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Differences Between Executive Search & Contingency Recruiting

Casey Slaughter Stanton

Casey Slaughter Stanton

Founder and CEO
CMOx®, The Fractional CMO Company

When it comes to filling the c-suite positions in your organization, contingency recruiting may not be enough. Posting an executive opening on public job boards may yield a few candidates, but those resumes are unlikely to list the qualifications you need. To ensure you’re communicating with the most qualified executive candidates, you’ll need to conduct an executive search.

Some of the differences between executive search and contingency recruiting are obvious, while others are more nuanced. This guide outlines the similarities and differences between these two recruiting techniques and explains how best to use them to your advantage.

CMOx specializes in executive search for fractional CMOs for growing businesses. Contact us to learn more about how a part-time CMO may be the right choice for you.

A Brief Rundown of Retained Executive Search

Executive search is the process of locating, contacting, and recruiting the best c-level candidates for open leadership positions in your organization. Retained executive search firms can support this process by using their connections and candidate assessment skills to identify individuals that meet your leadership criteria.

Your executive search consultants then reach out to each candidate with the offer of an interview to see if they’d be interested in the role at your organization. Those who are go through an interview process to help you choose the best candidate for the c-level position you need to fill.

An executive search firm will facilitate the interview process and help onboard your chosen candidate. Many firms will also check in with you and the candidate for the first few months to ensure things are going well.

Contingency Recruitment Breakdown

Contingency recruitment is the “job hunting” process most people are familiar with. When your organization has positions to be filled—or has created new positions as the result of growth—you create a job posting, complete with a job description and requirements for skills, experience, and education.

Your contingency search firm will then place the job posting on several different job boards for candidates to find and apply to independently. You’ll assess applications for the proper qualifications, choose candidates to interview, and hire the person best suited for the position.

Differences Between Executive Search vs Contingency Recruitment

At their foundation, executive and contingency search firms are both about hiring qualified individuals to help your organization grow and experience success. However, there are much higher stakes in choosing the right CMO or CFO than the right data analyst or copywriter. That’s why there are key differences between hiring methods—to ensure you have the right people in the right positions.


In contingency recruiting, the scope of your candidate pool encompasses every individual that applies to your job posting—whether or not they’re fully qualified for the position. Often, contingency recruiting yields dozens, or even hundreds, of candidates that must be vetted and sorted according to their experience.

With executive search recruiters, the candidate pool is much smaller but of a higher quality. Your executive search firm will identify a small number of potential candidates within a specific geographic area. They’ll then present each candidate’s qualifications to you so you can choose who to interview.


Contingency recruiting is a relatively passive approach to hiring qualified employees. You create and post a job opening and wait for people to respond. The idea is one of them will have enough of the required skills to meet your company’s needs.

Executive search, on the other hand, is a very proactive approach to hiring new employees. Instead of waiting for candidates to approach you, your executive search firm approaches them. This method helps ensure you choose the right person for the right role.


Contingent recruiters rarely look for leadership or c-level positions. People in executive positions often aren’t active job seekers. Instead, contingency recruitment is used to attract lower-level professionals to fill supporting roles in your company. Potential employees at this level are also more likely to be looking for a job to improve their salary or gain more experience. 

Conversely, executive search is used exclusively for hiring c-level employees and company leaders. Individuals at this level have often cultivated a career and aren’t typically actively looking to change companies or positions. Part of executive search is showing candidates the advantages of moving to your company.

Choosing Executive Search or Contingency Recruiting

Most companies use a combination of executive search and contingent recruiting to build teams as the organization grows. If you’re hiring a c-level executive, using a retained executive search firm is the best way to recruit the best leaders.

If you’re hiring anyone below the c-suite level, even including some senior level positions, contingency recruiting is the better option. Stakes are lower if the candidate doesn’t work out, and you’ll have a larger pool of qualified candidates to choose from.

What to Look for in an Executive Search Firm

When choosing an executive search firm to help you hire organizational leaders, it’s important to vet the firm before you develop a partnership. The best firms demonstrate a range of qualifications, including:

  • In-depth industry knowledge—if you’re a marketing firm, they should know marketing
  • Experience and a well-developed network of contacts and connections
  • A fine-tuned executive search strategy with a proven success rate 
  • Authentic transparency with you and their other client during the talent search
  • The ability to grow as you grow—they should be able to adapt as your needs change

The best executive search firms are also committed to diversity and inclusion, which prevents bias when looking for c-level talent and helps them recognize leaders that are also committed to inclusion.

Summary of Executive Search vs Contingency Recruitment

Contingency recruitment is the process of filling positions in your organization by creating job postings and placing them on popular job boards. Passive candidates apply to the position with resumes and cover letters, and you compare each applicant to the job requirements to choose who to interview. This process is best for filling lower-level positions, such as associates and middle management.

Executive search involves locating and contacting the most qualified candidates for your c-level openings—whether they’re “job hunting” or not. Once your executive search firm has connected with prospective executives, firm representatives will simultaneously assess them for your desired qualifications while demonstrating for each candidate the advantages of moving to your organization.

If this sounds like a long, complex process, don’t worry—CMOx can take your executive search from start to finish. We regularly train and work with exceptional fractional Chief Marketing Officers, so we know what to look for in successful c-level candidates. We’ll put this knowledge to work recruiting the part-time CMO you need to lead your marketing team. Contact us today for more information.

Casey Slaughter Stanton

Casey Slaughter Stanton

Casey S. Stanton is a marketing strategy expert and founder of CMOx®, the Fractional CMO company. For over 10 years Casey has been leading marketing strategy for 7 and 8 figure businesses in both digital and brick-and-mortar markets.

Casey Slaughter Stanton

Casey Slaughter Stanton

Casey S. Stanton is a marketing strategy expert and founder of CMOx®, the Fractional CMO company. For over 10 years Casey has been leading marketing strategy for 7 and 8 figure businesses in both digital and brick-and-mortar markets.

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