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The Future of Executive Search: Can You Handle the Truth?

Posted by Lauren Kendall on January 21, 2021
Originally published on LinkedIn by Dave Melville, Founder & CEO of The Bowdoin Group.

Hurry up, faster, now or never—we need this leader NOW. Sound familiar?

The pace of everything (including hiring) is palpably accelerating. The problem? Longer-term vision and goals are giving way to short-term mayhem. Urgency of action is more important than the right action.

Because our firm works across so many fast-paced industries and organizations, we are in a unique position to share four fundamental and long-lasting shifts that should be front and center for you when hiring your next round of leaders—regardless of how quickly you must move. Honestly, if you aren’t having these types of conversations with your executive search firm, you should be concerned.

Shift #1: Check boxes are out. Inventing new boxes is in.

One of the companies we are working with is urgently evaluating leaders for a role: one female candidate and one white male. DEI has risen to the top of their priority list, having become a new ‘check box’ requirement. Their C-suite and board are 80% white men. The female candidate has high potential but is deficient in certain areas and would require mentoring. The male candidate checks all the standard boxes but sets the company back on their stated DEI goal.

Last year, it might have been easier to simply choose the white male candidate who checks all the standard boxes. Now, it’s no longer about simply filling the role, it’s about building an integrated, future-proof team. Clients often come to us saying, “I need your help finding a CXO.” Instead of simply responding, “OK”, we ask, “What are your business goals in the next 2 years?” Then, we’ve got what we need to figure out the right role(s) and talent that will get them there. We don’t pre-suppose or introduce bias that might be steering a company in the wrong direction.

Executive search needs to be more about building a company instead of filling a role. It’s the only way to stay ahead—period.

Shift #2: One Single Leader is obsolete. Symbiotic Leadership is now mandatory.

This past year highlighted all the weaknesses of the systems and leaders we had in place. It’s OK… it was unprecedented, fast-moving, and unavoidable. Organizations fixed what they could, but a lot of those cracks remain, eating at foundations.

What’s the lesson we should be carrying forward? No one person can see a company through challenging times. The demand for speed, creativity, and innovation across leadership teams was more than any single CXO could (or should) handle alone. The go-forward plan better focuses on how teams must be built on diverse perspectives and talents. Take the ‘stronger together’ message as gospel. This past year completely redefined what will now be table-stakes for leadership teams.

Success in 2021 will rely on a team’s ability to come together to operate seamlessly and effectively, leveraging all of its strengths and absorbing all of its weaknesses to make real progress. It will require an approach to executive search that looks for the right puzzle piece for the particular team being built—not a nail that can be hammered into place. (In a nod to Shift #1, this is also a new checkbox!)

Shift #3: Institutional barriers have been reduced to speed bumps.

Barriers were shattered last year. How else do you explain a vaccine, developed in 48 hours, then manufactured, and partially distributed in a timeline of 10 months that previously would have taken 10 years? Pivots in products and services happened on a dime. We scaled walls like superhumans because we had to…so, to keep pace now, companies will need to be unbound to the standard operating procedures of the past.

In 2021, companies are thinking differently about the status quo and what’s truly possible within their industries. Because the perception of what can be done has changed, they’ll start to question the existing limitations they’ve operated under for years—and they’ll bring in executive candidates who have figured out how to break through. When it comes to innovation, the question has moved from “if” to “when.”

To paraphrase the great Wayne Gretzky, “You need to head to where the puck will be, not where it is.” When a company decides to be the architect and driver of its success, instead of accepting barriers, it will look for candidates who do not allow themselves to be limited. Candidates who are willing to be challenged with aggressive, out-of-reach goals. Candidates who, when presented with an impossible challenge, think “yes” first, instead of “no.” Your search firm better know that these traits need to be on the list.

Shift #4: Goodbye status quo leadership types, hello fearless navigators.

The past year’s uncertainty did an amazing job of revealing the leadership talent in our midst. At all levels of an organization, we got to see the next generation of leaders rise to the occasion. Who emerged as surprise leaders? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t always the most perfect, cookie-cutter candidate who took the lead.

This cannot be ignored and had better figure into how we vet and choose executive talent moving forward. Prior to 2020, a proven track record was frequently viewed as the best indicator of future success.. Now, let’s shine a spotlight on potential. Experience is important, but executive search professionals should be actively figuring out who demonstrated initiative, out-of-the-box thinking, and drove calculated risks that paid off. These are the leaders who will be successful through ups and downs.

Are you living in a fool’s paradise? 

As organizations navigate the classic K-shaped recovery pattern we’ll experience in the New Year where different parts of the economy recover at different speeds, we’ll see many of these fundamental shifts become deeply ingrained. Some organizations will navigate 2021 stronger than ever. It all comes down to the talent brought in to steer the organization through this moment of influx and into a post-COVID-19 world—and the talent we continue to choose that fit and shape our vision for the future.

The landscape has already fundamentally changed. Only fools refuse to learn from the past, so stop looking at ‘what is’ and zero in on ‘what if’…or suffer the consequences.