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Executive Search Amidst COVID-19:

Recruiting Impactful Leaders Remotely — the New Normal?

An executive woman working from her home office, sitting in front of a laptop, eyeglasses in hand.

In the midst of COVID-19 uncertainty, we are fielding many discussions and questions from our clients about how to move forward with executive searches: How much of the recruiting process can be conducted virtually? Should you hire an executive leader after only meeting on Zoom? What positions are critical now and when does it make more sense to wait? And how long can and should we wait? How can we onboard someone working virtually?

There is no one-solution-fits-all but we do have some insight from clients on ways to transcend the hiring challenges posed by our current virtual working environment.

Overall trends in the hiring market

A few of our clients who were previously quite bullish on hiring for key leadership positions took a pause to reassess, particularly in mid- to late March when shelter-in-place orders rolled out across the U.S. Then, as everyone adjusted to working virtually after a couple of weeks, the gears moved again on search processes, and we have stayed relatively on track. Industry matters, of course; our hospitality, events, and energy industry clients have put searches on hold for the time being. They are in the minority, however, and the balance of our clients have recognized that while some aspects of our world are changing dramatically, many aspects of life and business need to keep moving forward.

Same process, different look

Fortunately, the transition to remote work did not slow us down. Though our employees typically work from our Houston, San Diego, San Francisco and New York offices, we have had seamless remote working capabilities for many years due to the heavy travel schedules of most of our search consultants and thanks to Hurricane Harvey. When the storm hit Houston in 2017, knocking power out of our Houston office for more than a week, we transitioned our Houston employees to their home offices immediately—ensuring there was no down time for our clients around the world—and established a crisis management plan in the event it happened again.

Today, the majority (and perhaps all) of our search process can be conducted remotely, including research, candidate mapping and candidate development. The timeline of a search has not changed in any significant way, and in fact we are finding an increased efficiency in moving a search ahead now that travel calendars no longer throw scheduling conflicts into the mix.

Strike while the audience is captive

While some potential candidates have expressed a desire to ride out the challenges of the time with their current organization due to a sense of loyalty and commitment, the greater trend we are seeing is that top talent is open (and available) to engage with us. The first week or two of the crisis brought shell-shock and temporary paralysis, but that has relaxed during the ensuing weeks. And it has never been easier to get in touch with star executives. Road warriors find themselves temporarily grounded and are much easier to reach. And an interesting outcome of this global pause and time at home: some executives are finding this a good time for self examination and reflection on career and life goals.

A candidate’s ability to articulate their value proposition ... and quickly build relationships virtually during the hiring process will be indicators of success in a virtual environment.

Not surprisingly, the current pandemic has also highlighted who the outstanding leaders are in an organization as well as the weak links on leadership teams. Now more than ever, it is imperative that our clients have the right team in place to face the challenges ahead. As one client commented, “with the uncertain future, we cannot afford to have any executives who are not super stars.”

The increasing power of a Zoom interview

According to our clients, one of our greatest strengths as a search partner is our ability to assess cultural fit and leadership capabilities. In order to make that assessment, our strong preference has always been to meet with candidates in person before they meet with our clients. In the pre-COVID-19 world, a videoconference interview was a last resort when timing and travel schedules simply didn’t allow for an in-person meeting. Now that we are unable to hop on a plane, much less shake a candidate’s hand, we have to be flexible.

While videoconference meetings were somewhat common amongst professionals prior to the global crisis, for most of us, it typically wasn’t a daily occurrence. Today, in order to meet, collaborate, and move projects forward, hopping on a Zoom call is a daily if not hourly activity for most of us. Practice makes progress, if not perfection, and everyone’s comfort level with videoconference technologies has taken a giant leap forward in a few short (long) weeks. With that comfort, it is easier and easier for us to assess candidates over video. Interestingly, we have found that one’s choice in virtual background on Zoom is almost as telling as the firmness of the handshake.

Hiring decisions in the time of Corona

If you asked us six months ago if we thought hiring an executive leader without a series of in-person meetings with multiple stakeholders was a good idea, we would have wondered if you were injecting a Clorox cocktail. Today, flexibility and nimbleness are a must. It does seem like many of us will be working virtually for longer than we'd like, and our clients are sorting out when they can wait and when they simply need to move forward with the new reality. Furthermore, it is becoming clear that there will be a requirement for the foreseeable future that a leader will need to be able to manage and lead remotely. A candidate’s ability to articulate their value proposition, demonstrate their ability to influence and persuade, and quickly build relationships virtually during the hiring process will be indicators of success in a virtual environment.

As time goes on, we believe we will see more and more clients choosing to pull the trigger on hiring decisions even without meeting a candidate in person. There is always risk inherent in making any hiring decision, and the goal is to minimize that risk within a given set of circumstances. Under our current circumstances, we would advise an incredibly thorough reference and background check process, and/or focusing on candidates where there is a prior relationship or a connection through a trusted common connection like a board member or former colleague. We have always been a strong advocate of leadership assessment tools as a way to reduce hiring risk, and now they seem more critical than ever.

It might soon be possible to have a limited, final round of meetings in person with some creativity and a level of comfort among all parties involved. With precautions such as masks, meeting in open spaces, and maintaining advised social distance, along with a sense of humor, limited small meetings could take place in the foreseeable future. We had one client, a biopharmaceutical client (and an essential business) that develops vaccines and antibodies to treat infectious diseases, deem it critical to move forward in hiring a Chief Medical Officer with strong vaccines experience. The top candidate and the hiring team made the decision to take a calculated risk by traveling to meet for a socially distanced final meeting. The offer was extended the following week, and our placement started working virtually, this week.

The virtual onboard

We are starting to see successful candidates start new positions while our clients’ offices are closed. As an example, we completed a search for the COO of an Am Law 50 firm just before the crisis hit, and our successful candidate onboarded during the first week of shelter-in-place orders in New York. As time goes on and clients can no longer wait for a key leader to join, we expect to see more virtual start dates, and there will be more lessons to be learned from those pioneers. We look forward to sharing next month some reports from the leading edge on how to ensure a successful onboarding process virtually.

So much is uncertain right now, but we do know that eventually the COVID-19 crisis will come to an end and, when it does, our clients and their new talent will be in a position to hit the ground running. We have already seen the tremendous ways that humans and organizations have adapted to the new and evolving circumstances, and we expect that the key to weathering this current storm will be agility, adaptability, focus and preparedness.

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