Working with an executive search firm can give you access to jobs that might not be listed publicly. However, not all search firms operate the same way.  It’s important to know the difference between the two types of executive search firms to understand what they can do for you and set your expectations accordingly. If you’re searching for your next job, you need to understand the landscape of the search business and how it works in order to make it work for you.

Retained search firms

Retained search firms represent an organization exclusively on a contract basis. They charge a fee, with any out-of-pocket expenses paid by the client.  A retained search firm meticulously gathers information about their client, does a survey visit, and produces a set of specs (sometimes as long as 30 pages) to guide their search. They are looking for someone who fits the needs of the position (usually with a salary of $250 to $300K and above) and the culture of the organization. Candidates that fit 75 to 80 percent and hit the key competencies and levels of experience are major contenders. Search firms know this is a wish list. No candidate can have everything they’re looking for—and if they do, the candidates are usually looking for a higher-level position that will allow them to expand their skills.

When you reach out to a retained search firm, you will generally get more detailed answers to your questions. However, it is important to keep in mind that this type of search firm can only present a candidate to one assignment at a time. That candidate has to be excused from the search for one position to go on to another. Since you cannot be on two or three searches at the same time when working with a retained search firm, it is important to let them know quickly if you no longer have an interest in being considered for a position.

To connect with a search firm, most people will pick up the phone and make calls to the firm or email a resume. Most likely, the first person you will speak to is an associate, sometimes called a research associate. You can coordinate with the associate to ensure that you have accurate information in your file.  If you have a file already, it might go back years. Make sure the contents of your file have a current resume.

If you haven’t had a lot of calls in response to your job queries and haven’t talked to a retained firm yet, where do you start? I recommend going to the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) website first. In the career development section, they have a list of search firms that are healthcare-related. It is a self-selected list except for the top section. The firms listed there are the ones that believe that the FACHE designation offered by ACHE is helpful for the development of healthcare professionals and sets candidates apart from other hopefuls.

Retained and contingency (which I will discuss below) search is not a licensed profession. Anyone can hang a sign and say they do executive searches. The Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) was founded to bring a sense of professionalism to the field. Though it only has a research certification, many retained firms are part of the organization.

On the AESC website, you’ll find the candidate bill of rights. It is an excellent standard of conduct, and any search organization—member or not—should follow the bill of rights. Yet, these standards do not guarantee you a return phone call.  Every firm I talk to is busy.  If you do receive a call back from an associate, you must ensure they have your current resume. Your next call will be a screening call form the search consultant. If you pass that call, you may be placed on the long list (7 to 15 candidates) to present to the client. That will be cut to six to 10 for the interview phase, which is often conducted by video nowadays. Though I firmly believe in-person interviews are preferable, you shouldn’t expect that to be the case. All along the way, the search consultant will tell you what is going on in the process. If you don’t make a cut, you can ask to be shifted to another opportunity. They will use the info they already have on you, and there is a chance you will go right to the top of the interview list.

As a candidate, it is your responsibility to ensure the search firm knows your status. If you have another opportunity and it looks like it’s coming to fruition, you need to do them the courtesy of telling them your situation. They have a long-term memory, and a lack of honest communication could hurt you in the future. Furthermore, they may be able to speed up the current process, and the fact that you’re interesting to other companies may make you look more appealing to their client.

Contingency search firms

Contingency firms are distinct from retained firms. Often, companies don’t want to spend the time and effort necessary to work with a retained firm. They want to see which candidates are looking for a job right now. Companies who are hiring may reach out to a contingency firm and ask them to send them their candidates who are currently available. Contracts may be verbal, short-term, and at times are exclusive, though not in the same way as they are when working with a retained firm.

All of this can affect how the firm and the client treat you. If there’s a fee problem, you may get bypassed for a candidate who isn’t connected with a search firm if the client decides they don’t want to pay. However, the lack of exclusivity may work to your advantage. The contingency firm can put you in multiple searches at once. A lot of contingency firms will blanket the internet with your resume, so there’s a chance that your resume will end up on your boss’s desk. If you work with a contingency firm, it is essential that you have some level of control over where your resume goes.

When making calls to contingency or retained firms, there is no reason to focus on just one. You can put your resume on file with multiple firms. It is important to remember that contingency consultants tend to fill positions at lower salary levels, around $200K and below.  Though for many years there was a strict divide between retained and contingency search consultants, in recent years “middle level” firms have emerged. They may have a few retain clients with the rest as contingent. Some do contingent, retained, and interim, along with specialty groups (e.g. physician executives, nurse executives) within each of those practices. It is important to do your research on their website first and ask questions of your contact at each firm.

How to get the attention of search consultants

  • Get engaged on LinkedIn. This platform is currently the primary source of recruiting opportunities for people looking for the next step in their careers.
  • Return the search consultant’s phone calls. They’ll note that and see that you’re cooperative.
  • Every once in a while, send your search firm contacts your resume. This will help you stay on their radar and ensure your resume is always up to date.
  • Develop contacts at the associate level. They are the gatekeepers and can get things moving on your behalf.
Author: Larry TylerAs the founder and CEO of Tyler & Company, a leading healthcare executive search firm, he specialized in CEO searches. During his tenure he conducted approximately 185. One half of those searches involved non-profit boards, the other half were advisory boards. After the sale of Tyler & Company to Jackson Healthcare in 2013, Larry stayed on during a three-year transition, developing the Practical Governance Group which gives education and training to healthcare boards. But his passion for helping senior executives find the right role remains strong.