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Is This the End of In-Person Interviews with Executive Search Firms?

Posted by Bob Corlett on April 14, 2020

In-person interviews with executive search consultants are suddenly out of step with the times, but they have been out of step with the research for far longer. Years of research illustrates why this type of interviewing is far more likely to introduce bias than to predict success on the job. (See The Case for Evidence-Based InterviewingTM.)

The public health earthquake left behind a digital divide between people who can do their work remotely and others who cannot. We’re seeing massive unemployment rates for people who need to be somewhere specific to work, and a far smaller employment impact on people who can work from home. It’s likely to be a year or more until we can all go to our offices without periodic disruptions. Consequently, a digital divide is slicing through employers in the workplace--if you can achieve your mission with a predominantly remote workforce, you are far better positioned than a restaurant or retailer who cannot. But it's not always a binary choice. What about business models that blend location-dependent work with virtual work?

Executive search firms are only one example, but a familiar one to both candidates and the client organizations who engage them. The finding of candidates (sourcing and recruiting) has been almost effortlessly virtual for decades. But the interviewing process has remained stubbornly location-dependent for most search firms. Until a month ago, most executive search firms proudly continued a clubby tradition of interviewing candidates face-to-face in posh, expensive offices. This (flawed) approach has deep roots in the industry. And despite mountains of emerging research that the practice is counterproductive, the clients of search firms mostly accepted it as an integral part of the service. (Hint: it's not.) And while employers accepted it, I suspect very few candidates will mourn the end of face-to-face interviewing with search firms. They are notoriously difficult to schedule, rarely enlightening, and can occasionally lapse into the truly superficial.

Of course, face-to-face interviewing during a pandemic is next to impossible to deliver. So search firms who relied on it must reexamine that part of their service offering. Ideally, this change would entail moving away from relying on the personal opinion of the search consultant, and migrating to a more evidence-based approach to interviewing. To place their search firms on a stronger virtual foundation, the value of an in-person interview must be delivered in other ways, and there are far more effective approaches. Organizations with deeper expertise in remote work will simply be more effective now. But that sort of business model innovation is incredibly difficult work in the best of times.

As someone who has spent the better part of two decades reinventing the business model for executive search, I do not envy those who are just beginning the journey. It's difficult to challenge the conventional wisdom in any field of endeavor. It is supremely difficult to rethink the entire basis for how you create value for your clients, and then go on to hire the people, build the process, and implement the technology to support it.

Creating Value Means NOT Doing What Your Customers Expect, but Finding Ways to Serve Them Better Than They Expect

Almost everyone's sourcing and recruiting practices (the finding of the candidates) went digital more than 20 years ago, but their interview practices took a while to catch up. We have long been skeptical of the value of face-to-face interviews conducted by executive search consultants; we add rigor to the hiring process in other ways. Many of our new clients are surprised when first hearing about our approach, but see the appeal of being faster, more certain, more inclusive, less biased and less expensive than old-school search firms.

Now, as hiring managers are rapidly gaining comfort with virtual interviews, I expect they will begin to wonder why they ever paid a premium for search firms to conduct interviews in-person. I suspect the practice will soon feel a bit dated--like having your valet dress you for dinner at Downton Abbey.

Clients are now demanding faster, more digitally nimble, more certain, and less expensive approaches to finding top talent. Prior to the crisis, our operational differences with our competitors might not have been quite so obvious. But as Warren Buffet noted, “Only when the tide goes out do you see who was swimming naked.” In every economic sector, this crisis revealed the leaders and organizations who were thoughtful about hiring people who thrive in a remote work culture, wise in deploying digital collaboration tools, careful in developing intelligent workflows, and uncompromising in ensuring robust IT security for people working from home.

These complex investments may not have conferred an obvious competitive advantage in the past, but they do now. After all, if you are trying to hire leaders for an innovative, fast-moving, heavily digital enterprise, why would you select a vendor who represents none of those things?

The Jarring Transition to Virtual Work

My colleagues in the executive search world could have become more digital many years ago, but most chose not to. Their clients were comfortable with the old ways of working, so there was no real pressure to change. Over the years, most of my industry colleagues wondered why we bothered with it. Now, digital change has been thrust upon our industry (and many others) in the worst possible way, at the worst possible time.

My old-school search firm colleagues are jolting their own employees into unfamiliar remote work practices, trying to learn unfamiliar software and desperately trying to piece together new digital workflows. The pandemic is a triple whammy on their ability to focus:

  1. Many search firm leaders have spent decades in a fairly static business model, failing to develop the kinds of knowledge and understanding that are needed in the virtual world. Now they must first reshape their own organizations to compete in the world that exists today.
  2. External economic conditions are changing fast, and require close attention or opportunities will be overlooked and challenges ignored. This is happening just when search firms are turning inward to address their own challenges. Search firms are attempting massive change to their internal culture and workflows on the fly. And while their employees are frantically developing band-aid workarounds, many organizations lack leaders who can architect new systems and processes. 
  3. Once search firm leaders come to grips with the depth and nature of the digital divide, they can begin the long, slow, grueling work of rethinking how to deliver value to their clients and the organizational capabilities they will need to deliver it. They will need to review their organizational structure, the internal roles and responsibilities, the competencies required for each team, the internal workflows, and the external interfaces. As they forego face-to-face interviews, they will need to support their clients with a more evidence-based approach to hiring. Then they can begin to select and deploy collaboration tools and process automation approaches to become more nimble. (This is a good template to follow.)

In the sales-driven culture of executive search, few firms have attracted internal leaders with the ability to lead these types of initiatives.

The Path Forward Will Be Painful For Many Search Firms

It's now obvious that too many search firms relied far too heavily on face-to-face interviewing to create value when much better approaches were in plain sight. The ripple effects of that decision will be painful:

  • As a result of that choice, search firms invested too heavily in pricey real estate to create the “right image” for their interviews.
  • And as a result of that decision, typical retainer fees crept up over 30% of annual salary, which in turn required very highly paid search consultants to justify the fees.
  • Now most search firms are saddled with the full expense of that outdated approach, no ability to deliver it during the next year or so, and clients who will be unwilling to pay for those past decisions.
Yes, this will be painful for some firms, but search firms fees passed the point of irrational exuberance quite some time ago, and were due for a correction. We chose our virtual approach to hiring after extensive research on how we could deliver the most value to our clients at the lowest possible cost. No, we did not predict a global pandemic, but now, when our clients need us most, we are fortunate to be in a position to help. And after this crisis is long behind us, I doubt many search firm clients will be eager to return to outdated hiring practices like in-person interviews with search consultants.

Additional reading can be found in our Resource Library, including:

  • A Guide for Search Committees
  • The Case for Evidence-Based InterviewingTM
  • How to Evaluate a Potential Recruiting Firm
  • The Staffing Advisors Employer Guide to Interviewing

Topics: Search Committee, Interviewing Executives, Executive Search, CEO search, Innovation and Change, Virtual Interviews, Video Interviews