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What Executive Search Costs

Executive Search Firm Pricing

Search firm pricing is a top concern of executive search buyers. Whenever employers have an important board or senior-level opening to fill, it is reasonable to ask, “What does an executive search cost?”

Of course, there is no easy answer. it all depends on how your company prefers to recruit and how important getting top talent is to your corporate strategy. The wide array of executive search firms and recruiting services available means that search firm pricing varies wildly.

However, I can give you a sense of what companies typically spend on an executive search by sharing common price ranges of various executive search services.

Going Out to Search or Do It Yourself?

The first question a company needs to answer is whether it wants to hand off the executive search to a search firm or whether it wants to manage the engagement in-house.

Companies usually opt for search firms when an executive search is important enough to warrant the cost of an executive search. Additionally, in-house teams simply may not have the time or expertise to do the search themselves.

For businesses that have to go “out to search”, there are two traditional search firm models: retained firms and contingency firms.

Retained Search Firms

Retained executive search firms are paid a retainer to do the work of executive search. The fee is not contingent upon making an actual placement. The firms get paid regardless.

Retained firms focus on getting companies the best talent available for the job. They target top-performing senior-level executives. Candidates must be more than qualified. As a result, retained search firms typically recruit passive candidates — those who are not actively looking for their next job.

Retained firms invest more time in consulting with the client, setting search strategy, researching ideal candidates, vetting those contenders, positioning offers, and closing the candidate. In other words, more work is involved. Consequently, retained search firm pricing is higher.

Contingency Search Firms

Contingency search firms are only paid when they make a placement. That means you will pay if you are successful, which you want them to be. So, despite what they say, there is no such thing as a contingency firm that searches for free.

Contingency firms tend to concentrate on recruiting candidates that are actively looking for their next jobs. They focus on delivering qualified candidates. It’s a lower bar, and for some openings at some companies, that is perfectly okay.

Retained firms focus on senior executive searches, and contingency firms focus more on staffing and mid-level searches with annual compensation of less than $300 thousand. As a result, contingency search firm fees are generally lower.

Search Firm Pricing

Typical search firm fees for individual engagements rarely give clients an opportunity to save. Employers pay a full fee regardless of whether it is retained or contingency. Most search firms charge a percentage of a candidate’s annual salary or total compensation. However, percentage fees bake in a conflict of interest. The more the winning candidate is paid, the more a search firm makes. Clearly, that is not in the best interest of the client. You shouldn’t have to wonder where a search firm’s loyalty lies.

Retained Search Firm Pricing

30-33% of total first-year cash compensation of the candidate placed, plus expenses

Contingency Search Firm Pricing

20-25% of the first-year base salary of the candidate placed

Flat Fee Pricing

Based on the level of difficulty of the search and the amount of work involved

A small percentage of search firms charge a flat fee. Egon Zehnder, one of the leading retained firms in the world, charges a fixed fee. (Full disclosure: so does our firm The Good Search.) Egon Zehnder maintains the flat-fee pricing model enables the firm to be “completely unbiased” and to “facilitate hiring negotiations with no conflict of interest”.

Still, most fixed fees are similar in total amount to the percentage-based fees. It is just that flat-fee pricing eliminates the appearance of a conflict of interest and also avoids surprise higher fees when a candidate has to be paid more than expected.

While there will always be firms that charge less, and there will always be search engagements that enable a firm to charge more, most executive search fees fall within a basic range, regardless of how the firm does the math.

Retained Search Firm Fees Start at $100 thousand

Leading global retained search firms rarely accept searches for fees of less than $100,000. In fact, lately, our clients tell us these firms are walking away from searches where the fee is less than $125,000.

In other words, the minimum fee is increasing. That gap is leaving companies with important Vice President openings underserved. It leaves many companies scratching their heads, at a loss for what to do.

Boutique Search Firms Take Market Share

Boutique firms with lower overhead often charge less while offering concierge-quality service to their client. As a result, a growing number of retained search buyers are giving their business to smaller firms.

Industry publications report that, in recent years, the pendulum has swung to the smaller retained search firms.

Multi-Search Package Deals

Companies with multiple executive openings a year are in a position to reduce executive search costs. They simply purchase a package of multiple searches for a fixed lower fee. Doing so makes it easier for the companies: they don’t have to transact individual contracts for every single search and they save money. It is a great way to avoid search firm pricing sticker shock.

Research Firm Pricing

At large corporations, the do-it-yourself executive search model has grown in popularity. Large employers with at least a dozen-and-a-half executive openings per year are bringing executive search in-house. In doing so, they frequently turn to executive search research firms and vendors offering unbundled executive search services to boost their in-house recruiting efforts.

Sometimes, all corporations want is a list of potential candidates for their in-house recruiters to call. Alternatively, they may want interested, qualified candidates that they’ll usher through the interview process through to hire. More proactive in-house teams may turn to research partners for investigative work wrapped around talent mapping. In fact, some of our clients are opting for target company org charts to supercharge their efforts.

Executive Search Research and Unbundled Services

Executive Search Research firms and search firms offering unbundled services typically charge by the hour, by the project/search, or by monthly retainer.

Recruitment research firms offering name-generation services also charge per name. Name-gen research produces lists of target candidate names. Typically, the lists are comprised of information gathered from the Internet and from calling companies.

The wide range in pricing depends on the services offered and on domain expertise, access to top talent, consultative abilities, and the stature and executive presence of the firm. The budget firms may produce candidates who are simply “willing to take a call”, without qualifying, interviewing, and vetting the candidate with a more thorough assessment. Research firms typically do not position offers, assist in negotiations, and close the candidate.

Recruiting Research Firm Pricing

By the Name Prices: $30 to $50 a name Average By-the-Name Prices

By-the-Hour Prices: $90 to $150 an hour

By-The-Month Prices: $30,000 – $40,000

Research Firm Advantage

Increasingly, in-house recruiting teams are turning to an executive search research firm for support. The right kind of executive recruitment research firm offers the expertise of retained search firms, but a much more flexible model. Frequently, the research firm serves as a natural extension of the in-house executive recruiting team. The approach is collaborative and collegial. The research firm boosts recruiting effectiveness and speed time-to-hire.

In most cases, recruiting research firms offering unbundled executive search services are not responsible for the hire. You are. Corporate executive recruiting teams manage the process from onsite interviews, offer, closing, hiring, and onboarding of the candidates. However, research firms do make it a practice to guarantee the quality of their research. In other words, the in-house team maintains control and saves money. They benefit by leveraging the expertise of their recruiting research partners.

Executive Search Research Package Deals

Again, a growing trend is buying weeks or months’ worth of research in advance and then spending down that retainer by using research as your needs arise. The package deal makes it easier for corporate teams to get the support they need when they need it, without having to get a proposal, negotiate, and transact a contract every time they need support.

The True Cost of Executive Search

Last, the price is not the same as the total executive search cost, a figure that is the one that ultimately is the more accurate measure. To understand the trust cost, you must take other factors into account, such as the cost of a position languishing unfilled, or of a cheaper, but bad hire. There is a reason that the most powerful and successful employers in the world continue to invest in quality executive search, whether with their own teams or in partnership with trusted executive search firms.

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Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford is CEO of the retained executive search firm The Good Search and of its research division Intellerati. A former award-winning television journalist and investigative reporter, Ms. Bradford now pursues truth, justice, and great talent in the executive suite.View Author posts

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