Executive Search vs. Headhunter: What's the Difference?

Executive Search vs. Headhunter: What's the Difference?

Have you heard the term "headhunter" as a synonym for recruiter or executive search? It's a common phrase but isn't exactly a direct translation. What is a headhunter, and what is the difference between executive search recruiters? When would you use a headhunter or an executive search recruiter for your open positions? Let's take a closer look.

Types of Positions

General recruiters typically focus on various positions at lower levels than executive search. Some will be more generalists hiring for entry-level roles, while others may specialize in specific industries or jobs. As the name implies, executive search focuses on senior managers, executive level, and c-suite professionals to take on essential leadership roles.

Candidate Search Structure

Generalist recruiters tend to focus more on actively available candidates. These are job seekers currently submitting resumes, replying to job postings online, and networking to find a new position. On the other hand, executive search firms tend to dip into the passive candidate pool, trying to find talent not necessarily looking for new roles but who would consider the right opportunity.

Contingent vs. Retainer

There are also differences in the types of business models used by recruiters versus executive search firms. Recruiters tend to work on a contingent model where they only receive a fee based on the successful placement of a candidate. Recruiters are sometimes paid on commission only or a combination of salary or commission. Executive search firms will often work on retainer. They will charge a percentage of the fee up front as an investment cost into the process of finding executive-level talent.


The concept of specializations can become murky between the categories of recruiters. Generalist recruiters may place people in various positions without specializing in any given industry. But some, such as healthcare recruiters or legal recruiters, are very pinpointed on just one type of candidate. Executive search can also specialize in one specific industry or might focus on one business role, such as C-suite executives.

If you're currently searching for executive talent, get in touch with our team at Frontline Source Group to learn more.

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Published on Apr 27, 2022