What Is Executive Searching? A Definitive Guide

Updated February 3, 2023

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When companies need to fill executive positions, they typically complete a thorough vetting process to find the right candidate(s). The executive search process involves using specific criteria and screening methods to find and compare candidates to fill these executive-level posts. If your company's looking to recruit a new executive, it's important to understand how to vet executive candidates and go about finding the right person for the job.

In this article, we explain what executive searching is, how it compares to headhunting and how the executive search process works, plus we provide tips for completing a successful executive search.

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What is executive searching?

Executive searching is the process of finding qualified candidates to fill executive-level positions in an organization. Executive positions can include directors, chief executive offers (CEOs), chief operating officers (COOs), executive assistants, presidents, vice presidents and other high-level positions. Individuals in these positions typically need extensive experience and professional qualifications.

Often, the process of executive searching is more comprehensive than the hiring process for positions lower in an organization's hierarchy. The process of identifying executive job candidates is in-depth, and it involves using a number of screening methods to ensure that organizations find the executives who best fit.

Companies typically hire agencies or firms to conduct executive searches for them. They give an experienced recruiter a list of criteria that they want from a candidate, and then the recruiter presents a list of potential candidates to the company.

Related: 10 Ways To Find Executive Jobs

Executive searching vs. headhunting

Executive search and headhunting are two terms that people often use interchangeably. Notably, the terms have the same meaning. A headhunter is a company or a person who works to recruit employees for their clients. Headhunters are different from other recruiters, however, as headhunters typically focus more on finding people to fill executive-level positions.

Related: Executive Headhunters: Definition and How To Appeal to Them

How to complete the executive search process

If you need to recruit a new executive for your organization, you can follow these key steps of the executive search process:

1. Create a list of your candidate criteria

The first step to conducting an executive search is to create a list of your organization's criteria for its candidates. This list contains the most important qualities that a person needs to excel in the executive position, such as:

  • Past work experience

  • Advanced degrees

  • Specific skills

  • Leadership abilities

  • Personality traits

Try to include detailed descriptions of each quality as you work on creating this list. Think about the culture of the organization and the day-to-day activities of the position to determine what qualities the right candidate needs to excel. This can help you make sure you identify the best possible candidates for the position.

Related: 10 Recruitment Objectives for Finding the Best Candidate

2. Find potential candidates

After you've created a list of your criteria, you can start searching for potential candidates. You can find potential candidates through professional networking sites or your own professional connections. You can also search the websites of top companies to find potential candidates to recruit for your organization.

3. Screen candidates by completing interviews

Another crucial step in the executive search process is to interview candidates in order to screen them. Completing interviews can give you the opportunity to get to know candidates better.

Be sure to prepare a list of in-depth interview questions in advance and make an effort to ask the same basic questions to each candidate. You can also ask follow-up questions to gain additional insight into the candidate's qualifications.

During interviews, make sure to take detailed notes on each candidate. This can help you make sure you remember important details after interviewing several candidates. You can take the time to review your notes on each candidate after completing the interviews.

Related: 60 Interview Questions for Executive Director Jobs

4. Compare your candidates to one another

Once you've interviewed your candidates and fully screened them, you can compare them to one another. You can do this by creating a chart or scorecard to compare your candidates and choose the one who meets all or most of your criteria. This can help you determine which candidate best fits the organization.

Related: A Guide to Interview Scorecards (With a Template and Example)

5. Follow up with your candidates

At the end of the executive search process, you can follow up with your candidates to let them know your decision. Be sure to politely inform candidates who you didn't select. Then, call or email the top candidate to extend a job offer.

Often, executive candidates are already employed, so companies typically offer enticing hiring packages to persuade them to leave their current jobs. After formally offering a candidate the job, you may need to complete salary negotiation procedures. After that, your organization can complete standard hiring protocols.

Related: 13 Recruiting Strategies To Help You Find the Best Candidates

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Tips for conducting an executive search

Here are some additional tips that you can use to conduct a successful executive search:

Develop a streamlined search process

One tip for optimizing your executive search is to develop a streamlined process. This can make it easier for your organization to hire candidates now and in the future. You can create a set of standard screening methods that work best for your organization.

Related: 10 Best Practices for Streamlining Your Hiring Process

Be consistent with each candidate

Another important tip is to be consistent with each candidate. Try to ask the same questions and use the same screening methods for each candidate. This can help you compare your candidates as fairly as possible.

Related: The Top 50 Interview Questions (Plus How To Answer Them)

Introduce candidates to other people

You can also introduce candidates to other people at the organization, especially people with whom they would work directly. This can help you determine how well they would work on your existing teams.

It can also help you gauge how well they fit the culture of the organization. For example, if you're hiring a finance director, you could introduce them to other finance executives. You can then ask these executives for their feedback on the candidate to help you make the right decision.

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