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But Don’t I Have to Meet Them in Person? How to Hire Executives Remotely

Posted by Lauren Kendall on May 18, 2021
Originally published on LinkedIn by Josh Gottlieb, Managing Director, Digital Health at The Bowdoin Group.

In every executive search, there is always an element of taking a leap of faith. If the last 12 months have taught us anything in executive search, it is that the fully-remote aspect of the hiring process has proven how important trust is in choosing your next leader.

In working with dozens of digital health startups and their investors, we’ve found that the most successful searches are the ones where authentic bonds are formed between the leadership team—a task that we thought simply wasn’t possible remotely, but the pandemic proved us wrong.

In this blog post, we’ll explore how to scale leadership teams both virtually and sustainably, with insights from digital health leaders who have grown their leadership teams during the pandemic.

Is trust possible during a remote hiring process?

Digital health companies are working to provide incredibly complex and impactful solutions on a global scale, but in order to do that successfully, their executive teams must be working in lockstep. The key question to ask is, how do you build trust with a candidate, colleague, or investor without sitting across the table from them?

This question was a main topic of a remote discussion I hosted with a few Digital Health leaders on the topic of achieving scalable growth in a remote environment. Russell Glass, Chief Executive Officer at Ginger, discovered the need for more consistent communication with his executive peers early on in the pandemic. He said, “We elevated the amount of communication we did to at least weekly. Before we could go longer between touchpoints.” Morgan Cheatham, an investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, shared how their firm doubled down on “transparent communication” so that team leaders felt they had the tools and infrastructure in place to feel engaged and onboarded.

As far as interviews go, Felicity Yost, Co-Founder and Chief Product & Operating Officer at Tia, said that communication ticked up there as well.  “We’ve had to get really creative around how we spend time with a candidate and get to know them in a dynamic sense. We’ve really stretched the way that we think about interviews and exposure across our team. We’ve brought more senior people into the fold through working sessions and problem-solving activities.”

The consensus is clear that communication has had to adjust in both frequency and format in order to keep up with hiring needs across the board. There are now extra steps involved to acquaint candidates with investors, boards, and leadership teams, as well as manage expectations when it comes to their role.

5 tips for building trust with candidates during a remote interview process

If you can’t meet a candidate in person, we recommend triangulating data to form trust using these tactics:

  1. Create a thoughtful interview process and set expectations for what will be required of the candidate up front. Remain consistent with that plan, and if you veer from it, acknowledge it.
  2. If conversations are mostly remote, increase the frequency of your meetings through a combination of phone calls and social-distanced meet-ups, when possible. 8-10 meetings are the minimum that any executive should expect, especially for a growing company with a hiring committee or investor involvement. The beauty of having frequent face-to-face meetings via Zoom means less time spent traveling and more time establishing a relationship, creating more touch-points to fill in gaps etched wider by remote work.
  3. Leverage informal reference checks through tactful networking and casual conversations. These are more important than ever for both candidates, executives and investors to get a sense of an individual’s work performance, management style, and what it takes for them to be successful long term.
  4. Take the candidate’s cues on whether a remote or hybrid approach works better for them.
  5. Capitalize on the momentum of a promising candidate. Digital health is a fiercely competitive space, so you may need to move quickly. When time is of the essence, leveraging the new remote-first approach will enable you to move faster and gain traction in the hiring process.

Adopting a hybrid approach to recruiting and building culture long term

We’ve hired multiple CEOs over the course of the last year, and a key role that we play is ensuring that clients and candidates alike are ready to move toward an offer letter.  When remote isn’t enough to get that place of trust, companies have gotten creative with in-person meet-ups when necessary, hosting socially distant walks in the park or meetings outside.

There are increasingly more remote/hybrid searches for candidates whose position will continue to be remote, but building a virtual team also requires consideration of the company culture long term. Russ Glass described the process Ginger has taken to induct remote hires into company culture, with a monthly new hire orientation that involves every executive at the organization walking through their vision, values, and company history to hear from other leaders and build cohort knowledge. Other executives are making time to travel to company headquarters for initial meetings to build relationships with local team members before continuing to work out of state.

What a SWOT analysis tells us about executive search best practices

In the following diagram, we highlight the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to a remote hiring process.

SWOT Analysis for Remote Hiring

Final reflections on closing the trust gap

It’s been fascinating to witness C-suite candidates hired with the only interaction through a Zoom window. As we think about the future state of the workforce and the world where many executives are planning to bring their teams back to the office in some hybrid capacity (while others plan to remain distributed), it’s difficult to predict how the search process will continue to evolve. But as humans, the need to develop trust is paramount, no matter how you get there.  At times, it may feel as if personal and physical interactions are inextricably linked, but building trust within the executive search process is mastered through the basics of human connection, and when done right, these relationships translate into top-tier leadership at the forefront of innovation.

If you’d like to hear more the remote executive search process, find out more in the webinar we hosted on this topic: Scaling Leadership Teams Remotely—The Right Way