7 Steps to Search for Executive Recruiters

Years ago, conventional wisdom held that you should never seek out executive recruiters, also known as headhunters. Instead, you should wait for them to contact you. Make the first move, and you’d risk coming off as too eager if not totally desperate.

There might have been some logic to that advice in the earlier job markets. These days, however, in the era of the so-called Great Resignation and millions of open jobs, recruiters will likely be delighted to hear from you. In today's market, they're probably looking harder for you than you are for them.

Still, some ways of connecting with executive recruiters are more effective than others. The goal is to get on their radar without wasting your time or theirs. Below are the steps:

Key Takeaways

Tips for making executive recruiters notice you include:

  • Make sure your photo on LinkedIn or other sites is current and professional.
  • Do your due diligence; you want a recruiter who is looking for candidates for the kind of job you want.
  • Take every opportunity to be a speaker or panelist at conferences.
  • Work with the best firm you can.
  • Be helpful; if a recruiter calls for a reference, take that as an opportunity to be helpful, professional, and knowledgeable.


1. Be Visible

Not only will greater professional visibility increase the odds of recruiters coming your way, it will also make it more likely they’ll recognize your name and return your calls or emails when you reach out to them.

So, if you haven’t done so already, join the professional associations in your field and try to become active in them. Attend industry conferences if you can and even if they're virtual, and look for ways to participate as a presenter or panelist. Contribute to professional publications and websites. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date, and include your job hunting status in it with the new easily workable frame for this purpose. LinkedIn also has a new feature called Open Candidates through which you can signal, only visible to LinkedIn's premium recruiters, that you are in the market.

Your photo should be current, too, and portray you as the desirable—and hirable—professional you are. Anything you can do to get your name out there, short of making a fool of yourself, can help.

2. Attend Conferences

Yes, we’ve mentioned this already, but here it is again for a different reason. Recruiters often attend those conferences, too. It’s a good opportunity to network in what’s usually a collegial, low-pressure setting. Bring plenty of business cards and, just as important, get theirs.

Of course, this is rather an open question today, given the number of conferences that have become virtual or been canceled entirely. Nonetheless, to the extent you can attend and network, or even be on a panel, you can increase your visibility.

3. Target the Right Recruiters

Executive search firms tend to specialize. Some large ones may cover multiple industries. Others focus more narrowly, such as on a single industry or a particular job skill. There’s no point wasting your efforts on a firm that doesn’t recruit in your field and may, in fact, have fewer connections there than you do. Boutique firms specializing in specific industries have become common and may even work with the largest firms for positions in those special industries.

For starters, plug the term “executive recruiters” plus your industry or profession into the search engine of your choice. For example, “executive recruiters information technology,” or “executive recruiters graphic design.” You can also localize your search with a combination like “executive recruiters hospitality Los Angeles.” It is now also possible to do a search for "executive recruiters compliance remote." Finally, many executive recruiters now post positions on job-board sites like Indeed and Monster.

Also, check online directories for other recruiters specializing in your niche. Among them are The International Executive Search Directory of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) and SearchFirm.com.

Your public library or the nearest university library may have printed directories or subscriptions to other online ones.

4. Ask Around

If you’re currently employed, you might not want to broadcast your interest in connecting with an executive recruiter. All the same, it’s worth checking with trusted colleagues and others in your network to see which recruiters they know and recommend.

Ask about their experiences (some recruiters are incredibly generous and helpful, others far less so). If your contacts know you well enough and are comfortable recommending you, ask them for a referral or see whether you can use their names in introducing yourself to the recruiter. Even if they won't give you a personal recommendation, they will probably give you the name of any firms they have used in the past.

5. Check Them Out

Just as you’d investigate any company you were hoping to interview with, research the recruiters, too. Look up their bios on their firms’ websites and read their profiles on LinkedIn. If any of your LinkedIn connections happen to be connected to them, too, consider asking for an introduction. Forbes does an annual survey of the top 200 firms, and it might be worth your time to check that list out as well.

6. Play It Cool

Even if you really want or need a new job, there’s usually no point letting on. At any given time, a recruiter might or might not be working on searches for which you’d be a good candidate. So don’t expect results immediately but try to build a relationship that will ensure your name will be on the recruiter's list—ideally, right up top—when a great opportunity comes along. Be willing to wait, and be willing to listen if a recruiter contacts you based on LinkedIn or your professional listings.

7. Be Helpful

If you're known in the industry, you might also meet recruiters when one of them checks with you as a reference for someone else they're researching as a candidate for a job. If recruiters come to rely on you as a productive, friendly, and thoughtful information source, you may eventually be top of mind when they're searching for a job that fits your credentials.

As you talk to them, find a way to indicate that you're always open to considering new opportunities yourself. Use time at conferences to meet recruiters and let them meet you. Also, if you can appear on panels or as a speaker at such events, that will help your name stick in a recruiter's mind as a possible candidate when a job in your field opens up with them.

The Best Executive Recruiting Firms

The best executive recruiting firms are not necessarily just those with the biggest revenues (see FAQs below) Forbes released its annual survey in May 2021, ranking the top 200 firms that specialized in filling positions with salaries at $100,000 or more. Their top five were Korn Ferry, Robert Half, Hedrick & Struggles, Spencer Stuart, and Russell Reynolds Associates. The missing firm from the size list is Egon Zehnder, replaced here by Robert Half.

Forbes' survey is based on interviews and surveys with 31,000 recruiters and over 7,000 candidates and HR managers. Those responding were asked to name up to ten firms, other than themselves. Firms with the most recommendations ranked highest. Whatever the criteria or who performs the search, Korn Ferry tends to top everyone's lists.

The Bottom Line

Getting known by executive recruiters is a goal that should be part of everyone's career planning. Start putting yourself in the way of meeting them—and being helpful to them—as early as possible in your career.

Executive Recruiters FAQs

What Are the Big 5 Executive Search Firms?

The top five executive recruiting firms by revenue are Korn Ferry, Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, Russell Reynolds Associates, and Egon Zehnder. Each of these firms made an estimated $700 million in revenues and had 300+ consultants in 2020. These five continued to dominate in 2021 but Egon and Heidrick traded positions in the ranking. All of the firms experienced reduced revenues over those ranked in the prior survey. Forbes' annual survey also lists Korn Ferry as the best, as do others.

Should You Pay an Executive Recruiter?

The answer depends on whether you are seeking a job or an employee. Generally, it is not a good idea for the candidate to pay a recruiter; the company seeking a candidate pays that fee. For companies seeking candidates, they should definitely expect to pay a fee, either a percentage of the salary or a flat fee per search.

How Much Does an Executive Recruiter Cost?

An executive recruiter can be retained for a set fee regardless of whether the firm makes a placement for you or not. A retained executive recruiter will spend more time on the hiring firm and on potential candidates and therefore receives a higher rate. A contingency search firm only gets paid if it makes a placement. You only pay if they make a search.

These firms focus on candidates that are qualified and actively looking for a job. Retained firms tend to be for more senior positions while contingency firms are for lower positions earning less than $300,000. Both types will typically charge a percentage of the first year's salary, approximately one-third for a retained firm and one-fourth for a contingency firm.

Some firms, including one of the top five, charge a flat fee, removing the potential conflict of interest inherent in a percentage-based price. Smaller boutique firms, specializing in particular industries are gaining in popularity.

How to Attract Executive Recruiters to Your LinkedIn Profile?

You can only attract recruiters if your profile turns up in their searches. Make sure your profile is complete and uses good SEO practices and keywords. Get endorsements and recommendations as well. Try to build up your contact lists. Use a professional profile picture; you want to look like the job you're trying to get. Keep your profile current and have a good summary. Post articles in your homepage feed and comment on those of others. Include your location; it's an important screening tool for recruiters. Make sure your education appears, and indicate your industry. Display your current position (unless for some reason your employer does not permit this).

Finally, network with executive recruiters. You can even use Open Candidates which creates a signal only available to executive recruiters with a premium recruiter account—just the person you want to be looking for you.

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