidates for. Some agencies do in fact stray into areas of Executive Search, however, but then these companies do not tend to be set up to offer executives wishing to move up the same level of quality support as firms which are specialised in these areas already. Furthermore, a lot of recruitment agencies tend to deal in what Peter Cappelli (Professor; Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) terms ‘Phantom jobs’[4], whereby potential job seekers are pushed out ads for ‘Jobs that don’t really exist’ in order that recruitment companies can acquire and float CVs around the market without an end goal in sight; it’s especially a problem considering the global marketplace is saturated with these kinds of firms all subscribing to the same battle plan. To this end, executives looking for a step up can often find themselves drowning in a sea of overfishing where the goal is not candidate fulfilment, but the sweet taste of commission.

It would seem, therefore, that unless candidates are in the right place at the right time to have the exact criteria companies are looking for in a potential new manager, executives are quite stuck on their rung of the corporate ladder with an uphill battle to progress. That’s a frankly disappointing outlook on the fate of people that could be hugely beneficial to the world of tomorrow given the chance. What could be done then to rectify the misery of today? We will explore that idea in my next piece.


[1] No author, Retained Executive Search Vs Contingent Recruiting, aesc.org, (New York: AESC, 2019). [2] No author, Minimize Risk, aesc.org, (New York: AESC, 2019). [3] No author, Retained Executive Search Vs Contingent Recruiting, aesc.org, (New York: AESC, 2019). [4] Peter Cappelli, Your Approach to Hiring is All Wrong, Harvard Business Review, May-June, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing 2019), 52.