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Exec Search Firms: Hiring Continues for Senior Positions

More Empathy, Fewer Onsite Visits in Current Search Process

With U.S. unemployment at record levels, we reached out to our network of executive search professionals to better understand the current job market for C-suite, president, vice president and other senior roles.

Six Minneapolis-based executive recruiters and outplacement professionals shared their views on what has changed—and what remains constant—in the hiring process for senior leaders.

C-Suite Searches Continue

Just how active is the job market for senior executives? Overwhelmingly, our panel sees positive trends and many bright spots.

“Candidates are continuing to land, but the landing process is taking a bit longer. We’re not seeing any changes in compensation,” said David Magy, principal at retained executive search firm Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates.

He expressed cautious optimism going forward, based on his firm’s work and conversations with peers around the country.

“We’ve started to see inquiries about new searches. It’s still a down year—but not nearly as down as we initially thought,” Magy said.

Here at Navigate Forward, our executive clients continue to garner interviews and land new roles.

“Hiring has not stopped,” said Jill Harmon, executive consultant at Navigate Forward and partner emeritus of search firm Ballinger Leafblad.

She added, “It’s very different than the Great Recession, at least so far. There’s absolutely hiring going on for senior executives.”

Navigate Forward executive consultant Patti O’Leary shared similar feedback. Prior to joining Navigate Forward, O’Leary ran executive search firm O’Leary & Grant.

“Candidates are continuing to land, but the landing process is taking a bit longer.” 

“For C-suite and president, the job market is still pretty robust,” she noted. “If you needed a CEO prior to this crisis, you need one now more than ever.”

David Lyman, principal at Lyman Executive Search, sees a wider range of hiring practices, with an uptick expected later in 2020 or early 2021. His company specializes in retained executive search for mid-size private companies.

“It’s a mixed bag,” he said. “Some search projects are on hold, others are full speed ahead because they’re essential businesses, or they’re just incredibly strategic positions.”

Slower Pace for Board, Marketing Roles

Certain sectors have slowed temporarily. Senior positions in the hospitality, food and travel industries are definitely impacted, said O’Leary.

Many companies are also holding off on corporate board of director positions.

“Board searches have slowed a bit; it’s not a great time to onboard a new director,” O’Leary noted.

“For C-suite and president, the job market is still pretty robust.”

Susan Rylance, vice president of growth and talent at Fahren, oversees strategic positions for senior marketing and digital roles. She reports a dichotomy in hiring: companies that view marketing as an expense—rather than a driver of innovation and growth—are the ones hitting pause on new hires.

“However, their skillsets are still needed, and so they’re bringing them in from a consulting perspective,” she said.

Hiring remains strong where this viewpoint differs.

“Especially with COVID-19, we all have to change and do business differently,” Rylance explained. “Companies that think of it as a business driver are investing in marketing and innovation. That’s where we still see hiring moving forward.”

Social Distancing Changes Interview Dynamics

When it comes to meetings and interviews, almost all conversations are now virtual. In many cases, that change speeds up the hiring process, while introducing a new element for candidates and interviewers.

“I have clients who were hired without a single in-person meeting,” Harmon said. “That would never have happened, pre-pandemic.”

O’Leary added, “In some cases the search has accelerated, because it’s a lot easier to interview people via Zoom than it is to fly them around the country.”

Lyman spends time helping his clients adjust to virtual interviews, which require different techniques to build rapport and get to know prospective leaders.

“I have clients who were hired without a single in-person meeting.”

“I’m trying to get my client companies comfortable with hiring virtually—that’s my challenge,” he said.

Onsite visits are still occurring, especially for top positions. However, instead of face-to-face discussions early on, most organizations now reserve these meetings exclusively for final candidates. Social distancing protocols also apply, with interviews shifting from small conference rooms to spacious training facilities.

“Boards just want to meet candidates in the worst way; this is a CEO hire,” said Marcia Ballinger, cofounder of Ballinger Leafblad, which specializes in executive searches for non-profit and public sector leaders.

More Emphasis on Culture, Empathy and Authenticity

With so many professionals and jobseekers now working from home—side-by-side with spouses, partners, children and pets—there’s far less ability to keep the personal and professional separate. That new dynamic puts empathy and authenticity at the forefront of the interview process.

“Culture is a much bigger piece of the hiring process,” Rylance noted. “You now see the full 360-degree view of a person. It’s more authentic.”

Ballinger agrees.

“It does bring to the executive talent marketplace a lot more empathy,” she said. “There’s less stigma. There’s more connection to people who are in job transition.”

“Culture is a much bigger piece of the hiring process.”

Magy is struck by a process that’s slightly slower, but far more human.

“Every call we make starts with ‘How are you?’,” he said. “People care. They’re paying more attention to the nuances. Our clients say the same thing.”

Leadership Still Calls for Strategy, Innovation and Resilience

What hasn’t changed are the requirements for positions of leadership. In many cases, the need for resilience, innovation and strategy are more necessary than ever, given the challenges companies face in the “new normal” of business.

“Even though the pandemic has caused executives to pivot, be flexible and be innovative, those words were already on the job description,” Ballinger explained. “The basic parameters of being a CEO—setting a strategy, managing teams, programmatic leadership—those are staying the same.”

O’Leary reiterated the importance of creating a strong professional narrative and knowing how to package your skills.

“Even though the pandemic has caused executives to pivot, the basic parameters of being a CEO are the same.” 

“The need hasn’t changed,” she said. “You still have to present a strong resume. You have to indicate that you are a resilient candidate. You have to be professional in the interview.”

Rylance sees increased emphasis on demonstrating innovation, especially for marketing leaders.

“Companies are looking for somebody who can think outside the box and help them mold their business in a different way,” she said. “Candidates need to bring something new and innovative to the table—it’s crucial to landing that next interview and next job.”

Need more guidance in your executive job search? Since 2008, Navigate Forward has helped more than 1,500 executives at 400 companies find their next destination. Our virtual delivery model can support senior leaders in any location. Contact us to learn more.

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