Executive Search Strategies During a Period of Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive for individuals, families, communities . . . and of course organizations. One critical process that organizations presently wrestle with is executive recruiting. As the crisis continues to unfold, many are asking: What do we do? How do we identify and hire new leaders when the external environment is so tumultuous?

One thing is clear: The rules of search have changed. Most organizations are proceeding pragmatically and creatively with the understanding that there is a need to find great leaders now more than ever. Hiring managers and search committees are:

  • Using video technology such as Zoom and Skype as liberally as possible for interviewing, from the first round to even sealing the deal with a candidate of choice;
  • Scheduling interviews flexibly and, if needed, in smaller groupings to conform to the COVID-era time challenges of hiring managers, search committees and candidates;
  • Engaging candidates while searches are paused by asking key stakeholders to reach out and connect with individuals by phone, email, video and even “snail mail”;
  • Adding “half steps” into the search process in which candidates can be engaged for specific questions or to meet specific individuals;
  • Ensuring diversity of candidates by facilitating remote engagement with additional candidates;
  • Appealing to candidates and families through remote tours (e.g., via FaceTime) or, in a few cases, drone tours of the organization’s campus and community.

How the hiring organization proceeds is highly dependent on the search stage:

Late Stage: Given the current situation, as hiring organizations near the “finish line” of an already started executive search, most institutional leaders have favored moving these late-stage searches to completion, based on the answers to a few key questions:

  • Is the decision informed by broad-based stakeholder input if needed?
  • Can such an important decision be made without face-to-face interaction with finalists?
  • Would a candidate of choice take a job without visiting the campus or the community?

In many instances, video technology provides a solution to these dilemmas. Institutions and candidates have reported highly engaging interactions by video. For example, once a finalist has been identified, some organizations use a series of Zoom or Skype meetings to engage the candidate with stakeholders and successfully wrap up a search.

Mid-Stream: The critical question in the middle of a search is whether to press forward or pause. Pausing can be a thoughtful, respectful thing to do for all parties:

  • It allows everyone (organization and candidates) the time and space to cope with the circumstances in their personal and professional lives.
  • It allows institutions a chance to be realistic in modifying processes, timelines and expectations for the search.

Pausing thus increases the likelihood that when both stakeholders and candidates are prepared to re-engage, they are present, attentive and focused.

Pausing should be differentiated from postponing, however. Postponing – without a definite plan and timeline for re-engagement – can send a different message. Candidates may wonder: Is the institution still committed? Is it sufficiently resourced? Clients must understand that, if a search is postponed indefinitely, the strongest candidates may not be available if and when the search resumes.

Searches in mid-stream should focus on progress, not placement. It is more important in the middle of a search to show steady, incremental progress towards a delayed completion than to postpone.

New Searches: A pandemic doesn’t lessen the need for strong leadership, especially for mission critical hires. Organizations must consider the short-term vs. long-term impact of not launching a search, given that uncertainty in the market could persist for months. In other words, how critical is this leadership role to helping the organization move forward from this crisis? Is the organization compromised if it doesn’t hire for this role in the near future?

One consideration that organizations often overlook is that leadership transitions (even those conducted mostly online) are opportunities to build community. Working from home, some search committee members might actually have more time to devote to the recruitment—and welcome the engagement. A recruitment can be a source of team bonding and collaboration for stakeholders who are otherwise isolated.

Final Thoughts

The current environment creates constraints on executive searches, but also flexibility. Via technology, institutions may be able to move more quickly than they realize and even add additional interview stages to the hiring process. Yesterday’s rules may no longer apply.

Finally, organizations can look to be more strategic (rather than incremental) in their approach to executive search. They must consider how pausing, postponing, or moving ahead will be received by individuals in their own organizations, and by candidates who, though dealing with the pandemic in their own lives, are still looking to advance in their careers.

Webinars on This Topic

Leadership recruiting issues that healthcare and higher education organizations are facing were recently explored in the “Executive Search in the Time of COVID-19,” webinars hosted by WittKieffer in collaboration with leadership coaching and development experts CMA. 

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