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  • Writer's pictureBerke Search

Understanding the Distinctions: Retained, Modified Retained, and Exclusive Contingent Searches

When organizations seek to fill executive-level positions, they often turn to executive search firms for their expertise and networks. Different search models exist, each with its own advantages and considerations. Understanding these distinctions between three commonly used executive search models: retained, modified retained, and exclusive contingent can help organizations make informed decisions when partnering with executive search firms to secure top-tier leadership talent.

Retained Executive Searches

Retained executive searches are typically reserved for senior-level positions or when organizations face unique or challenging talent requirements. In this model, the organization and the executive search firm enter into an exclusive agreement, with the search firm working on a retainer basis. The firm is responsible for conducting a comprehensive and customized search, including market research, candidate sourcing, screening, and assessment. Retained searches involve a dedicated team of search consultants who commit significant time and resources to identify and present a select number of qualified candidates to the organization. The search firm is compensated through a predetermined fee structure, usually based on a percentage of the anticipated total compensation of the hired executive. Retained searches offer a high level of customization, confidentiality, and access to top-tier candidates, ensuring a rigorous and tailored approach to talent acquisition.

Modified Retained Executive Searches

Modified retained searches provide a flexible approach that combines elements of both retained and contingent searches. In this model, the organization engages the search firm on a partial retainer basis while allowing for concurrent consideration of candidates from other sources. The search firm works closely with the organization to define the search parameters and establish a timeline. They conduct an initial search, present a shortlist of candidates, and continue to provide support throughout the selection and hiring process. The modified retained search model allows for increased flexibility and cost control while still benefiting from the search firm's expertise and tailored approach.

Exclusive Contingent Executive Searches

Exclusive contingent executive searches are based on a contingency model, where the search firm is only compensated upon successful placement of a candidate. In this model, the organization engages multiple search firms simultaneously, each competing to present qualified candidates for consideration. Exclusive contingent searches are often used for mid-level or specialized positions where a large pool of potential candidates exists. While organizations have the advantage of engaging multiple search firms without upfront costs, this model may result in a more transactional and less personalized approach. Search firms may allocate fewer resources and provide less exclusivity compared to retained or modified retained searches. Organizations should carefully consider the level of expertise, reputation, and track record of the search firms engaged in exclusive contingent searches to ensure optimal outcomes.

Key Considerations for Choosing the Right Search Model

When selecting an executive search model, organizations should consider several factors. First, the level and criticality of the position should inform the choice of search model. Retained searches are typically preferred for senior-level or strategic positions, while modified retained or exclusive contingent searches may be more suitable for mid-level or specialized roles. Additionally, the complexity and uniqueness of talent requirements should be considered, as well as the organization's desired level of customization, confidentiality, and speed of the search process. Finally, the budget and resources available for the search can influence the choice of search model, as retained searches typically involve higher upfront costs.

Maximizing Success through Strategic Partnerships

Regardless of the search model chosen, establishing a strong and collaborative partnership with the selected executive search firm is essential. Clear communication, transparency, and alignment of goals and expectations between the organization and the search firm are crucial for successful executive placements. Regular updates, feedback, and a shared commitment to the search process contribute to a fruitful and productive collaboration.


Retained, modified retained, and exclusive contingent executive searches offer distinct approaches to securing top-tier leadership talent. Understanding the differences between these search models allows organizations to select the most appropriate approach based on the position, talent requirements, budget, and desired level of customization. By forging strategic partnerships with reputable executive search firms, organizations can tap into their expertise and networks, ensuring a rigorous and tailored approach to executive talent acquisition.

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