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The Era of the Modern Executive Search Firm Has Begun

Posted by Bob Corlett on May 11, 2020

Many of our clients are associations and nonprofits—organizations that exist to help other people thrive. And while they're all busy reinventing how they deliver their vital services, we’ve been equally busy adapting our services to support their new needs. Because the minute all those office doors slammed shut, the era of the modern executive search firm was ushered in. The old ways just won't rise to this occasion.

This is not how the future normally arrives. I've long appreciated William Gibson's 2003 observation, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed." But in this case, the future was evenly distributed immediately upon arrival. And now every executive search firm is called upon to reconsider who we serve, what services we offer, and how we deliver those services.

So what services should a modern executive search firm offer? I'll know for sure in a couple of years, but for now, I'll share what we've done in the past two months. Clearly this is a work in progress for internal recruiting teams as well as third party search consultants: 

  • Supporting useful interview conversations: In-person interviewing will be exceedingly difficult for quite some time, and positions will need to be filled. But now that hiring managers can no longer rely on their gut instinct to hire someone after an in-person interview, what will replace it?

    Evidence. Hiring managers need to gather information more carefully and methodically now. Evidence-Based Interviewing practices are imperative for virtual interviews. (You can read the research here.) We have long supported this approach to interviewing, and years of research support this change to the in-person interview process, but the pandemic sure hurried things along.

    All search firms now have an obligation to help clients get more value from video interviews. This is in addition to our long-standing moral duty to support access, diversity, equity, and inclusion. (Happily, the evidence-based approach to interviewing serves both needs.)

  • Supporting video interviewing for candidates: We've developed resources to help both parties overcome the awkwardness of video interviews, including How to Evaluate a Candidate During a Video Interview for the hiring manager, and How to Prepare for a Video Interview for candidates. We've also developed free webinars for both parties that get beyond the superficial lighting and Zoom background selection types of issues.

    We've found that with a bit of training and preparation, a video interview can be meaningful, productive, and energizing (and not leave everyone irritated, exhausted, and fighting a headache).  But just adapting to video interviews is not enough.

    Instrument Panel

  • Streamlining the hiring process: As employers adapt their hiring practices to the disorienting new reality, search firms must do more to support them. The proper role of a recruiter has always been decision-support -- to gather all the information a hiring manager needs to make a great decision. But when you are flying in turbulent conditions and it's hard to see the horizon, it's even more important to trust the instrument panel. I expect this additional support will take many forms, but here's where we started:

    • To support the interview process, we have always produced a dashboard of candidate information for the slate (or "shortlist") of recommended candidates, including information that supplements each candidate's resume and is tailored to the key job competencies. We also consult on the interview process, to ensure the conversations are productive and predictive.

      For our clients with significant hiring needs, we also built a "Click to Schedule" interface that requires very little training, no new software, and no IT support. Hiring managers use this secure dashboard to review candidate information and schedule interviews (in two clicks). Behind the dashboard, process automation features and online scheduling tools allow candidates to select their preferred video interview times. This simple process improvement saves time, reduces email clutter, keeps candidate information secure, and eliminates interview scheduling delays. Everyone gets the information and reminders they need to stay on track. (Because everyone needs real-time information, and nobody wants anything new to keep track of.)

    • The job market is being reshuffled at a disorienting pace, with the availability of top talent constantly changing. So we help our clients quickly orient themselves to the market reality of their current hiring options. In the first few days of a new search, our research team reviews a variety of career profiles with our clients, and then each week of the search we report on our ability to engage with those candidates. Before the offer stage, we commission a customized salary survey from an outside compensation consulting firm. This ensures that our clients have the best possible information before making a job offer.  

  • Labor Market Updates: We regularly share updates on the labor market to help everyone involved understand the specific job market we serve.

  • Support for job seekers: We opened up time on our calendars, creating "office hours" to help our clients and their friends and families with job search advice (using an automated calendar scheduling tool). We regularly speak to job seeker support groups and share information on job search during an economic downturn.

  • Support for virtual work: We have always been virtual but most of our clients have not, so we are regularly sharing information on how to make remote work more productive. First, we shared training on how we deployed MS Teams a few years ago, and now we are sharing other research we've conducted into scheduling tools and other process automation approaches that might help our clients.

  • Support for the broader community: As I noted above, we have developed a variety of resources for job seekers and hiring managers, and our association and nonprofit clients are now sharing this information with their members and other stakeholders. We've found that our work can support their work (and we don't limit this free support to our current clients).

  • Hardening technology defenses: IT threats proliferate in the work-from-home environment. It's our duty to not introduce any new threats when we share information. Our employees get weekly IT security briefings, and only work on company issued laptops with the latest security protections including 24/7 endpoint protection from phishing attacks and robust password management including 2-factor-authentication. Our IT vendor allows us to share their work from home best practices with our clients. This might not sound like much fun, but it's all part of risk management.

  • Long-term partnership (in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity): In the current VUCA environment, the modern search firm must become a partner in risk management with their clients. It is no longer enough to  drop off a slate of candidates at the front door of a client's office and say, "Good luck with that!"

    We must shoulder our share of the risk. We have an obligation to find the innovative people who achieve results in the current virtual environment, and also help our clients determine who will be able to adapt to changing circumstances in the future.

    In short, we need to have skin in the game with our candidates and clients. True long term partnership requires guaranteeing each placement for at least 18 months. Taking our share of the risk puts us on a level playing field with all of our candidates and all of the hiring organizations. (Because nothing clarifies the mind like taking a third of the risk in the deal.)

None of us knows what the future will bring, but we all know someone else we can help right now. So we decided to start there and do the best we can with what we have.

Additional reading:

Topics: Executive Search, Hiring Process, Recruiting Executives, Virtual Interviews