An HR Leader’s Playbook for Running an Effective Retained Search

retained searchYou are an HR leader at an executive search firm and you have landed a big client, who has agreed to kick-off a retained search with your company. What’s your next move?

Who am I to know anything about executive retained search? Well, I am an ex-associate from one of the top executive recruiting firms in the industry. In an article from the Economist about corporate headhunters, it was said that:

Nobody has ever studied to become a headhunter but the profession is becoming more diverse. Those serving in its ranks include ex-engineers, a former Olympic gymnast…”

– and me, a former visual artist and administrative assistant. Working in executive search, I developed a deep understanding of how each role on the search team can greatly influence the quality and success of the retained search.

The executive search business has been operating since the first World War, through the 1940s. According to AESC (The Association of Executive Recruiting Consultants), it’s likely that Thorndike Deland formed the concept of executive search back in 1926 when he founded the first retained executive recruiting firm.

Meaning, the executive retained search industry has been evolving for over 90 years and will continue to evolve with the digital revolution. Although, there are elements of the retained search business that will remain constant, like the drive to deliver the highest quality service.

I believe it’s crucial for everyone on the executive retained search team to understand how they fit together within the retained search process. However, to impact the performance of your retained search, you have to work on the system. 94% of problems and opportunities for improvement belong to the system, not the individual.

In this post, you’ll learn the difference between a retained search and a contingent search, how to optimize the retained search process (based on my personal experience and reports backed up by leading firms in the industry), and how to maximize the efficiency of your process, especially in the era of remote work (using digital tools like Process Street).

What is a retained search?


Retained search is an elite model of executive search, where a team of consultants, recruiters, and researchers commit to placing the top corporate leaders, using non-typical channels. A retained search also means that the headhunting firm charges the client with a fee upfront before their services commence. When you hear of retained search, you will likely find it in comparison to a contingent search, and that is because it operates on a completely opposite spectrum.

What is the difference between a retained & contingent search?

You can think about it this way: a retained search is a monogamous relationship between the search firm and the client; in a contingent search, the client is in an open relationship. A contingent search is based on recruiters being compensated after the client agrees on a candidate placement. Often, they have to compete with advertising or the client’s internal HR department, and sometimes other recruiting companies.

Since contingent recruiters are frequently working in competition, they tend to work at a faster rate in order to beat their competitors to the punch. In other words: find the right candidate first.

The process of a retained search


Retained search firms may operate in different ways, but the process always begins with meeting the client to get a clear understanding of their business, needs, and expectations.

Here is a quick rundown of the retained search process, based on my experience and reference from the top search firms like Spencer Stuart, Robert Half and Boyden.

  1. Outline the retained search timeline (i.e when the long list and shortlist will be presented to the client and how urgent the placement is).
  2. Create a job specification based on the information gathered from the initial meeting, as well as any documentation provided by the client.
  3. Consultants and recruiters work together to come up with a search strategy.
  4. Research. In addition to searching for candidates, recruiters are expected to research the client company, industry, and competitors.
  5. Outreach. Recruiters work on attracting qualified and interested candidates.
  6. Assessment. Interviewing process; coming up with a longlist/shortlist to present to the client.
  7. Decision. Consultants will work with the client to advise on the best candidates.
  8. Close & follow up

In my experience, in order to run an effective retained search, it is important to maximize the efficiency of your process, which means mastering the micro-processes within the main process.

5 lessons on how to run an effective retained search

How do you strengthen cross-team continuity, especially while working remotely, to accomplish the best results from your retained search? Below, are a few key lessons that I learned when I was working at one of the top global executive search firms. You can also find elements of this model in a report published by McKinsey & Company and Thrive.

Automate your worflow

When using process automation software, like Process Street, you can eliminate inefficiencies by automating the workflow. The software takes care of your team’s repetitive tasks so they have more time to focus on the important work.

For example, our checklist task assignments feature will automatically notify team members when a task – such as uploading a signed client contract – has been completed. This way, everyone on the team can simultaneously keep track of the progression of the search.

Integration apps like Zapier can help automate your workflow by linking all your apps together. For instance, if you use a platform like Dropbox to organize and store candidate resumes, Zapier can transfer information from Dropbox to a CRM app like Salesforce or Recruiterflow.

Skillful Communication

According to USA Today, 4 out of 5 American employees reported feeling stressed out by poor workplace communications. It’s important to agree on what communication channel to use for urgent and non-urgent issues or tasks, otherwise, your team is forced to check all digital messaging platforms which can result in toxic productivity.

The retained search process moves fast, and therefore, everyone needs to be up to date at all times, especially the client. If a client has to ask you for an update, you’re likely not communicating enough.

At Process Street, one of our values is to “over-communicate everything, twice.” As a remote company, this is essential to our productivity because we often work asynchronously. The same is true when working on a retained search team.

In my experience, the lead consultant on the team is often conducting interviews or attending business development meetings. If you want to send a message to the consultant, be sure to have all the necessary information to avoid a situation where the consultant has to call or write back to ask for more details.

Treat your candidates like your clients

One of the best pieces of advice I got in regards to executive retained search is: treat your candidates like your client because one day they may likely be your client. Signing off a candidate means respecting their time, and letting them know they are no longer being considered for the role.

This is where over-communication pays off in the long-run: effective communication with all candidates (even those that don’t qualify) will often result in new partnerships and opportunities. For example, depending on the candidates’ recruitment experience with your team, the candidate may want to retain your firm for their company executive searches in the future.

Keep the ball rolling

Retained searches often start off in high spirits, but it’s a lengthy process so it’s important to keep up the momentum. When you feel like you’re hitting a dead-end, go back to the search strategy.

In my experience, going back to the search strategy often sparked new ideas for a different approach to the search. After searching through hundreds of profiles and feeling completely overwhelmed, I would go back to the search strategy, which would help me get back on track and anchor my mind to focus on the solution.

If going back to the search strategy doesn’t help, communicate with your team (here comes over-communicating again) and ask for support. I know it’s hard to admit when you’re struggling (at least for me), but remember that the retained search is a team effort, and communication is more productive than battling with self-doubt.


Adopting collaborative online technology, where the client can track your retained search progress, can sound frightening at first but that transparency with your client is a sign that your team is confident, honest, and committed.

According to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company,

“more than 2,100 global executives found that going beyond the mere digital delivery of products or services…correlates with markedly improved performance at established companies.”

Using the right digital tools (such as Clockwork or Vincere) will allow your team to control and monitor how much of your progress is available to the client. Not only are collaborative online solutions a way to be transparent with your clients, but it also creates a space for them to be proactive and well prepared for progress meetings.

Mediocre to exceptional


Executive retained search firms operate on a client-centered basis which sets them apart from contingent search companies. The end goal is not only to place the top quality candidate in a timely manner but to work towards building a partnership and business continuity with the client.

Operating a retained search in a timely manner can be challenging as it can be a lengthy process. The 5 ways to run an effective retained search are meant to inspire recruiters and HR leaders to optimize their processes and automate their systems. Ultimately, this will boost efficiency and effectiveness, save money, drive innovation, and grow business.

“A great executive search team can be the difference between mediocrity and exceptionalism.” – Judith M. von Seldeneck, Founder & Chair, Diversified Search

Top executive retained search firms have an exceptional reputation for a reason: they provide elite recruiting and advisory services. However, embracing the right tools for managing workflows and effective communication can greatly transform the retained search process and substantially improve business.

Tell us about your experience in executive retained search, and how your process has changed due to working remotely. Let us know in the comment section below. Who knows? You may even get featured in an upcoming article!

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Karolina Lasocki

I have a background in executive search, a passion for the visual arts, and I strongly value diversity & inclusion. Today, I am the marketing coordinator at Process Street, working from Warsaw, Poland.

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