Meet the Matchmakers: Headhunters, Recruiters and Coaches

Navigating the world of recruiting can be downright confusing. Constantly, I’m asked to explain the difference between a recruiter, headhunter, contingency search, retained search, career coaching, transition coaching, leadership coaching and their value. In simplest terms, each role serves specific functions in the business of employing and managing talent. Recruiters play matchmaker by sourcing talent to fill a position. The intention is that by matching the best candidate with the right company fulfills the interest of both talent and company. Traditionally, the main focus of recruitment has been meeting needs of their client who is the company, not the talent.

In recent years, this business has begun to evolve into a new model. As we make the move from classic recruiter to human capital developer, this evolving model incorporates headhunting with coaching to expand and deepen the client/talent relationship beyond the hiring phase. It’s the key factors differentiating for Forward, as well as a handful of other companies. It is a growing trend that meets a real need in the landscape of human capital and as a result contributes greater value to the process of talent of development and procurement.

To start here’s a breakdown of the different types of traditional recruiters:

Internal Recruiters:

Internal recruiters are full time employees within the human resources department. The internal recruiter and hiring /manager work independently of a recruiter or an Executive Search firm. They rarely accept unsolicited resumes from agencies. When the internal team needs to fill talent pipelines, they may contract as many as ten external recruiters on a contingency basis to help with sourcing talent for a search, or hire a retained search recruiter/headhunter to fill specific hard to find or senior talent.

Contingency Search Recruiters:

On a contingency search, external recruiters work to fill multiple positions for companies. They are contracted by the company seeking to fill the position and may work in tandem with the company’s HR department that is also performing a search for the role. In this scenario, the company doing the hiring is casting as wide a net as possible to find the best person. These types of searches are usually conducted for middle management positions. It is also why you will almost never see a job advert for a CEO for XYZ Company. Contingency recruiters tend to be used by organisations wanting a big pipeline of talent for internal HR to manage.

Recruiters are in the business of placing the most qualified people in jobs. They do not work with talent to help them improve their chances of getting a position or coach them through the hiring process. It’s not part of their job. At the end of the day, most recruiters are ploughing through a large number of resumes to find a select few. It’s part of the reason you will not get feedback if you submit for a position, and the recruiter does not see you as qualified. You are one among hundreds, maybe thousands of applicants. Most of these searches yield a huge pool of resumes/CV’s, which must then be sorted, screened and refined into a manageable list.

Retained Search Recruiters:

Retained search recruiters or executive search firms are often referred to as “headhunters.” Retained search is used for hard to find talent as well as high-level critical positions where thorough search, selection and presentation of qualified candidates are presented for the job that will match the culture and expectations of the role closely.

A business partner oriented headhunter works closely with the company defining and refining the role, gaining an understanding of the specific hard and soft skills needed, as well as the best fit for the culture and vision for the organisation.  She then performs a targeted search that may or may never involve the company publicly announcing the role. For the client this is an end-to-end service and headhunters serve their clients at the highest level.

In a retained search, the headhunter will bring to the company a targeted short list of ten to five candidates who are all highly qualified for the position, thoroughly vetted, pre-screened, and most likely fully employed. The employer is then able to pick the best match from the short list. It’s is the most refined form of search used for senior level positions. In a retained search, a recruiter is exclusively commissioned to find the best candidate for a specific role.

Emerging is the hybrid Coach/Headhunter model:

Beginning to emerge is the coach/retained search headhunter.  It’s a completely different breed of recruiters. They can be found working with large digital organisations in Silicon Valley and I’ve also seen them in Germany.

They provide two functions:  Serving the client end-to-end with First 90 Days coaching.  But the new aspect for talent is that these same recruiters can wear a different professional hat as a Career Coach to support talent in building their personal brand, searching the hidden market and representing themselves. They coach talent from the beginning of the job search through the first 90-days in the position, which greatly improves talent’s likelihood of long-term success.

A career coach works directly with talent in their career exploration and provides active support to talent through each stage of the job search process including identifying what companies to target, managing headhunters, personal branding and aligning your image with the roles you want to move into, as well as interview training and negotiation management. This journey can take anywhere from three to six months. It is by far the strongest method to find solutions to every job search challenge that comes up. When retained by talent, these coaches become an effective secret weapon to quickly achieve career objectives.

While many people grow frustrated with recruiters and the recruitment model, it is important to remember that in most cases they are not hired to develop talent. They are hired to source talent, and there is a big difference between the two roles. It is changing – and FORWARD is part of that change. For organisations, we apply a Coach Approach Talent Acquisition model, which requires receiving a deep briefing of the opportunity and the challenge. This process enables us to fully brief candidates on the role. We focus on building not only the brand experience for the company, but also the candidate experience.

We work with human resources departments where they not only source for talent but also actually develop talent, as soon as talent is hired. Many companies are creating their own internal universities, implementing mentorship programs, hiring internal leadership coaches and retaining external coaches in order to work with personnel to help them develop both hard and soft skills to succeed. This development signifies an important shift in the role and function of the world of recruiting. It is a trend that will significantly increase over the next five years.


A few years ago, a Forbes article by headhunter, Jorg Stegemann, outlined some of the questionable practices recruiters can engage in while sourcing for talent. The article emphasized the importance of talent taking responsibility for his own job search because “no one will care about your career more than you.” This piece reveals the challenge the industry faces and reveals the bottom line for talent. So ask yourself the question – just how important is your career and what do you need to do to create success?  And for companies, ask yourselves ‘What kind of talent acquisition partner do you want to represent your employer brand?’

Human capital development supports career development by individually working with talent on developing both hard and soft skills. It’s the move toward creating a personalized and customized experience for talent that in the end raises performance and achievement levels.  It fills in the gap that up till now has been the source of much conflict. Since the 90s, I’ve experienced this ongoing conflict with both hiring and managing talent. It’s this wonderful conflict that created the business model for FORWARD – a human capital solutions recruitment style organisation that provides career coaching services for talent and dedicated talent acquisition services with first 90 days coaching and team coaching for companies.  It supports human capital development, not just recruitment, and represents the next incarnation of the industry. It’s our calling to support talent and clients, in digital.

Caroline Stokes is founder of FORWARD Human Capital Solutions.  FORWARD does things differently for people in digital organisations who demand inspiring talent solutions for transformative results.

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