Executive Search at Every Career Stage: A How To Guide (Part 1)

Article   –   2 March 2020

Depending on what stage you are at in your career, Executive Search can be anything from an unwelcome distraction to a vital resource. A good Search firm is a powerful ally and critical friend when plotting your career path, whether it’s finding your first job to looking for part-time roles post retirement and everything else in between.

In this first part, we will be looking at how to engage with Search firms more generally, followed by engagement at specific career stages. If you are new to search, or find it difficult to distinguish between the vast numbers of recruitment firms out there, there are two main forms of recruitment:

-        Contingent Search. This is a type of search where a recruitment firm has a mandate to find candidates for one or multiple positions and puts them in front of clients, but will only be paid a fee if one (or more) of their candidates is placed. Searches of this kind can involve multiple recruitment firms and you may be contacted by several different firms offering the same job.

-        Retained Search. This is a type of search where a recruitment firm has been retained to exclusively work on a specific role or set of roles for a client and are paid for their handling of the search process.

In this article, we will be discussing Retained Search.

There are subtle differences in how you deal with and engage with Search firms depending on which stage you are at in your career. In this ‘How to…’ guide, we will discuss four distinct career stages and how to extract maximum value from your interactions with Search firms. They are:

-        Graduate

-        Early Career

-        Mid-Career

-        Post-retirement

First, however, there are some universal golden rules on how work  with Executive Search firms, regardless of what stage you are at in your career:

1. Set up a LinkedIn Profile. LinkedIn is a critical tool of any Search firm and a convenient way of identifying and contacting potential candidates. A well-maintained LinkedIn profile significantly improves your chances of being contacted for a dream role you may not have thought about.

2. Respond. Life is busy and if you have a particularly good profile you are likely already being bombarded with messages and calls from contingent and retained firms alike! It is entirely up to you whether you return contact and engage with a firm (we don’t take these things personally!), but the best use of your time is actually to respond with a distinct message that achieves your aim and advances your interests:

-        If you are not interested: a good Search firm is happy to acknowledge a polite, but firm, ‘no’! But use the opportunity to perhaps say what it is you ARE interested in. Could you be looking for a role in 12 months time? Are you only focused on a particular sector? By responding with your particular needs, you are setting up a Search firm to contact you at a time most convenient to you, about jobs you are most interested in.

-        If you are interested: a good Search firm will try to accommodate you as much as possible to arrange convenient times to speak or further discuss the opportunity if you are interested. When you have arranged something, be clear about your expectations and what is important to you. Is it job title, location, salary, etc? This will enable a richer conversation between you and the Search firm.

3. Be honest. A good Search firm will never penalise you for being honest! For example, if your job will keep you so busy that you can’t engage with a process, mention this as there may be accommodations that could be made. If the role requires a relocation and you have not discussed it with a partner, mention this as there may be nuances to a potential relocation that can be answered by a colleague. The more honest you are, the more you get out of your engagement with the Search firm.

4. No hard feelings! There are many examples of times when things will not go your way. For example, a good search firm will always try to make a process as seamless and expeditious as possible. However, despite all of that, this may not be the case 100% of the time. Additionally, you may go through a lengthy process with a Search firm and find out that you have not been selected for a role. As with point 2, use this as an opportunity to achieve your aim and advance your interests. For example, the process may have opened your eyes to potential new opportunities outside of your previous scope. Or, you may want to work on certain skills or your CV to increase your chances of success in the future. All of these options are better than the alternative: ending things acrimoniously.


Having established some general rules, we can now proceed to how you should approach Search based on where you are in your career. You will notice that the amount of advice given to at each stage of an individuals career decreases over time, but the essential lessons remain powerful. Feel free to jump to your level, but you may find something useful in all of them.


Graduate level

While Search firms have traditionally not operated in this area, growing numbers of graduates and high levels of competition between the companies who need them mean that businesses are increasingly turning to Search to find outstanding graduates. Moloney Search was one of the first Search firms to work in this space, beginning in the mid-90’s.

The modern graduate is likely a digital native, with no concerns over creating and maintaining LinkedIn and other social media profiles. In addition to this, they tend not have an issue when it comes to responding or engaging via several different platforms, including video and messenger services such as Whatsapp.

Where most graduates tend to struggle is in their understanding of what type of individual they are and researching what type of organization matches their personal style and approach. More senior individuals have the luxury of drawing on their work experience to make this assessment, but the graduates lack of work experience means they often overlook things like fit with the organization, the team and the culture. This is borne out by the fact that most graduates end up leaving their first jobs after only 18 months.

Search can be very useful in helping graduates work out what exactly interests them and what kind of organisation it is they would want to work for. If you are approached by a Search firm for a role, make sure that you think about what type of individual you are and what type of organisation would fit you best. Good Search firms should be able to carefully articulate the vision and culture of the organisation, so feel free to ask questions around that. Even if the role is not for you, you still benefit from a clearer vision of who you are and where you want to work.

Once you’ve worked out who you are, keep an open mind as to where your strengths can be best placed and make sure you listen to what the Search firm is telling you. They are experts in assessing an individual’s skills and applying those skills to job roles, so they can point you in a direction you may not have previously considered.

Finally, graduates tend to struggle with professional life. This can include using informal or inappropriate language in the wrong context, poor communication and generally being patient. Remember, Search firms are professional services organisations, they are experts in navigating the professional working world! Use their knowledge to assess what level of professionalism is required with them and with a potential employer.

In the second part of this article coming next month, we will be looking at the other career levels and how individuals in those positions should engage with Search.

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