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Demystifying the Executive Search Process

executive search process

C-level and senior executive jobs are often competitive, filled by only the most elite of candidates. Jason Starr, who supports a variety of headhunters, describes the executive search process as a triangle, rather than a ladder, because there are fewer steps as a candidate climbs higher – as well as more competition. 

One way to get a leg up in your career advancement is to understand the executive search process. Typically undertaken by executive search firms, this process is competitive and time consuming, though often the only way to be hired for many top positions. 

We recently presented a webinar from Marcia Ballinger, PhD, and the Co-Founder and Principal at Ballinger|Leafblad, a national executive search firm. In her presentation, “Demystifying the Executive Search Process,” Marcia explained the process from beginning to end. Here are some key takeaways.

Companies are executive search firms’ clients – not candidates.

One of the common misconceptions Marcia mentioned was that candidates sometimes think they are the search firm’s clients. This is not the case. 

“The client organization hires an executive search firm after some amount of thought. The search, time consuming, and might have several steps. It might require a lot of involvement on the client organization side,” Marcia told us. 

This means the search firm’s top priority is pleasing the client. When a headhunter begins working with a company, they learn about the company culture, the leadership team, and the goals for the position. Marcia has done as many as 30 community listening sessions to understand an organization before beginning her candidate search. She also meets the board of directors and senior leadership one on one. 

This means, of course, that even if an executive search firm loves a candidate, they won’t offer them a potential hire for an ill-suited position. 

At the same time, recruiters want to make matches between companies and candidates.

This doesn’t mean that candidates have to sell themselves to the recruiters. The contrary is true. 

Ultimately, Marcia suggests that executive search firms want to offer companies candidates about whom they can be excited. They also want the chosen candidate to be excited about the offer – and accept it. 

That means that during the search process, candidates should be honest about how they’re feeling about the role. 

“If you have a compensation limit, and you’re worried the offer might not be quite what you need, confide in the recruiter. We [might be able to help] the client think about opening the salary range for the position,” Marcia explains. 

She also suggests candidates present any red flags they may have about the role so they can discuss their qualms with the recruiter. 

The executive search process is a funnel.

After executive search firms identify the types of candidates they’re seeking, they start seeking candidates. Marcia aims to connect with 150 to 200 potential candidates at the beginning of the process. 

“We will reach out to targeted people who would be a fit for this job or know people who would be a fit… We’re agnostic about whether that person is in a job transition or not. We are calling people because they fit the job parameters as we understand them,” Marcia told us. 

Most of these initial candidates are identified by the search firm’s researcher or research team. Occasionally, these opportunities are posted to open job boards, though this is less common in for-profit executive searches.

After she identifies candidates who are interested in pursuing the role, Marcia then seeks resumes from about 50 candidates or so. She then interviews 20 of the best-suited job applicants, before submitting 10 or so names to the client for their consideration.

Executive search processes are extremely competitive.

The executive search process is competitive; Marcia suggests that even high-level executives have a less-than-10-percent chance of finding their next role through this kind of search. 

“If I was looking for my new assignment, I don’t know if I would call search firms. I don’t like the odds. No matter the situation, you will likely be in a competitive situation. That’s less okay if you’re making a significant switch here. Minimize the importance of recruiters in your effort and up the importance of networking,” she said.  

What’s more, the executive search process may not be your best path if you have a non-traditional work background. Marcia says she may be able to bring one candidate that isn’t a glaringly-obvious fit for the role to a client, but she would never offer even two candidates who didn’t have a typical career trajectory.

The executive search process is rarely hastened, even for top candidates.

The timeline for the executive search process is usually set even before the search firm starts seeking candidates. 

“No amount of anxiety or desperation to get into a new job is going to speed the process. The process is the process. Client organizations learn a lot by looking at the backgrounds of a lot of candidates. It’s not typical for an organization to parachute in one person. It will occasionally happen, but not very often,” Marcia said. 

Behind the Scenes of the Executive Search Process

The executive search process can be arduous. So, while it’s important to connect with recruiters, networking is equally – if not more – important. As Marcia mentioned, recruiters will connect with candidates asking them for referrals, as well. If you can generate multiple connections who are invested in your executive job search, they will be that much more likely to refer you to positions that fit your interests. 

Marcia has one more piece of advice for executive job seekers. “Every recruiter is a good recruiter. Keep an open mind and a positive attitude. That counts for a whole lot,” she said.


Learn about Marcia Ballinger’s book: The 20 Minute Networking Meeting


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