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Executive Search in a Socially Distanced World

by Guest Blogger
MANP is pleased to present the following guest blog post by Mary Budd of Starboard Leadership Consulting, an endorsed provider of executive search services. This post is part of our ongoing Mission Driven Leadershift initiative, which offers resources, services and programs to help Maine nonprofits successfully prepare for and manage leadership transition.

In hiring, personal interactions are typically required to seal the deal. A resume will tell you what a person has accomplished and where; a cover letter will reveal the strength and style of a person’s written communication; and standard reference checks will verify the applicant’s claims (or not). But most hiring managers are not satisfied until they’ve gauged the strength of an applicant’s handshake and conversed face-to-face, in the flesh.

So, what now?

Given current social distancing guidelines and travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, is it possible to proceed with an executive search plan constructed pre-pandemic? The short answer is likely, “No.” If your previous plan involved interstate travel, large meetings and tours of your operation in full swing, it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board at least for the remainder of 2020.

By most accounts, the disruption COVID has created will persist to a significant degree for the foreseeable future. If your current leader is strong, his or her departure timeline is flexible, and you can put your executive search on hold for 12-18 months, do so. We subscribe to the conventional wisdom regarding in-person assessment: it’s ideal. We all present most authentically unmasked and without technological intervention.

But less than ideal times call for less than ideal measures, and if your organization’s leadership change is urgent, don’t despair! It is possible to get to know candidates deeply from afar and to meet your hiring needs with confidence even in this challenging time.

Leverage technology

Video conferencing has been gaining currency over the past decade and at Starboard, we’ve been using Zoom to connect with distant clients and search candidates for years. It saves time and eliminates transportation costs, and the quality of the communication is reliably high. Nonetheless, B.C. (Before Covid), many clients opted for in-person meetings, and we get it: coming together in one place is a valuable way of fostering connection and building trust.

The unprecedented stay-at-home orders of recent months, however, have led to unprecedented use of video conferencing technology for interactions as simple as a virtual cocktail party with friends or as complicated as the NFL Draft. What a sea change!

Today, when I schedule a meeting with a client, the question is not, “Which exit?” but “Which platform?”

B.C., Starboard’s executive search process typically included a round of video interviews, an efficient and economical way for the search committee to connect with candidates of serious interest. Then we would work with search committees to narrow the field of candidates to two to three finalists following the initial round of video interviews, and B.C., those finalists would be invited for a more in-depth experience onsite, in person. This experience would usually involve a second interview with the search committee, longer than the first with more targeted questions and ample opportunity to share more substantively; meetings with staff, board members and other key stakeholders; and a tour of the organization’s facility and for distant candidates, the local vicinity.

Current travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines have required a new approach to the finalist round and continued reliance on video conferencing technology. In a recently completed search, Starboard worked with a client to replicate in virtual fashion the multifaceted strategy we employed B.C. to get to know finalists more fully, and to give the candidates a more complete picture of the organization and the community it serves.

We planned and facilitated a series of Zoom meetings with each finalist, giving the search committee time to explore the candidate’s experience, attitude and style extensively; and offering key stakeholders opportunities to meet, greet and assess each finalist for themselves.

The goal of the finalist round is to get beneath the candidates’ professional veneer to evaluate how they would lead day-to-day, in good times and bad, in the specific context of the organization. You can accomplish this goal via video conferencing nearly as well as in person, with attention to the following tips:

  • Communicate the plan. Well in advance, give all parties involved:
    • The information they’ll need to connect to the video conference (links, phone numbers, meeting identification numbers and passcodes if applicable, and what to do in case of technical difficulty)
    • A meeting agenda that clearly describes participants’ role, e.g., The finalist will briefly introduce him or herself, then board members will engage with the finalist in a free-flowing Q&A
  • Be prepared to troubleshoot. If you’re not using a professional facilitator, designate someone on the call to resolve any technical difficulty, from helping callers activate video and audio controls to managing audio interference through the mute function. The facilitator should also keep an eye on the clock to keep the meeting on schedule, and spark or redirect the discussion as needed to prevent awkward gaps in conversation or unproductive digressions.
  • Ask good questions. It may be true that there are no dumb questions, but given the limited time you have with each candidate and the challenge of bridging the physical distance between you, certainly some questions are better than others in getting to know finalists more fully. To help reveal the person behind the resume, ask questions that get beyond what the candidate has done to determine why and what the candidate is most likely to do in a range of circumstances moving forward.
  • Allow ample time and make room for surprises. Often candidates reveal themselves most fully during the unscheduled time between formal meetings, in the casual conversations that take place over the course of a lunch meeting, for example, or as you guide the candidate from office to office. One might expect an attitude of deference in a candidate’s presentation to the search committee, but a truer test of character may be found in the candidate’s interaction with those in your reception area. Such interactions can be replicated virtually with similar effect. Allow time for unstructured conversation, ask follow-up questions to elicit spontaneous thoughts and reactions, and consider creative ways to introduce the unexpected.

Stay flexible

A comprehensive executive search takes approximately six months, from crafting the job posting to signing the letter of hire, and as we’ve seen, the world can change dramatically in that time. Your best bet is to build flexibility into your plans, taking into account all reasonable scenarios.

By the time you’re ready to interview finalists, it may be possible to welcome out-of-state candidates. Your finalist pool may consist solely of in-state candidates, in which case, you could design socially distant but in-person gatherings of small groups where, for example, folks are arranged around your board room’s perimeter rather than elbow-to-elbow around the board table.

In any event, your next leader’s tenure will outlast this health crisis so it’s most important that you proceed as thoughtfully as possible. Take heart in our confidence that meeting candidates in person is preferable but not paramount. Hope for the best, prepare for the rest, and adjust to the circumstances at hand.


About the Author

Mary Aselton Budd joined Starboard Leadership Consulting after seven years at the helm of Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor. As board president and then executive director of the nonprofit regional theatre company, she developed and implemented an ambitious strategic plan that resulted in financial stabilization, programmatic expansion, audience development, and many capital improvements. Mary first forayed behind the scenes in the performing arts as co-producer of Black Rock, a feature film shot in Downeast Maine and sold at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Earlier Mary consulted with nonprofit and for-profit organizations nationwide working primarily to close the achievement gap in American education. Formerly, she was a staff writer and editor for New York-based Edison Schools, Inc. (now EdisonLearning), and earlier was publications director of a Boston-based education management company. She began her career as a political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington and later worked for Massachusetts Governor William Weld.

Mary’s volunteer service includes a term on the Bangor School Committee and five years on the City of Bangor Commission on Cultural Development (two as chair).

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