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How Smart Investors & CEOs are Hiring Executives During COVID-19

Posted by Lauren Kendall on October 1, 2020
Originally published on LinkedIn by Sean Walker (Partner at The Bowdoin Group, an award-winning executive search firm) with support from Josh Gottlieb (Managing Director, Digital Health at The Bowdoin Group).

Over the past six months, we’ve successfully filled several executive searches with venture- and private equity-backed companies across the Innovation Economy. Although the majority of our clients and their investors expressed some degree of concern kicking off a search, they’re all asking the same questions:

  • Is it even possible to hire someone without having the normal in-person meetings? 
  • How different does the recruitment process look in a remote world?
  • Will executives be willing to give up the security of a current role for a new one in today’s uncertain world?

As we moved through each successful placement, it quickly became clear that COVID-19 has not necessarily changed executive search fundamentally – it has only moved the processes and tools we use to build trust and relationships into a digital format (talk about digital transformation!).

What we’ve found is that through these recent successful hires, companies and their investors have been able to navigate this new landscape and surpass their competition – all despite the pandemic. They accomplished this feat because they fluidly navigated the new normal of Zoom meetings, facilitated socially distanced walks, hosted virtual tours, and created targeted, quick-hit meetings around specific topics to secure incredibly talented C-suite executives.

There are important nuances that you should know if you’re hiring an executive for your C-suite or your portfolio company during COVID-19. Here are three ways leading investors, Boards and CEOs are pivoting their hiring process to stay ahead of their competition and sign incredible talent:

1.) Get creative about creating 1:1 connections

The traditional executive search process often relies on multi-person group meetings. As a stakeholder, you want to understand how that individual would lead and command a room, and how they would socially connect with the broader team. You want to see a dynamic where the leaders at the table are intellectually stimulated and create a safe environment where the candidate can respectfully challenge and be challenged to demonstrate their vision and leadership abilities. 

There are also many benefits to this way of recruiting, as it allows all stakeholders to get a sense of the cultural fit of a particular candidate and develop camaraderie as a social unit. But when interviews are moved online, it can be challenging to capture the same atmosphere in a group video meeting as you could with large, in-person meetings. 

To cultivate the right social atmosphere and make it easier to connect, we’ve found it is important to limit large group meetings – which can feel very isolating or awkward on video – while facilitating more smaller group and creative 1:1 meetings. Enabling stakeholders and executive candidates to interact in a setting that is the most effective and comfortable for them, such as a socially distanced outdoor walk or curated 1:1 quick-hitting strategy session, makes it possible to give everyone involved the information they need to feel comfortable making a decision.

2.) Increase frequency, decrease duration 

There’s no denying COVID-19 has had an impact on how CEOs, investors, and candidates experience the recruiting process. In most cases, it has revealed a need for more transparent and frequent communication. We have consistently found that replacing less frequent longer meetings with more frequent shorter meetings as well as frequent check-ins made the process less frustrating. These meetings are also easier to schedule in close proximity to each other because travel no longer poses a significant scheduling challenge. 

For example, when we experimented with 2-3 hour Zoom dinners, both stakeholders and interviewees gave feedback that the experience was not an effective use of time. But when we modified these events to be short but intimate Zoom discussions, both sides of the table felt they were able to form a connection and get the information they needed to move forward. 

3.) Build trust with transparency 

When the pandemic disrupted our normal operating procedures, it was natural for stakeholders and candidates alike to feel more stress around the executive search process. Building trust as a collective unit – among the C-suite, investors, the candidate, and us as search partners – became critical to creating connections and understanding the hurdles we’d face in building a consensus. To achieve this, an entirely new level of transparency and communication between all the stakeholders involved was needed and necessary.

For example, we recently worked with one executive candidate who had been through countless interviews to-date for a recent chief executive position. To put it bluntly, he was exhausted. As a current CEO, he had been through this exact process before, but this time it looked and felt very different for obvious reasons. While this CEO candidate was still eager to take on the job, the interview process had dragged on with new interviewers and marathon meetings added to the list daily. 

To address this disconnect, we created a concrete two-week plan to get that CEO through the process that created a deeper level of transparency for all parties involved. Since he was one of the first candidates in that particular search, we were able to work with the candidate to understand their needs and wants while partnering with the search committee to accommodate their candidacy to the best of their abilities.

Pre-COVID, we would set out on each search with a defined process. Early in this pandemic, we found that in order to reach the best outcome with everyone onboard, we needed to refine and continuously think through the typical interview schedule because this was not “business as usual.” 

Reaching a consensus on a CEO candidate during a pandemic takes extra work for all parties involved. Being transparent throughout it all – and the changes that have occurred due to the pandemic helps all stakeholders feel confident they know where they are in the search and builds trust that we’ll ultimately get to the right decision together.

Moving Forward With Effective Remote Search During COVID-19 

One thing is clear in the era of COVID-19: everyone has their own level of risk tolerance. 

Whether it’s at home, at work, or in hiring, we’re all coping with the global pandemic as well as we can. Unfortunately, that has also translated into some growth-stage companies slowing down or stopping their executive search processes due to the uncertainty of COVID-19. They’re hesitant to make any significant changes when so much is still unknown.

Based on my experience, I’ve started to see that now is not the time to take a “watch and wait” approach to your next executive hire (and not just because I work for an executive search firm). 

Today, the process behind that successful search still requires the same conversations, connections, and results. But now that the process must take place almost entirely virtually, companies and their investors must adapt and update their approach to be flexible to changing communication preferences, risk tolerance, and speed of every individual involved in the process.

How are you managing your new remote search process? I’m curious to hear how other executives and investors in the space have gotten creative with COVID-19 in mind.