What forms the basis of any science, such as astronomy or chemistry? A body of knowledge, of course. As there is a lot to learn about recruiters and executive search firms, they also happen to be a science in themselves, with many “elements.” If you’re an executive looking for a new opportunity, read on to learn about the different types of search firms and what they do, plus what they look for and expect from C-level candidates.

Element 1: What do search firms do, anyway?

Recruiters and search firms find a successful candidate for a chosen role, and there’s a lot that goes into that. The firm may draft the job description; develop a short list of candidates for the firm; assess the candidates for a cultural fit with the hiring organization; and share the final candidates for the job with their client.

Element 2: Are all search firms the same?

In a word, no! Search firms fall into one of two categories – contingency and retained search.  And choosing one isn’t all that different from chemistry —you need the right “materials” or firm for the correct result.

Contingency firms typically place lower to mid-level roles They are paid a percentage of the successful candidate’s salary upon his/her hiring. Because they work in a wide variety of industries, their knowledge tends to be broad rather than deep — so they may or may not have in-depth knowledge about your industry.

Also, as contingency firms don’t sign exclusive agreements with clients, any given client could be working with several contingency firms at once. This allows the potential for your resume to be “spread around” without your knowledge or approval

Retained executive search firms fill rarely-advertised executive-level positions in the “hidden job market.” Companies engage these firms to get these crucial hires right. The executive search firms seek candidates through extensive networking and screening. This involved process is worthwhile to them, because they have an exclusive relationship with the client organization for a certain amount of time. They’ll be paid a certain percentage (often one-third) of the role’s salary by the firm, whether the organization hires the candidate.

Retained firms are paid this way because they take time to get to know candidates, and relay specific knowledge about the company and the industry to them. They have the low-down on the company culture and can screen candidates for a cultural fit while sharing information with them.

Element 3: What do search firms want (and expect) from you?

In a word, firms want candidates to show leadership. These firms look for career progression, innovative and original thinking, presentation skills and functional experience. Communication skills are crucial — you should be able to clearly state how you would add value to your prospective team. Successful candidates should be active on LinkedIn, too.

The firms fully expect that you will have done your homework on both the hiring organization and search firm. As a candidate, you should ask relevant questions about the job when you interact with the firm. And as an executive, an understanding of the search process helps your career strategy.

Next month: How to choose and network with an executive search firm.