What’s the difference between contingency and retained executive search?

Unless you’re in the talent and solutions business, you may be hard-pressed to come up with a quick answer to the question, “So what’s the difference between contingency search and retained executive search?” Lucky for you, it happens to be a question we hear a lot. So much, in fact, it inspired this post! 

Although they’re related, contingency and retained executive search are two distinct search models. Deciding which approach is best for your company can help pave the way for a successful search and an even more successful leadership hire. 

Identifying the right leadership at the executive level is critical to achieving business success. The Association for Executive Search and Leadership (AESC) notes that “The cost of a wrong executive hire can result in staggering losses for a company.” 

Which is why landing on the right executive search process is so important.

Before we dive into the differences, however, we’d like to say this: regardless of the search model you choose, you should expect your executive search partner to take the time to truly understand your company’s needs, culture, expectations, hopes, and goals for the future. Fit is everything.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper into fundamental differences between contingency and retained executive search. Once you have a clearer sense of the two executive search models and methodologies, you’ll be better equipped to determine which method best fits your company’s needs.

How are contingency and retained executive search recruiters paid?

Let’s just get the money question out of the way. When it comes to the differences between contingency executive search and retained executive search, the payment model is probably the quickest way to distinguish between the two recruiting models. 

Contingency search recruiters are paid at the end of a search process when the client hires one of the recruiter’s candidates. Retained executive search firms charge a consulting fee — paid as a monthly retainer — based on the scope, size, and estimated duration of the search. 

The differences go far beyond compensation, however, and that’s where things get interesting. Let’s kick things off with a closer look at how contingency executive search works.

How does contingency executive search work?

In a word: efficiently. Clients opt for a contingency executive search for the speed and ease of the process. It’s an affordable way to gain access to a vast network of talented executives.

Small to medium-size businesses call upon contingency search partners to help them find a range of well-qualified directors, VPs,  and C-suite executive candidates. And find them quickly. 

To streamline the process, contingency search recruiters often rely on a carefully cultivated and curated pool of candidates from which they select the most qualified candidates for a given position. 

Clients can expect their contingency search partners to submit pre-screened resumes of candidates who meet their must-have criteria. From there, the process moves quickly to interviewing and hiring.

Unlike retained executive search, which we’ll get to in a moment, contingency search isn’t exclusive. Companies may opt to work with contingency search firms to augment the recruiting efforts of their internal HR teams. Companies may even work with more than one firm throughout the course of the search process. 

It’s also important to note that contingency candidates may be presented to multiple companies simultaneously to ensure the best possible placement in the shortest amount of time. 

Contingency executive search is a strong option for hiring managers who need experienced leaders and who prefer interviewing several qualified candidates for a given position. We encourage both our clients and our candidates to communicate openly with their contingency recruiters to help ensure an efficient and seamless executive search process. 

How does retained executive search work?

In a word: exclusively. If efficiency is the defining characteristic of the contingency search methodology, then exclusivity defines retained executive search.

In a retained executive search, the search firm operates on an exclusive basis — they’re the only ones conducting the search and they’re looking to procure and present the very best candidate for your company. 

Often, retained executive search firms, like Vaco’s Focus Search Partners, specialize in key markets such as healthcare, technology, consumer/retail, and business services.

Retained executive search is a high-touch and comprehensive process that includes detailed client and cultural interviews, original candidate research and outreach, screening, assessments, background checks, and negotiations. Retained executive search professionals work in consultation with clients to develop a mutually agreeable search methodology and strategy.

When a company needs to find the best candidate — nationally or globally — in a highly competitive market, then retained search is the way to go. This discreet and comprehensive executive search process is the go-to option for larger companies when they need to find the ideal C-suite and board-level candidates.

Here at Vaco, we offer both contingency and retained executive search services. We take a consultative approach to talent solutions, and we work with our clients to identify the best search model for their needs. Whether you’re looking for temporary staffing, entry-level permanent placement, experienced VPs and CFOs, or a new board director or CEO, our recruitment professionals, contingency executive search teams, and retained executive search experts can help.

Contact Us 


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