How long does a headhunting assignment typically take to complete?

The honest answer is that it really varies. One consequence of the retained commercial model of executive search firms is that by taking money up-front to conduct market research and map the market, the headhunting firm must get the client a placement, no matter how hard, or how long the project takes. That’s not to say that all headhunting assignments result in a placement – far from it – some projects are cancelled as priorities change mid-search, and in other cases clients become frustrated with a lack of progress and sometimes fire the headhunting firm to work with another. Rather, we might say that it’s a commercial imperative for headhunting firms to complete their assignments whilst that’s still possible. Taking retainers and walking away from projects isn’t a good look for a headhunting firm and will burn their reputation very quickly.

Headhunting is of course a “people based sport” – with all the messiness that that can sometimes entail. Your lead candidate might be ready to accept an offer, and then suddenly, out of the blue, something happens in their personal life that derails everything. Their mother is ill and now they need to spend time with her, and your role that entails lots of travel is no longer possible.

Without doubt, there are a number of complexities that affect how long a headhunting assignment takes to complete. Here are some of the most common factors that often explain why some headhunting processes take longer than expected;

  • An unattractive proposition to candidates that makes high quality candidates hard to convert
  • Lead candidates drop out of the process or reject offers
  • Indecisive clients who are unrealistic in their candidate expectations
  • A lack of capacity in the headhunting firm meaning they haven’t dedicated enough internal resource to the project
  • A long client interview process with lots of steps and stakeholders
  • The inability to construct offers that are financially competitive in the marketplace
  • An unusual role location with little local talent. Relocating candidates massively reduces candidate conversion and lengthens the closing process

So evidently there are lots of factors that can make a headhunting assignment take longer than expected. But what is a “normal timeframe” if there is such a thing?

Most headhunting firms will say a 3 month or 12 week process is normal to get to an accepted offer. That means it’s three months from the initial client briefing to a candidate accepting an offer – then it’s a case of that candidate working out their notice period and joining the new firm. At its quickest, a headhunting assignment might take 2 months to complete. Some headhunting assignments take 3-9 months to close, and anyone who has worked in the industry for a significant period of time will have worked on many of those long, challenging searches.

Whilst we can say that a three-month timeframe is “par” for many headhunting firms, the truth is that many assignments take much longer than that to complete given the complexities involved.