If you imagine that the pandemic, heightened awareness of racism, economic and other challenges are affecting recruiting and job searches, you are right.

What has not changed is the need for top talent. After a mid-March pause, Boards and CEOs have resumed hiring. Coincidentally, some leaders are deciding it’s time to step down or make a change. Times are different, in surprising and unexpected ways.

What do executive recruiting and job searches look like now? Here are 5 ways things are different, drawing from the collective experience of the BoardWalk team* during the first 6 months of the pandemic:

1. Making contact is the easy part. As Zoomed-out, over-scheduled and disrupted as everyone is, connecting virtually is actually not hard. We are able to reach prospective candidates, referral sources, search committee members and hiring managers more readily, in a world with less travel and fewer in-person commitments.

Interviewing by Zoom has leveled the playing field in some ways. Everyone shows up in equal squares on their home court. On the other hand, the Zoom format requires both candidates and search committees to more intentionally project energy, personality, focus and enthusiasm.

Almost all of our clients are conducting first- and second-round interviews virtually. The factors of place and chemistry still matter, of course, and search committees are making special efforts to hold in-person meetings with candidates of greatest interest. This is even more important when relocation is involved. One finalist candidate made a 10-hour drive to visit the organization, meet the Board and explore the community, culminating in an offer and a strong match.

We have found that convening candidate interviews on Zoom calls for crisp timing, pacing and discipline. Breaks between candidates help maintain energy and full committee engagement. One search committee improvised a friendly competition around who could click in fastest to each next Zoom interview site.

2. Diversity is more prized than ever. Organizations have become more intentional about recruiting leaders of color for the most senior positions, in part to align their leadership more closely with the communities the nonprofit serves. For nonprofits seeking to recruit top talent, demonstrated respect for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) matters more than ever.

Leaders of color are in great demand. Recruiting these leaders requires authentic, sustained and trusting networks and relationships, like those the BoardWalk team has nurtured over many years.

The current environment encourages candidates and sources of color to communicate more candidly about their real-life experiences, and to focus on roles that enable them to have meaningful impact in organizations that are welcoming of diverse backgrounds.

Candidates are asking deeper questions and expressing concerns more forthrightly. They are choosing to work at organizations that are authentically inclusive—or authentically determined and positioned to become so. Candidates are more hesitant to join institutions perceived as not delivering on stated DEI commitments. They don’t expect employers to have all the answers, but are assessing willingness to explore and address the issues.

BoardWalk has observed that within their current organizations, leaders of color are increasingly comfortable honestly calling out unequitable situations.

3. The risk/reward calculus has shifted. While first conversations with potential candidates can be easier to schedule, the bar for changing jobs is higher now. In an uncertain world, candidates are more conscious of the risks of transition. Individuals who are thriving in current positions with stable living situations often opt to stay put rather than to set out on a new adventure.

As always, nonprofit candidates’ passion for the particular mission and role is the key consideration as they assess an opportunity. But candidates are inspecting other things more deeply, like organizational financials, stability, culture and work environment. In a few cases, we have seen the selected candidate seek to mitigate risk by requesting slightly higher compensation, severance, a signing bonus or even a contract. We have seen a handful of candidate withdrawals late in the search process, after the candidate fully appreciates all aspects of a job transition.

Relocation is a nonstarter for many individuals, and more prospective candidates are asking whether they can work remotely. [The majority of BoardWalk clients resist this for senior leaders.]

Decisions about support structures weigh heavily: kids, schools, aging parents, spouses. In some instances people want to relocate closer to family, friends or hometown roots. Many who plan to relocate will first work remotely for a number of months.

The risk/reward calculus varies greatly among candidates. The thought process ranges from, “Given all I cannot control, why risk a change?,” to “I want do something that matters now more than ever,” to “Times of uncertainty present opportunities to make important changes in my life.”

Some individuals are leaning in and ready to take risks. Recent examples include a female candidate with a corporate, military and nonprofit background who has decided to “Set the tone of living intentionally. 2020 doesn’t happen to us. We get to live in 2020—and there are many people who won’t have that gift. So what do we want our family life and individual lives to be?” A longtime successful architect who designed prison facilities has decided to move into a criminal justice organization.

More people see serving on new boards as more feasible because they assume the meetings will be virtual.

4. Certain assets are valued more now. Leadership, management and relationship-building skills are evergreen, as is alignment with the organization’s mission and values. A few new assets are more highly-prized now:
• Resilience, adaptability and comfort with ambiguity
• Demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion
• Collaboration, communication skills and broad networks
• Technology savvy
• Ability to manage and project cultural values across dispersed networks, colleagues and teams

5. A diverse, enthusiastic search committee is key. The search committee is the candidates’ window into the organization. Its composition and demeanor convey the values, culture and direction of the organization. Candidates are looking to see: Is the group diverse? Cohesive? Thoughtful? Respectful? Excited about the institution and its potential? The composition and approach of the search committee play a more significant role than ever in recruiting.

To say yes to a new position, candidates need to believe they will be set up to succeed. They need to feel confident the organization and mandate are solid, and they will have the support of the search committee, Board, key staff and stakeholders. Getting candidates to this point of assurance can require more interviews and more information than might normally be the case.

Because virtual meetings impart less nuanced information, the search committee needs to work hard to impart excitement, values, culture and context. It is in everyone’s interests for finalists to meet with a wider-than-usual set of stakeholders in order to get a fully-rounded sense of the opportunities and challenges.

While finding the right match requires some different approaches on the part of both candidates and search committees, numerous successful BoardWalk searches in this period demonstrate that now is a fine time — albeit a unique time – to conduct a search or seek a new professional adventure.

Do you have experiences to share? We will include them in subsequent articles on the changing landscape.

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*This article was written by Kathy Bremer with extensive input from BoardWalk Consulting team members including Sam Pettway, Crystal Stephens, John Sparrow, Patti Kish, Diane Westmore and Paula Nicholas.

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