Back to blogs
Blog Img

Guide to Executive Search: Types and Benefits

In the competitive world of talent acquisition, securing the right executive-level talent is essential. Whether you're targeting candidates actively seeking new roles or those passively considering opportunities, executive search firms are invaluable strategic partners. But what does 'Executive Search' really entail, and how can it improve your hiring process? This comprehensive guide explores the intricacies of executive search, detailing its various types, the benefits it offers, and its fee structures. Learn how partnering with an executive search firm not only streamlines your hiring process but also ensures the acquisition of industry-leading talent, thereby saving valuable time and resources for your business.

What is Executive Search?

Definition of Executive Search

Executive search, commonly known as "headhunting" or "scouting," is a specialized recruitment process aimed at attracting highly qualified mid-to-senior level professionals from outside a client's organization. This strategy is critical for filling key roles such as business leaders and selecting individuals with the essential skills and expertise necessary for organizational success.

Differing from traditional recruitment, executive search targets passive candidates, those not actively looking for new roles, using strategic methods to present attractive new opportunities. This includes rigorous screening and providing support after placement to ensure a suitable match for each critical position.

Agencies offering this specialized service are typically referred to as "executive search firms". In Japan, similar services might be known under terms like "recruitment company" or "headhunting firm", which are more familiar to HR representatives and others in the industry.

Advantages of Utilizing Executive Search Services

Executive search services offer a unique opportunity to identify and attract elusive talent that aligns with specific hiring needs. Despite higher costs compared to general job search portals, the strategic value of these services justifies the investment for many businesses. Key reasons for choosing executive search include:

  • Confidentiality Assurance: Executive search ensures confidentiality, unlike public job postings that expose the hiring company's details and open positions. This is crucial when needing discretion, such as replacing an internal incumbent or safeguarding sensitive business strategies.

  • Access to Top-Tier Mid-to-Senior Level Talent: These services specialize in connecting with passive candidates for impactful mid-to-senior roles. Executive search firms excel in evaluating candidates' leadership potential, ensuring a fit not only in terms of skills and experience but also in leadership qualities and compatibility with existing management teams. This approach often yields more effective results than merely listing leadership vacancies on job boards.

  • Building Long-Term Success: Particularly valuable for start-ups or global firms entering new markets, like Japan, executive search firms offer comprehensive solutions. They begin with an in-depth analysis of a client’s business goals and challenges, followed by extensive market research. This partnership, leveraging the firm’s industry-wide expertise, is instrumental in driving long-term business success in new markets.

Scope of Executive Search: Targeted Positions

Executive search is a specialized recruitment consultancy adept at sourcing ideal candidates for key mid-to-senior management roles. This includes C-level positions, such as CEO, CFO, COO (collectively known as the 'C-suite'), and industry-specific specialists. The focus extends to a variety of pivotal roles including Chief X Officers (CXOs) – denoting various executive functions, country managers, heads of business units, directors, senior managers, and professionals with niche skills in legal, engineering, research & development, among others.

The Evolution of Executive Search in Japan

Originating in the United States, Executive Search is a recruitment service that has evolved significantly in Japan. Initially adopted to fill specific roles for international companies, it has since become a widely recognized and efficient method for successful talent placement across diverse industries and organizations. In Japan, this approach to recruitment is now well-established, with a growing acceptance among candidates. Many highly skilled professionals in the Japanese market are increasingly receptive to opportunities presented by executive search firms, marking a significant shift in the recruitment landscape.

Discover Executive Search Solutions

The Rising Prominence of Executive Search in Japan

This section explores the factors contributing to the growing recognition of executive search as an effective solution for Japan's unique recruitment challenges.

Intensifying Competition for Top Talent

As Japan's workforce shrinks and companies increasingly globalize, the competition for skilled and experienced talent intensifies. Companies are more frequently looking beyond their internal talent pools, leading to a heightened demand for scarce, high-caliber professionals who meet specific role requirements.

Shifts in Employment Trends

Traditionally conservative, the Japanese job market is seeing a shift with more professionals seeking new opportunities for career advancement outside their current organizations. This trend challenges companies to attract and retain young talent for long-term managerial roles.

Dynamic Business Environment

Japan's business landscape has undergone significant changes, including rapid digital transformation, increased globalization, and a surge in startups entering the market. Organizations now require top talent with specialized skills and extensive experience, such as digital transformation (DX) experts, who are scarce in the traditional job market.

These dynamics underscore the importance of executive search services for sourcing senior leaders and specialists from outside the organization, complementing internal employee development strategies.

Diverse Approaches in Headhunting

Registration Method (For Staff-to-Mid Level Roles)

In Japan, 'Registration' is a prevalent recruiting method used by agencies to connect candidates with companies. This process starts with candidates registering on the agency’s website, providing details like their job position, career history, skills, and experience. Agencies then match these candidates with suitable roles in companies. While effective for staff to mid-level positions, it's important to note that the talent pool for this method may be limited for higher-level roles.

Search/Scout Method (For Mid-to-Senior Level Roles)

The 'Search' or 'Scout' method takes a more proactive stance in headhunting. Unlike the passive 'Registration' approach, this method involves recruiters actively reaching out to potential candidates, even those not actively seeking new opportunities. They utilize extensive networks, including industry journals, HR databases, referrals, and social media platforms like LinkedIn, to identify ideal candidates. This approach is especially effective for filling mid-to-senior level positions, where the talent pool is less accessible through traditional recruitment methods.

Key Advantages of Executive Search Services

Executive search services provide several critical benefits, particularly in recruiting mid-to-senior level professionals:

Time Efficiency in Recruitment

Identifying the right candidate, especially for leadership roles integral to company culture and organizational goals, is challenging due to a limited talent pool. The executive search process streamlines this by starting with a detailed discussion of the position's requirements and the ideal candidate profile. By focusing resources on a targeted candidate pool, executive search significantly reduces the time spent on screening and interviewing, accelerating the hiring process. Moreover, a thorough assessment of candidates from various angles ensures the selection of the most suitable professionals, aligning precisely with the company's specific needs, even for hard-to-fill roles.

Finding Hidden Talent Through Executive Search

Unlike general recruitment agencies that primarily source candidates from job seeker registrations on their platforms, executive search firms excel in identifying exceptional talent not actively present in the job market. These firms employ specialized headhunting techniques, leveraging a comprehensive database and an extensive referral network. A key strength of executive searches lies in their ability to connect with passive candidates—those with the ideal experience and skill set tailored to meet specific client needs, who are not necessarily seeking new positions. Executive search firms proactively engage with these candidates and skillfully manage negotiations, often leading to successful placements that align precisely with the client's requirements.

Minimizing Hiring Mismatches with Executive Search

In recruitment, mismatches between the candidate and the role can significantly impact both financial and moral aspects of an organization. The executive search process addresses this challenge by conducting thorough candidate screenings before presenting CVs to clients. This approach significantly reduces the likelihood of hiring mismatches. During the screening process, detailed information about each candidate's experience, strengths, and weaknesses is gathered and shared with the client. This comprehensive evaluation ensures a higher probability of matching the right candidate to the right role, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of the hiring process.

Key Considerations for Utilizing Executive Search Services

Opting for executive search can be highly effective for sourcing ideal candidates. However, it's important to consider certain aspects to ensure it aligns with your recruitment strategy:

Cost Implications of Executive Search

While executive search is a powerful tool for accessing rare talent, it typically incurs higher costs than traditional hiring methods. The fees can increase with the scarcity of the targeted talent. Additional expenses such as market research, talent mapping, and consulting might also be part of the cost structure, beyond the contingency fee. Despite these costs, the investment in executive search is often justified by the timely acquisition of specialized talent not readily available through other channels.

Comparatively, contingency search methods charge only upon successful candidate placement. It is advisable to weigh the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of executive search against the resources required for internal recruitment processes to make an informed decision.

Specialization Variations Among Executive Search Firms

Selecting the right executive search firm, one that aligns perfectly with your specific needs, is essential. Different agencies possess unique strengths, including exclusive networks of referrals and extensive databases to identify top talent. Many also specialize in particular functions or industries.

When evaluating potential firms, it’s important to consider not just their search options and fee structures, but also how their areas of specialization and track record of achievements align with your organization's needs. This ensures a search that is precisely tailored to your requirements. Choosing a firm that aligns well with your objectives significantly increases the likelihood of efficient and successful talent placements.

Distinctive Qualities of Executive Search Firms

This section explores the unique attributes that set executive search firms apart:

Skilled in Information Gathering

Top-tier executive search firms excel in meticulously gathering information about potential candidates. They employ specialized professionals like headhunters and researchers. Headhunters utilize their extensive professional networks to identify, screen, and engage with prospective candidates. Researchers, on the other hand, focus on crafting strategic search plans to pinpoint companies and roles that align with the talent search. This precision in information gathering and strategic targeting is key to securing placements of highly coveted candidates.

Proficiency in Candidate Negotiation

Executive search firms excel in negotiating with candidates, especially those satisfied in their current roles and not actively seeking new opportunities. These negotiations begin after aligning the project's management and client perspectives. Firms engage with candidates through calls and emails, skillfully communicating the appeal of the new role and the hiring company. This process involves building trust, negotiating interview opportunities, and, ultimately, the terms of an offer, demonstrating the firm's adeptness in engaging passive candidates.

Precision in Candidate Screening

Top executive search headhunters are adept at screening candidates to ensure an ideal match for specific roles. This process involves a comprehensive assessment of each candidate's qualifications, alignment with the role's requirements, and compatibility with the organization's management team. The thoroughness of this screening significantly reduces the likelihood of mismatches, saving time and resources for all parties involved. The headhunters' specialized skills are crucial in aligning candidate profiles with the client's needs.

Expertise in Successful Candidate Placement

Executive search firms bring unique expertise in information gathering and negotiation, crucial for filling challenging positions. Their specialized approach ensures that candidates not only meet the job requirements but also fit the organizational culture and ethos. At Apex, for example, each candidate undergoes a rigorous 7-point checklist evaluation to ascertain their suitability for both the role and the company. This meticulous process positions Apex as a highly regarded executive search firm in Japan, known for making precise matches that drive organizational success.

Executive Search Hiring Options and Cost Structure at Apex

Contingency Search Model

Contingency search at Apex encompasses a wide array of search types, unified by a singular payment structure: fees are incurred only upon the successful placement of a candidate within your organization. You will be invoiced once the candidate commences their role. This model allows for broad promotion of the search across various channels, including Apex’s website, job boards, and social media platforms.

Pros and Cons of Contingency Search

Pros: Fees are charged only after successful candidate placement.

Cons: Managing a high volume of CVs from different agencies can be complex.

Ideal Scenarios for Contingency Search

​✓ Best suited for non-confidential roles where quick hiring is essential.

​✓ Typically used for non-managerial positions.

​✓ Ideal when broad market access and a large applicant pool are required.

​✓ Optimal for clients with internal HR or applicant screening capabilities to manage the search process effectively.

Retained Search Model

Retained search at Apex encompasses a comprehensive process, including market mapping, candidate search, selection, and onboarding support. This approach is facilitated by a dedicated team comprising consultants, project managers, and researchers. Tailored to meet specific client needs, the search follows a three-tiered goalpost framework, adaptable to your unique requirements. Billing occurs after the achievement of each goalpost, with invoices issued for approximately one-third of the agreed-upon rate at each stage. Optimal for fostering business growth, retained search focuses on finding candidates that align with your long-term business strategies and specific needs.

Pros and Cons of Retained Search

Pros: Offers thorough market mapping and insights into competitors.

Cons: The search process is continuous and cannot be easily paused until successful placement.

Ideal Scenarios for Retained Search

​✓ Best suited for high-stakes positions like C-level roles and key stakeholders within the organization, such as CEOs, heads of sales, and country managers.

​✓ Effective for highly specialized roles in niche markets, like a medical director in the pharmaceutical sector.

​✓ Recommended for situations requiring utmost confidentiality, such as executive replacements.

​✓ Appropriate for roles that demand extensive market mapping for informed decision-making in recruitment.

Comparison between Contingency Search and Retained Search​​

Contingency Search

Retained Search





Number of Targeted Candidates 

Very small

Except senior roles


Senior roles/Specialists

Exclusive Contingency Search: A Hybrid Approach

The Exclusive Contingency Search model at Apex skillfully merges elements of retained search with the fee structure of contingency search. In this model, fees are incurred only upon the successful placement of a candidate within your organization. Clients receive a single invoice when the candidate starts their employment. This search method, exclusively conducted by Apex, offers an exclusivity period set at the outset of the agreement, with variable duration. While typically not promoted on our website, job boards, or social media, there may be exceptions. This approach enables clients to assess different executive search firms before committing to one.

Ideal Scenarios for Exclusive Contingency Search

✓ Prioritizes 'Quality over Quantity' in the recruitment process.

✓ Well-suited for management-level or higher positions, especially those requiring confidentiality.

✓ Optimal for confidential searches or those in early planning stages.

✓ Designed for engagements demanding a deep partnership level and rigorous candidate screening, ensuring candidates meet the highest quality standards and align closely with the client's specific needs.

Apex's Executive Search Solutions

What sets Apex's executive search services apart is the emphasis on quality and a track record of significant achievements. Apex has successfully assisted over 10,000 domestic and international companies, ranging from top global brands to emerging startups in the Japanese market. This diverse client base reflects Apex's competitive edge and industry leadership.

The commitment to prioritizing "quality over quantity" has been fundamental to Apex's growth and success. Each candidate is evaluated alongside a 7-point checklist, ensuring a perfect fit for both the role and the company's culture. Apex offers specialized recruitment support across 10 key industries, facilitating the placement of bilingual and global talent from mid-to-senior management up to C-level positions.

Industries Served by Apex


Examples of Searchable Positions


Clinical Development, Regulatory Affairs, Medical, Drug Discovery, Quality, Commercial, Business Development, etc.

Legal and Compliance

Compliance, Intellectual Property/Patent, Legal, Internal Control/Audit, M&A, IR, etc.

Medical Devices and HealthTech

Regulatory Affairs, Quality, R&D, Business Development, Commercial, Engineering, etc.


Consulting, Business Development, Marketing, Customer Success, Sales, IT Engineers, etc.

Life Science and Diagnostics

Applications, Business Development, R&D, Quality, Marketing, Commercial Excellence, etc.

Human Resources and General Affairs

HR (Human Resources), HRBP, General Affairs, Talent Acquisition, etc.

Finance and Accounting

Finance, FP&A, Accounting, Taxation, etc.

Supply Chain and Procurement

Supply Chain (SCM), Procurement, Operations, etc.


Marketing, Public Relations (PR), Sales, Business Development, etc.

Banking and Financial Services

Stocks, Bonds, Foreign Exchange, etc.

Why Apex is the Preferred Partner for Global Companies

Interview Rate: 54% of candidates introduced by Apex receive interview requests.

Speed of Placement: 65% of placements are successfully completed within 60 days.

Retention Rate: 98.9% of candidates placed by Apex remain with their new employers for over 3 months.

The Executive Search Process at Apex

At Apex, the executive search process is a meticulously crafted journey, encompassing seven key steps to place top-tier bilingual and global talents in senior roles, including C-level positions across various industries. The stages are:

  1. Kickoff Meeting: Establishing the search criteria and objectives.

  2. Identifying Target Candidates: Pinpointing potential candidates suited for the role.

  3. Meeting with Candidates: Apex’s direct engagement with identified candidates.

  4. Facilitating Interviews: Managing the interview process between candidates and the client.

  5. Offer Negotiation: Handling the discussions around compensation and terms of employment.

  6. Candidate Resignation: Assisting in the transition from their current position.

  7. Ongoing Assistance: Providing continuous support post-placement.

For more information on each step, please visit the Executive Search in Japan page on our website. If you would like to know more about our services, please feel free to contact us by clicking the button below.

Contact Apex for Executive Search Process Insights

Successful Hiring Case Studies

We will share three case studies demonstrating our proficiency in securing top talent through our executive search services.

Successful Hiring Case Study 1

Position: HR Manager, Global Apparel Brand

Requests and Challenges

  • Prefer an experienced HR Business Partner (HRBP) from a global retailer

  • Proficiency in business-level English and ability to contribute regional HR insights

  • Availability for regular business travel to U.S. headquarters.

Time Elapsed

20 days

Candidates Reached

3 candidates

Candidates Introduced to Client

2 candidates

Candidates Interviewed

1 candidate

Successful Hiring Case Study 2

Position: APAC Associate Director of Market Access, Global Specialty Pharmaceutical Company

Requests and Challenges

  • Limited candidate pool with nuanced needs in market access and pricing expertise

  • Requirement for a high-profile candidate fluent in English with cross-functional experience in the APAC region

  • Stringent requirements making the ideal candidate search challenging

Time Elapsed

61 days

Candidates Reached

6 candidates

Candidates Introduced to Client

3 candidates

Candidates Interviewed

3 candidate

Successful Hiring Case Study 3

Position: Head of CMC RA & QA, Global Biotechnology Company

Requests and Challenges

  • Highly sought-after candidate withdrew after an internal promotion

  • Need for advanced skills in both CMC regulatory affairs and quality assurance

  • High confidentiality due to the search being for a replacement role

Time Elapsed

151 days

Candidates Reached

27 candidates

Candidates Introduced to Client

8 candidates

Candidates Interviewed

1 candidate

For additional insights into our successful hiring strategies, visit the 'Successful Hiring Case Studies' section on the Executive Search in Japan page or contact Apex directly for more information.

Contact Apex for More Case Study Insights

The Data-Driven Executive Search Process at Apex

At Apex, executive search is implemented through a data-driven methodology, crucial for identifying the ideal candidate for each role. The effectiveness of this approach is heavily reliant on the choice and use of databases. Apex employs the following three key database tools to pinpoint and identify talent that aligns precisely with client requirements:

Apex's Own Database

Apex has amassed a comprehensive database of bilingual professionals specializing in mid-to-senior level positions. This resource is instrumental in our ability to locate and engage candidates who meet specific client criteria.


We leverage LinkedIn, a social media platform for business networking, to access a distinct talent pool. This platform extends our reach beyond our proprietary database, enhancing our search capabilities.

Collaborative Job Search Portal Databases

Apex actively collaborates with various job search portals. This partnership enables us to identify and connect with qualified candidates, effectively broadening the scope of our search to fulfill diverse client needs.

Key Takeaways

What is Executive Search?

Executive search, often referred to as headhunting or scouting, is a specialized recruitment service. Professional search firms, focusing on this approach, are adept at recruiting mid-to-senior level professionals, distinguishing themselves from traditional recruitment services.

Why Choose Executive Search?

Executive search is instrumental in identifying top-tier candidates for senior or specialist roles, particularly those not actively visible in the conventional job market. This method specializes in engaging with passive candidates, enticing them to explore new career opportunities with your organization.

Executive Search Options at Apex

  • Contingency Search: A versatile and result-oriented approach.

  • Retained Search: A comprehensive and in-depth search strategy.

  • Exclusive Contingency Search: A hybrid model combining the best of both worlds.

Benefits of Executive Search

  • Efficient Recruitment: Timely placement of top talent for mid-to-senior level roles.

  • Broader Access: Reaching potential candidates beyond traditional job portals.

  • Reduced Mismatches: Minimizing hiring errors, saving time and resources.

Executive search can be a pivotal strategy for your company's growth and success. To explore how Apex's expertise can support your recruitment goals, contact us today.

Start Your Executive Search with Apex

Read about the latest job market insights