How Do Top Executive Search Firms Find Candidates?

How Do Top Executive Search Firms Find Candidates?

Finding executive and non-executive level candidates is very different.

While 85% of non-executive job roles are filled via candidates applying to vacancies advertised on job boards or internal career sites, this figure is drastically lower for C-suite positions. At this level, professionals are more likely to either attain a job via their networks or be headhunted by an executive search firm.

So how do executive search firms have so much more success attracting C-suite and board-level candidates, compared to in-house HR teams?




How Does Executive Search Work?

Executive search is a structured recruitment process involving the research, identification, approach, and attraction of precisely targeted individuals. The process will differ from firm to firm, and even internally at Parkinson Lee, the recruitment stages aren’t stringent, we tailor our method to each client’s unique requirements.

But before we delve into how executive search firms find candidates, you should understand the fundamentals of the executive search process.


1.     Briefing

Upon accepting an assignment, the search firm will arrange an initial briefing meeting with you, the client. The point of this meeting is for the firm to obtain a thorough understanding of your situation. This is a platform to discuss your business, the role requirements, person specifications, and most importantly, the culture of your organisation. A sign of a quality executive search firm is one that aims to meet with as many different stakeholders as possible during the process, indicating their commitment to finding the perfect cultural fit.

It might help you to prepare the answers to questions about your company’s history, plans, markets, challenges, etc., in addition to questions specific to the role like your reason for hiring and any timelines you’d like to work to work to.


An outsider's perspective of a glass-walled meeting room looking in. There are 4 people all dressed in smart business attire sat at a meeting table with laptops and papers in front of them talking.


2.     Creation of Specification of Requirements & Candidate Briefing Pack

Something that’s custom at Parkinson Lee is that we like to demonstrate our understanding of the brief by producing a Specification of Requirements document. This document collates all the information discussed in the briefing stage(s), including predicted timescales, and acts as a reference point for both parties to keep the search focused.

We will then adapt the Specification of Requirements document into a Candidate Briefing Pack. This pack is designed to be sent out to candidates, once approved by you, and serves the purpose of giving an excellent first impression of your company and minimising any uncertainty about the vacant position.


3.     Identification & Approach

The search strategy, as agreed upon between you and the executive search firm, will be put into motion.


4.     Longlisting Process

All prospective candidates are asked to complete a series of pre-qualification checks to ensure their suitability for the role. The criteria for this will be pre-determined by you during the briefing stage. This typically includes a written and/or verbal assessment, and/or an initial telephone interview.


Someone sat at a desk looking at a laptop while on the phone. They are in a home environment and wearing a smart shirt.


The candidates who pass these screening stages will then be interviewed face-to-face or over video call to be asked questions specific to the brief and to assess their cultural fit.


5.     Shortlist

The shortlist of candidates will be presented to you either via a face-to-face meeting or video call, at your preference. From here on, you can dictate how much or little input you’d like the firm to have in subsequent interview stages. Parkinson Lee are happy to accompany you in your interviews with the shortlisted candidates if you so wish.


An interview panel interviewing a candidate. The candidate is in focus and listening intently to one of the interviewers.


6.     Offer Management

Once you’ve made the decision about who you would like to appoint, an executive search firm will handle all the negotiation and admin side involved in offer management. This includes negotiating remuneration, counter-offer management, obtaining references, acceptance management, and intermediary management.


A close up of a handshake. Both parties are wearing shirts and the background is an office environment.


7.     Post Start Date Follow-up

Credible executive search firms will always arrange a follow-up meeting, once the candidate has been in post for a few months. This is to ensure that you are satisfied with the candidate’s suitability.


How Do Executive Search Firms Find Candidates?

Executive search firms historically have a better track record of finding strong executive candidates, compared to internal HR teams. So, what are we doing differently?


It’s Our Bread and Butter

In the same way that you know your industry inside out, executive search firms know executive search. They’ve trialled and tested many different processes until they’ve found what’s most effective and it’s in their best interest to keep up to date with all the relevant business trends, new recruitment tools, and to continue to expand their networks.

Naturally, internal C-suite vacancies don’t come around very often. This stifles the opportunities that HR teams have to learn the executive search process as thoroughly, and why it’s so hard for them to replicate the success of executive search firms. Executive search firms are highly specialised to their niche, so it’s not fair to expect HR teams to replicate the same success when their hiring efforts are spread across the company’s divisions at all levels, not to mention handling any other HR duties that fall within their remit.


Specialist Tools & Reports

Unless your company is constantly hiring, it can be hard to justify the costs of the professional recruitment tools that executive search firms use, and there are a lot.

Specialist recruitment tools:

  • LinkedIn RPS (Recruit Professional Services)
  • Market mapping tools (FAME, Orbis, etc.)
  • Existing candidate database
  • Competitor analysis tools


A close up of a laptop displaying an analytics dashboard.


It’s challenging for internal HR teams to deliver the same quality of candidates at the executive level when they don’t have access to industry-standard tools.


A Fresh Perspective

You will almost certainly have internal employees who are responsible for conducting regular market mapping however, a fresh pair of eyes and an external perspective can catch something that’s been missed.

We often find that clients are initially hesitant to consider candidates with limited to no experience in their same industry before, however, many executive search firms will encourage against this mindset. Some of the most successful case studies we’ve placed have been when a candidate is new to the industry, but with plenty of transferable skills and experiences, takes post, and excels because they bring new ideas, an alternative perspective, and are eager to learn.


Key Takeaway

Your approach to hiring at C-suite cannot be forced into the same mold as your regular hiring practices. This is why so many businesses, even those that have in-house hiring teams, opt to partner with executive search firms for senior leadership roles.

With the level of influence, they have on the business, finding executives is not something that you should cut corners on and there really is no comparison to using an executive search firm if you don’t already have the perfect candidate in mind.

If you don’t have one in mind already, here are six factors to consider when choosing an executive search firm.


Get In Touch

To arrange an initial consultation and learn more about our executive search process, please contact Parkinson Lee’s Managing Partner, Lee Bhandal, at l.bhandal@parkinsonlee.com

Parkinson Lee has been operating for close to a decade, and in that time has established a huge talent pool of executive-level professionals across the UK. We have extensive experience serving PLCs, AIM-listed companies, PE-backed firms, and SMEs across both the private and public sectors, spanning many different industries.

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