How to Get to Know a Retained Executive Recruiter
Last updated Mar 14, 2021
by Krista Bradford

Stalking the Elusive Retained Recruiter


Senior executives are often advised to cultivate a relationship with a leading retained executive recruiter as a way to get ahead. That’s not an easy thing to do. Say you’ve done all that a good executive should do. You’ve polished your resume to a high shine and have built out your LinkedIn profile. You’ve demonstrated just how witty you are in tweets on Twitter. You’ve served as featured speaker at a leading conference or two to raise your profile. Yet for some inexplicable reason, retained recruiters aren’t the least bit interested. You can’t get them to return your calls or reply to your emails. The few times you manage to get a retained recruiter on the phone, you don’t sense any real connection. The goal of forging a meaningful relationship with a top retained recruiter remains frustratingly elusive.


Why Retained Executive Recruiters Are the Ones to Know

Executive recruiters are not all the same, as BlueSteps Career Services Executive Director Kathy Simmons pointed out in a recent Forbes article. Retained executive recruiters recruit top-performing talent for senior-level executive openings. Consequently, of the two kinds of headhunters, retained search partners are the ones to know.

We recruit to the most prestigious C-level job opportunities that the market has to offer. In fact, the senior executive openings are so exclusive that the vast majority of positions we represent are unlisted. You will not find the openings posted anywhere on the Internet.

The average base salary for most retained search openings is $300,000 or more. Total annual compensation often tops $1 million. When equity is part of the compensation package, retained search positions also offer the opportunity for significant wealth creation. We literally are the makers of dreams-come-true. That may explain why Headhunters beat LinkedIn Recruiter as search terms in Google Trends.)


Why Retained Recruiters are so Elusive

Because everyone wants to get to know retained recruiters, not everyone can. There simply aren’t enough of us to go around. While it often feels like a personal slight, executive recruiters are hard to get to know because the numbers don’t work.

The average retained executive search partner develops a list of 200-to-300 contacts for every search engagement — potential candidates, industry sources, and other contacts with whom we network to identify and calibrate the best prospects for the job. At any given time, retained search partners work on as many as a half-dozen searches. Consequently, retained recruiters — and the associates and researchers who assist them — are actively in touch with as many as 2,000 people. And that’s just counting communications for active searches.

So even if you’re lucky enough to get a call from a retained search partner, you’re competing with 2,000 people as you vie for a recruiter’s attention. The irony is that we can only have meaningful relationships with 150 people in our lifetime. That total, called Dunbar’s number, was derived by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and includes family members and schoolmates. To forge a real relationship with a retained executive recruiter, you must make your way into the recruiter’s inner circle of fewer than 100 people. 

Of course, top retained recruiters curate their inner circle. You’ll find it filled with venture capitalists, private equity investors, genius technologists, serial entrepreneurs, high profile senior executives, along with a smattering of gurus. If you are an Average Joe, you likely will find it impossible to wheedle your way into the inner circle because, in the inner circle, average just won’t do. You must be the exception, not the rule. It’s either that or find a way to make yourself a priority in that retained recruiter’s life.


The Most Common Mistake: Elevator Pitch Run Amok

The most common mistake candidates make is immediately launching into a lengthy soliloquy without first establishing common ground. I understand nervousness may be fueling the faux pas. Candidates frequently have to summon up the courage to call a retained executive recruiter. As a result, many rush through what they have to say without taking a breath, just to get it over with.

Others seem to believe that the more they say, the greater the likelihood that something in there will resonate and open doors. However, candidates who make the initial conversation all about them are not only rude, but they also risk coming off as arrogant and naive. That’s a bad first impression to make with a retained executive recruiter.

To cultivate a real relationship, you must learn how retained search works to understand what motivates retained recruiters. While filling an opening is the goal of most retained search engagements, retained search partners are not paid for making a placement. We are paid a retainer to do the work of executive recruiting.

By comparison, contingency recruiters who focus on lower-level job openings don’t get paid until they make a placement. They actively market Most Placeable Candidates (MPCs) to multiple employers to increase the likelihood of making a fee. However, with retained executive recruiters, there is no direct financial motivation for a retained search partner to want to get to know you. The motivators are much more nuanced.


How to Blow It with aN Executive Recruiter

Assume You Make Us Money

Gracing an executive recruiter with your presence and assuming that there is a payday in it for the retained executive recruiter is wrong-headed. Moreover, it suggests you really haven’t arrived at the senior executive level because you clearly don’t understand how retained executive search works. Remember, retained executive recruiters don’t get paid to place you.

In other words, as awesome as you are, your awesomeness will not motivate a recruiter to get to know you. Our world already consists of the best-of-the-best. You must find common ground and cultivate a real relationship. You must become genuinely interested in getting to know the executive recruiter the same way you wish he or she would show interest in you.


Assume We’re Talent Agents

Retained search consultants do not function as talent agents or managers. If retained executive recruiters were talent agents or managers, we’d have to be licensed and you’d have to pay us a piece of everything you earned before taxes.

In my former career as a television journalist, I paid 10% of my gross income to an agent and more than 20% to a manager for the duration of my contract. While some headhunters have tried to set themselves up as talent agents, the business model doesn’t really work in the world of executive search.


Assume We Will Market You

Don’t assume that a retained executive search consultant will market you to multiple employers to get you the best offer. Because we are retained by a single employer, presenting you to other employers at the same time — so-called parallel processing — represents a conflict-of-interest and is considered unethical.

No candidate that has been presented client company should be referred to a different client until the original client has closed out the candidate. Since contingency recruiters are not retained, they do market candidates to multiple employers at the same time. They do it to maximize the chances of a placement and getting paid. However, they only market so-called MPCs — Most Placeable Candidates — and focus on lower level roles.


Behave Badly as a Candidate

Retained executive recruiters will eliminate you from consideration — if not from their very lives — if you treat them or their clients badly. Remember, executive recruiters are paid to assess your leadership and communication abilities. So if you fail to communicate promptly or if you lack the executive ability to navigate the recruiting process without screwing it up — then you have proven yourself unworthy of the executive suite.

Standing up a recruiter or client; failing to stay engaged and communicate promptly and professionally; lying or refusing to disclose mistakes you’ve made in your career; failing to set expectations or disclose the stage and nature conversations with other employers; or saying you’d relocate when, at the end of the day, your children would never talk to you again — that kind of behavior destroys your credibility with retained executive recruiters. When you burn bridges with retained recruiters, you cut off your access to elite opportunities.


Be Transactional

The senior executives and technology candidates certainly deserve the jobs into which we recruit them. However, in most cases, the candidate would not have gotten there if it weren’t for us. As arbiters of great talent, we identify, calibrate, and advocate for the candidates we place – that means behind closed doors we frequently go to bat for you.

As a candidate, you probably did not like it when recruiters treated you transactionally and wrote you off once an executive search was complete. Retained search partners feel pretty much the same way. We invest hours interviewing you to learn how your career unfolded. We delve deep into your motivations, career preferences, and goals. We assess how all-that-you-are lines up with all-that-our-client-is. And we orchestrate client offers and negotiate compensation packages, tending to every penny, percentage, and exchange rate.

Throughout the process, we serve as a diplomat, career counselor, and therapist — helping candidates and clients avoid landmines and pitfalls to get to a successful hire. As a result, most retained executive recruiters feel incredibly invested in the candidate relationship by the time a search is complete. While a simple “thank you” is all that is expected, savvy executives use it as an inflection point to cultivate a more lasting relationship with the retained recruiter that placed them.


HOW to BEFRIEND a Retained Recruiter

Make Virtual Recruiter Connections Real

Even if a retained recruiter or two are in your social network, that does not mean the relationship is one you can count on. While social media has served as a multiplier of people we “know” — either as “friends”, “connections”, or “followers” — as David Weinberger has written, these connections are “loosely joined”. Disposable. Find a way to root your social media relationships with a retained executive recruiter in the real world through real-time contact by phone, video chat and in-person.


Target the Right Recruiters 

Develop a list of a half-dozen recruiters partners that focus exclusively on your industry or function. For years, Kennedy Information has published The Directory of Executive and Professional Recruiters, which tells you which search firms are retained and what each firm’s specialty is. But no more. The search firm database now contained in Custom Databanks, a resume distribution service of Monster. The Riley Guide was another great resource. It got gobbled up by So you will find it here. Of course, you can also “google” the best recruiters in your business and network with your colleagues to develop a list of a half-dozen recruiters to target.


Avoid Fake “Top Search Firm” Websites

Up until recently, the website was fooling visitors. It is a fake website, according to a web SEO business listing the site in its portfolio. The web marketer revealed that was created as a micro-site to drive traffic to one of the search firms listed in the top 20. It was online for years until I approached the CEO of this search firm behind the site to comment on the deceptive practice.


Date a Few Recruiters: Marry One

“Date” a few of the recruiters you’ve targeted before selecting the one retained search partner you want to cultivate for life. Make sure the retained executive recruiter deserves your trust and is incredibly discreet. Seek a retained search partner whose advice is so brilliant and filled with insight that you suspect that person is actually smarter than you. You want a recruiter capable of serving as a trusted partner and advisor for the remainder of your career.


Get to Know Your Retained Recruiter

Being an executive recruiter is a little like being a shrink. We listen to candidates all day long. It rarely works the other way around. So one way to get a recruiter’s attention is to turn the tables. Take a little time to get to know the recruiter. Ask them questions and then really listen. What they share will inform your thinking around what you can to pay it forward to support the recruiter’s success as he/she supports yours.


Become a “Friend of The Firm”

Cultivating a relationship with a retained executive recruiter is not about trading favors — quid pro quo. We can’t shoehorn you into the position of your dreams if the client doesn’t want you. You can’t promise to use us or recommend us for every executive search that comes your way. However, for the relationship to flourish, it must be mutually beneficial.

Friends of the Firm foster goodwill by making thoughtful gestures that demonstrate their loyalty. They send the recruiter a quick email with a link to a relevant article or industry report. They share industry intelligence and insight. They regularly refer potential clients and executive searches. They know the more they help their retained search partner prosper, the more they help themselves. It is a circle of virtue.

The book Never Eat Alone is a great primer on ways to support the success of those with whom you network. Retained search is, at its core, a relationship-driven business. Most of our business comes through referrals from “friends of the firm”.


Play the Long Game

While executives want to get close to retained executive recruiters whenever they’re ready to make a move, savvy executives keep us close, regardless. Retained recruiters — the really good ones — are friends with benefits of a different kind. We help senior executives build top-performing teams. We serve as trusted advisors and confidants.

Because we are incredibly well connected, we frequently broker lucrative deals and valuable introductions. Our introductions to venture capitalists frequently result in funding. We facilitate M&A and private equity investment. We regularly serve as executive coaches — helping senior leaders weigh options and sort through priorities.

We help them navigate the inevitable crises that business throws our way — we have access to the best lawyers, accountants, and assorted fixers. In all these ways, we function as success magnifiers. However, we only do it for select “friends of the firm.”



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