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  • Writer's pictureScott Harrison

Executive Search vs. Selection: Which is the right fit for you?

We hear this question often from our clients: what is the difference between selection and executive search recruitment? 

As a senior recruiter, we live with these terms everyday within our industry. But we sometimes forget to articulate the merits of the client-centric model of delivering services whilst fully supporting the professionals we source through the entire hiring process.

In this article, I aim to give you a deep dive into executive search and selection, and help you decide which is the right partner for your organisation.

What is the role of executive search recruitment?

In its most basic form, executive search firms reach out to the best talent for a role on behalf of a hiring organisation, even if they are not an active job seeker. This passive talent pool often holds the most suitable candidates.

High performing, industry-leading executives are rarely on the market as active job seekers, so adopting a search methodology whereby they are identified and approached is the only way to access this professional elite. 

What do executive search recruiters do?

An executive search process can look like this:

  1. Identify Talent Needs: Work with the organisation to determine specific executive talent requirements.

  2. Conduct Market Research: Map the industry to identify where top talent is located.

  3. Source Candidates: Utilise expansive networks and top-tier industry contacts to find appropriate candidates, focusing on passive candidates not actively seeking new roles.

  4. Evaluate Candidates: Assess candidates’ suitability based on skills, experience, and cultural fit for the client’s organisation.

  5. Manage Recruitment Process: Handle all aspects of the recruitment process, including arranging interviews, facilitating communication, and providing feedback.

  6. Ensure Confidentiality: Maintain the highest level of confidentiality and discretion throughout the search process.

  7. Offer Management: Assist with finalising job offers, negotiations, and contract signing.

  8. Support Onboarding: Provide support during the onboarding process for a smooth transition.

  9. Provide feedback: Manage feedback to those candidates not selected and ensure the candidate experience reflects the clients' values.

What is selection recruitment?

Conversely, the selection process relies on assessing and presenting qualified candidates that are actively looking to make a move and their details are found, assessed and processed from an application to an open role or because they have added themselves to a database where they can be found.

What is the process of selection?

The selection process in recruitment involves a series of steps to identify and hire candidates who are actively seeking new employment opportunities. Key elements of this process include:

  1. Job Posting and Candidate Application: Advertise job openings and receive applications from interested candidates. These candidates are typically actively searching for new opportunities and responding to job postings.

  2. Screening and Shortlisting: Applications are screened to match the job requirements. Recruiters shortlist promising candidates based on their qualifications, experience, and skills relevant to the position.

  3. Interviews and Assessments: Conduct interviews with shortlisted candidates.. 

  4. Recommendations: Recommend top candidates to the client for further interviews.

  5. Job Offer and Onboarding: Extend a job offer to the selected candidate, followed by negotiations if necessary. 

  6. Reference and Background Checks: Once a candidate accepts an offer, conduct reference and background checks to verify the information provided by him/her and ensure suitability for the role.

Comparative Analysis: Search vs. Selection

A search project is tailored and typically paid on a retained basis, involving one-third upfront payment or a commitment fee to start the engagement. This means a consultant can dedicate their full time and attention to a mandate. They take the time and utilise all the available resources to provide a full service – spending time with the hiring firm to fully understand the nuances of the role and the culture of the company before researching the market to find potential, passive candidates. 

Whereas, a selection service is paid on a success-only basis, reducing upfront costs but companies will need to rely on the recruiter to provide a service that has very little guarantees and fewer obligations. 

They may on occasion make direct approaches to passive candidates, especially if the firm’s networks and databases are established, but generally, the focus is on attracting candidates to apply for open roles. 

There will also be an element of competition to find the best candidates which can adversely lower the quality of the applications put forward, as hiring organisations often seek the assistance of more than one recruiter to fill an open role.

There are merits to both processes and most HR departments and hiring managers can use both approaches depending on their needs and budgets. Certainly, the selection processes can prove very cost-effective especially if a good quality candidate is found quickly and efficiently – but there are less certainties that this would happen. 

Let’s break down whether an executive search or selection recruitment is more suitable for you.

When do you need an executive search partner?

If you’re looking to fill confidential, senior, or highly specialised positions, an executive search specialist is the right partner to successfully hire the best talent. 

Similarly, if you are a senior executive who wants to explore opportunities in the market discreetly, a search firm that is well connected and understands the market or function you operate could be more helpful to you than a recruitment firm that works on a selection basis.

For junior to mid-level roles, however, the selection process will be the most time and cost-efficient way of finding talent.

The key, whether you are a job-seeker or a hiring manager, is to work with a partner like Aquis Search that has a recognised footprint in the market, well-connected consultants with established networks, access to market-leading research tools and an extensive in-house database. 

Whichever process is most suitable to your requirements, there are a number of elements to consider when you engage the services of a partner.

Let’s break down each factor that can influence your decision: 

Specialist Focus

In executive search, consultants invest time in market research and mapping, even if they are not functional specialists, to identify the right talent. Conversely, in selection, the focus is on leveraging quality contacts and a robust in-house database. 

Firms employ functional or industry experts who, through their long-standing relationships and understanding of market dynamics, access a wide network of skilled professionals. These connections transcend geographical boundaries and are crucial in both search and selection scenarios, ensuring access to the best talent available.


Confidentiality and discretion are an absolute given in any recruitment process whether search or selection based. In a search context, we are referring to minimising the risk of a potential hire becoming known in a situation where there are greater consequences. 

Whispers of senior executive or board level moves can destabilise a department, a firm or an industry or in many cases the incumbent may not know he/she is being replaced. Search firms are experienced at approaching potential hires and engaging them in top-level conversations without revealing the hiring company until necessary.


Hiring is time-consuming and expensive. Internal resources utilised in a search or selection can be disproportionate to the task in hand and distract HR and hiring managers from their day to day roles.

Using a search methodology is more likely to yield talent that is the best possible fit for the role and the company culture and reduces the likelihood of making the wrong choice. The search process is more thorough and focused on identifying and targeting best in class talent as opposed to picking the best that happens to be available at any given moment. 

The selection process operates on a success-only payment model, which means clients can engage multiple vendors for a broader candidate reach without initial costs. Working with a partner who has established networks and databases in the relevant sector, along with the expertise to advertise and screen candidates, can be more cost-efficient. But  selection recruiters are often working multiple assignments with competing priorities in comparison to the search consultant.

Full Service & Ongoing Collaboration

The search process begins with identifying talent needs and extends beyond the onboarding of a successful candidate. It's a bespoke service covering job description creation, corporate culture analysis, market research, sourcing, interviewing, shortlisting, negotiations, and onboarding, all managed by the executive search firm.

In contrast, the selection process primarily focuses on connecting companies with their potential employee pool, with the extent of services varying per specific job brief. In both approaches, the collaboration with clients is continuous and evolves with an in-depth understanding of the hiring team's needs, company culture, market trends, and the broader business environment.

Wrapping up

The fundamental difference between search and selection is the ability, knowledge, networks and discretion to actively seek out the best possible person for the job whether they are an active or passive job seeker at any given moment. 

Executive search firms are experts at providing insights into the reaction from the market to a specific role. They’ll operate discreetly and ethically and above all will be taking a highly targeted approach.

Our consultants have decades of recruitment experience. We focus on communication, transparency and a collaborative approach which gives you the control and understanding of what is happening at every stage of the recruitment process. For us, the difference between search and selection is the agreed way of working, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

Email me for your executive search needs at []. Confidentiality guaranteed. 


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