An executive search firm (sometimes known as a headhunter) is an agency that finds top-level senior, executive, and other specialized candidates for their clients. The firms act as a liaison between the company and the potential candidate, often initiating contact on the client’s behalf, recruiting, vetting, and interviewing them before referring the candidate to the client.
We compared over a hundred top-rated executive search firms based on reputation, fees, industry experience, and more to find those that would best serve your specific industry and executive skill needs when searching for top-tier executives to join your company's leadership team.
Best Executive Search Firms for 2021
Best Overall : Korn Ferry
Why We Chose It: Korn Ferry has a solid reputation and has a full suite of services that makes it a one-stop-shop for executive talent management.
Largest, most recognized global executive search firm
Huge recruiting staff with 35 regional offices
Assessment tools ensure executive cultural fit in addition to candidate’s job qualifications
Requires a minimum investment of $100,000
A traditional, almost bureaucratic sales process
Employees don’t always rate the company a great place to work
If you need an experienced, global executive recruitment firm with a location near you and seasoned recruiters experienced in your industry, you’ll find Korn Ferry’s vast resources fit the bill. As a bonus, its add-on services including change management, leadership development, and payroll management ensure your top talent continues to grow with your firm.
To get started, you register online, or you can call the company directly and navigate through the interactive voice system. Or, you can use the online chat to provide information on what kind of executive role you want to fill, and they’ll have a sales rep contact you.
Since Korn Ferry operates globally, it should be able to assist your company as it expands beyond the U.S. In addition, its ability to recruit across industries and functions means you can have one recruitment firm for all your executive staffing needs. However, its recruitment fees are on the higher side: 40% of first-year salary and a $100,000 minimum.
Korn Ferry pricing reflects the fact that they find top talent, and your actual price will depend on a conversation with the sales team. For example, if you are searching for an executive that only earns $120,000 per year, you’re not going to want to pay the minimum $100,000 placement fee. In that situation, you’d be better off with a recruitment firm that charges a more traditional fee, ranging between 25% and 33% of the executive’s first-year annual salary.
Best for Finance Executives : Parker Lynch
Why We Chose It: Parker Lynch manages offices in 30 states and provides helpful business resources for the accounting and finance sector.
Specializes in accounting and finance talent
They’ve mastered remote hiring and can place talent quickly for consulting gigs
Useful tools like infographics, salary calculators, and white papers to support clients
Non-transparent pricing or rates
U.S.-based, not global
Niched executive placement firm doesn’t cover all types of executive roles (IT/HR)
Parker Lynch has talent in their database from across the U.S. with experience as CFOs, controllers, auditors, and tax specialists, and focuses exclusively at the executive level. It places finance executives across industries, including real estate, manufacturing, retail, telecom, energy, and IT.
Their value-added resources include salary guides, white papers, economic reports, and more. For instance, you can find a document that explains outsourcing or one that helps you with your firms’ succession planning.
Parker Lynch doesn’t disclose their prices online. Instead, you will schedule a meeting with an executive recruiter who works to understand your executive hiring needs, review the job description, and match you with existing top finance or accounting talent. Or, they will contract with you to do a retained search.
Parker Lynch is rated highly by clients and executive recruitment industry groups. Online reviews from their staff about the company are generally positive; however, a few recruiters have complained that the high-commission sales environment is cutthroat.
Best for Legal/Lawyers : Heidrick and Struggles
Why We Chose It: Heidrick and Struggles focus on compliance functions including legal compliance and executive attorney placements, and they also have a database of talent that includes executive experts in finance and HR and they can assist your business with executive search and consultant assignments.
Dedicated to Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)
Thorough candidate assessments using a Leadership Assessment Questionnaire
A large existing list of vetted experts across the globe
The sales process may strive to steer you toward consulting services
It may not suffice as a broad, one-stop-shop executive recruitment firm
Heidrick and Struggles casts a wide net, making it easy for candidates to submit their resume via email, and the company participates in numerous industry groups in support of female executives (Catalyst) and non-traditional candidates. For example, in 2019 only 5% of global firms were led by a female CEO. And to ensure only top-talent, they use a proprietary assessment tool. Unlike firms like Korn Ferry, Heidrick and Struggles will assist in hiring executive talent that earns less than $100,000 per year, such as a director or VP-level candidate in a smaller firm or startup.
To get started with Heidrick and Struggles, you can contact them directly by filling out a form on the website or you can call. Unlike larger firms like Korn Ferry, a real person will answer the phone and direct you to the right team member who can assist you in starting your executive search. It’s a personable process that allows you to talk with someone about the recruiting process, not just fill out an online form and wait.
Heidrick and Struggles have almost 2,000 team members in nearly 50 offices across five continents. It focuses on CEO-level candidates, typically ages 50 or older, who have the legal and executive experience to manage the day-to-day requirements of your firm. They ensure executives bring with them the environmental, social, and government savvy required to lead.
Best Boutique Firm : JMJ Phillip
Why We Chose It: JMJ Phillip is a boutique executive search firm that offers rapid placement services in addition to retained executive search, contingent recruiting, and discreet search projects. They also provide a strategic search advisory service to help companies maximize their talent acquisition activities.
Six U.S. offices offering executive search across all business functions
Retained search, contingent search, and rapid placement services
Perfect for confidential and discreet executive search
Fewer top executives are aware of JMJ Phillip
Newer company as compared to more established executive search firms
JMJ Phillips serves multiple industry segments including manufacturing, engineering, technology, industrial supply chain, and more. They have several U.S. offices located in cities including New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, and Chicago.
The discreet retained executive search service is one of the talent acquisition services they offer that makes them unique. For example, if you need a top-tier executive quickly and discreetly, you can contact for a retained search rather than making your search public to multiple firms on a contingent basis. This may be appropriate in a highly competitive environment like hiring top-tier talent in the consumer goods industry.
JMJ Phillip can also assist with succession planning helping you evaluate your internal executive candidate pool to determine who next to promote to the C-suite. Plus, they can place interim executives to ensure business continuity in case a key player leaves the firm.
JMJ Phillip’s executive search process focuses on cultural fit as well as helps your company reach its diversity and inclusion goals. JMJ Phillip is highly rated by its employees as a great place to work.
Best for Marketing Leaders : Heyman & Associates
Why We Chose It: Heyman and Associates focus exclusively on executive placement for the communications and marketing industry, has worked with over 50% of Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 companies, and supports placements in the U.S. as well as partners with firms globally to find international marketing executives.
Niche firm dedicated to communications, PR, and marketing executives
Client base includes brands like Anheuser-Busch, JetBlue, and Hewlett Packard
40% of executive placements are diverse candidates
Few local offices
Less than two dozen recruiters
Director level and above placements only
Heyman and Associates have deep knowledge of the communications and marketing industry, across multiple industries. They thoroughly vet candidates, not just for skills like writing and results management, but for intangible skills like personality traits required in media relations, public affairs, or internal communications roles. They’re also experts in branding, digital, and influencer marketing, providing both executive search and advisory services.
What makes Heyman and Associates unique is that they focus on executive search, and they focus on a very specific niche-marketing. That means you’re not working with a generalist recruiter trying to explain what SEO means when reviewing the job description for the CMO you’re hoping to hire.
Heyman and Associates employees rate the firm five out of five stars on multiple online company review sites, demonstrating that it’s a great place to work and that the company lives its values. Similarly, it’s top-rated across executive search firms.
Best Low-Cost Firm : The Ladders
Why We Chose It: The Ladders is an outlier in that it specializes in helping companies find executive talent. It also serves as a recruiting job board on which job-hunting executives can post their resumes and apply for senior positions. As an employer, you can search candidate resumes for exactly the skills your firm requires.
Low cost. And there’s no charge for executives to upload their resumes
It’s the same site many recruitment firms use to find executive talent for you
You pay a small fee relative to a full-service executive recruitment firm
No retained search
You need to manage the applicant screening and interview process
There may be under-qualified candidates you’ll need to weed out
Using The Ladders for your executive recruiting requires a trade-off. You’ll save money since you can sign up for free, with the ability to post up to 10 executive jobs and view up to 10 candidate resumes per month. You may even end up hiring the same talent an executive recruiter will bring you. However, the screening and selection process will be on you, without the advantage of an executive recruiter to help you screen out non-qualified candidates.
Many competitive executive search firms subscribe to job boards like The Ladders to access a searchable executive talent pool, as most of The Ladders resumes are for individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher (90%) and 15 years of work experience. As an employer, you can search The Ladders for executives by city, job title, name, or specialty.
The Ladders’ paid plans cost from $149 to $499 per month. Paid subscriptions give you access to search pre-screened candidates and contact them directly. To search for a qualified executive, you’ll first choose the Experts tab at the top of the website, and drill down by industry and location until you’re provided with a list of senior candidates that meet your criteria.
Using a site like The Ladders, you’ll want to supplement your job search with a background check, especially if it’s for a business-critical role like IT or finance in which you need to ensure your shareholders and clients that your leadership team is solid.
Best International Firm : N2Growth
Why We Chose It: N2Growth is a fast-growing startup executive search firm that offers two other services: business transformation and leadership development.
Innovation, such as cutting-edge technology to manage your talent pipeline
Commitment to diversity
High executive placement retention rate
N2Growth Lacks breadth across industries such as healthcare
Smaller agency with fewer recruiters than other international firms
N2Growth offers global executive search across industries as varied as healthcare, financial services, government, and agriculture. This executive search firm boasts a 92% customer engagement score as a 92% placement retention rate. The high executive retention rate ensures you’ll have less costly turnover.
N2Growth earns top marks from business magazines and earns five out of five-star ratings from their recruiters and staff. They employ hundreds of recruiters who operate multiple offices across the U.S., Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In addition, they’re on-trend with modern assessments, cutting-edge technology, use of social media, and diversity effort.
While N2Growth’s retained search pricing is not posted online, it offers this statement, “N2Growth also uses a bespoke pricing model that offers a variety of engagement options to accommodate virtually any company,” which seems to imply they will work with you on pricing.
Best for Fractional Executives : Cerius
Why We Chose It: We chose Cerius because it fills a niche in the executive search industry by filling executive positions on a short-term basis. Cerius focuses on the placement of experienced executives for interim roles, part-time or fractional roles, or project-based executive positions.
Fills a gap in executive placement for short-term, project, and fractional leadership
Builds strong relationships with executives able to fill roles quickly
Only one U.S.-based office
Businesses don’t always understand what an interim executive can provide
Often, companies in transition need to fill executive positions quickly. Cerius bridges the gap between full executive placement and filling an open C-suite or board position with a “rent-an-exec” for a period of time until a more permanent placement can be made. This also offers your company a “try-before-you-buy” approach to screen and select a top-caliber leader.
Cerius can place executives across multiple industries including automotive, technology, healthcare, services, construction, and more. They focus on functional executives and CEOs across all the common business disciplines. They can also help you find a board advisor quickly.
Unlike a traditional executive placement firm, Cerius maintains relationships with thousands of top executives and consultants who can fill the position quickly. They can step in and help turn your business around and keep operations running while a key executive is in transition, such as on maternity or medical leave.
While pricing isn’t transparent, it may be negotiable with Cerius. For example, we found one statement of work listing 20% of the first-year salary fee for a government client. Otherwise, it’s best to assume Cerius follows the industry standard for placement fees in the 30%-33% range.
The best executive search firm for your business is the one that brings you top talent quickly. It may not be the least expensive but instead should have recruiters with expertise in your industry and in the leadership skills you need across specific disciplines like finance, marketing, or consumer goods manufacturing.
All of the options on our list are solid choices depending on your needs and budget, but a good place to start is with Korn Ferry, our selection for best overall due to its robust services, wide scope of industries it recruits for, and extra services offered.
|Best Executive Search Firm|
|Company Name||Category||Services & Scale||Recruitment Fees|
|Korn Ferry||Best Overall||7,000 recruiters provide retained & contingent search||40% of first-year salary and $100,000 minimum|
|Parker Lynch||Best for Finance Executives||Recruiters offer executive and passive search in 30 states||Custom pricing, must contact company|
|Heidrick and Struggles||Best for Legal/Lawyers||Thousands of executive recruiters in five continents provide search services||Custom pricing, must contact company|
|JMJ Phillip||Best Boutique Firm||100+ recruiters, seven U.S. offices for retained, contingent, discreet, and rapid placements||Custom pricing, must contact company|
|Heyman & Associates||Best for Marketing Leaders||Two U.S. recruitment offices offer executive searches||Custom pricing, must contact company|
|The Ladders||Best Low-Cost Firm||Thousands of qualified executives in a searchable database||Subscription model that runs $149 to $499 per month|
|N2Growth||Best International Firm||Hundreds of global recruiters search for board and C-suite executives||Custom pricing, must contact company|
|Cerius||Best for Fractional Executives||One location with 2,500+ top qualified executives||Not available, but can assume industry-standard 30%-33% range|
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is an Executive Search Firm?
An executive search firm is a kind of recruitment agency that focuses on finding candidates for executive placements for a fee. Businesses hire an executive search firm when they have a management or leadership job opening and need to cast a wide net, beyond the candidates they can find on their own.
Often, an executive search firm keeps the job search confidential so that existing company employees are not alerted. These candidate searches are considered a “retained search” meaning that once the executive search firm finds a candidate that is selected (hired) by the company, the company pays a fee.
What Does an Executive Search Firm Cost?
Historically, executive search firms charged approximately 33%. The amount of the fee is determined upfront in a written contract or agreement and ranges from 30% to 40% of the hired executive's first-year salary.
You may pay more for special services such as executive candidate assessments, interview travel, or retainers. For example, let’s say your firm wishes to retain an executive search firm exclusively to do a confidential search for a new CFO without alerting your existing CFO of your plan; you may pay extra for that discretion.
The level of confidentiality or the urgency of filling the position may warrant a higher rate. In some cases, executive search firms, like Korn Ferry, set a minimum of $100,000 for an executive search.
How Do I Choose an Executive Search Firm?
It’s best to choose an executive search firm with experience in finding top talent in your industry and the type of executive skills needed. For instance, a biomedical facility needs an executive search firm specializing in medical professionals, whereas a food manufacturing facility may need an executive search firm specializing in finding top culinary or R&D executives.
Additionally, you may have good luck with a local or regional executive search firm, or a top firm that has a local presence as often top executives prefer to remain in a particular geographic area. For example, if you’re looking for a software sales executive for your Chicago-based company, you’ll want to work with an executive search firm with a database of top talent in the greater Chicago area, as talent in LA or NY may not wish to relocate to Chicago.
How Do Executive Search Firms Work?
Executive search firms work by gathering resumes of top talented executives. Some specialize in a particular industry like international business or the energy sector and may specialize in executive job functions like human resources or finance.
Executive search firms follow similar steps when helping a company find top talent:
- Identify the talent/skills/industry/geographic area for the executive job opening
- Sign a contract (retainer) in which you agree on terms, price, and fee payment schedule
- Search their executive talent database and reach out to (recruit) top executives to apply
- Screen and interview the executive talent for you, saving you time and money
- Present the top candidates for you to choose from; you hire one
- Bill you, often in increments, based on milestones: date hired, six months, one year
How Do Executive Search Firms Make Money
Executive search firms make money on a commission basis, meaning they get paid when they place a candidate with your firm. The best executive search firms want you to be satisfied with talent that stays on the job and performs to your expectations.
Therefore, they often tie their billing to specific milestones, such as 33% paid upfront upon candidate hire, 33% paid once the candidate successfully reaches the six-month milestone, and the remainder once the candidate reaches their first anniversary. That ensures their business clients don’t get stuck paying full commissions on executive talent that doesn’t work out.
Contrary to what many executive job seekers think, executive search firms don’t receive any benefit from random candidates contacting them. In fact, it’s a distraction. The executive search firm doesn’t work for the candidates. They’re not paid by the candidates. Any search firm that charges candidates to be part of their talent database is likely to be a scam.
How Does an Executive Search Firm Differ From a Headhunter?
Headhunter is slang for anyone who does recruiting for a living, getting paid for finding and placing talent with a firm. An executive search firm is a recruitment firm focused on finding top skilled executive candidates to fill important senior positions. They’re not simply looking for heads.
Do Executives Seeking Jobs Pay to Join an Executive Search Firm’s Database?
The short answer is no. Reputable executive search firms are paid by businesses and companies hoping to find top talent; it’s to their advantage to make it easy for top executives to submit online applications and upload their resumes.
Any executive placement firm that charges a candidate to be included in the talent database is likely to be sketchy at best. However, there are employment firms and job placement companies that charge a fee to help job seekers find work, improve resume writing, or network to expand their reach. Those are outside the scope of this article.
To pick our top choices for best executive search firms, we looked at several factors such as company reputation from external clients’ and internal recruiters’ points of view, the type of executive search (retained vs. contingency) each firm offers, and factors such as firms with a focus on diversity and inclusion and the kinds of pre-employment assessments they provide. We also consider locations and the number of offices owned by each firm.
All of the executive search firms on our list offer a variety of services within broad and niche industries, have solid track records of placing executives in roles, and are available throughout the U.S.