As executive recruiters, part of our job is to keep a finger on the pulse of the market by talking to people every day. Business owners, board members, executive leaders, and job seekers all help us understand what’s really going on and how people are feeling across functions, industries, and geographies.
Since COVID, we have been retained by automotive, consumer products, industrial manufacturing, professional services, non-profit, and food & beverage clients who moved forward with succession plans, leadership transitions, and organizational changes, actively recruiting new Presidents, CEOs, and functional leaders.
We have talked to hundreds, if not thousands, of senior leaders this year. Keeping in mind that we work largely with privately-held businesses and at the senior-level, so our observations are not reflective of the entire market and things like long-term unemployment are still very real problems that will take time to resolve. But, from our perspective as executive recruiters, here are some of the observations and lessons we have gathered over this strange year, and how you can use them to prepare for future success:
Leaders were Visible and Transparent in the Post-Trust era.
Employers saw the pandemic as an opportunity to hire great talent while employees and job seekers felt largely in the dark and fearful that their job may be eliminated without warning. The companies that have come through the strongest have been led by leaders that have been visible, open, and honest about challenges, goals, and plans to overcome them. They have expressed their hopes alongside their fears and, in doing so, cultivated a cohesive culture of trust, support and collaboration.
Lesson: Find ways to be visible and talk to employees. No one expects you to guarantee their job forever, but they do expect to be treated with respect. If layoffs are necessary, offer letters of recommendation or resume review networks. Nearly every candidate we spoke with this year felt unsure of layoffs and were actively staying aware of other opportunities “just in case”.
They Cultivated Internal Mobility Programs
Forward-thinking companies have focused on growing robust internal mobility programs that offer job opportunities, career planning, coaching, upskilling / training, mentoring, and shadowing within their organization allowing employees to learn or “try out” other functions, jobs, and career paths without losing focus of their current job. The benefits of this are endless – employees feel engaged and excited while also becoming better critical thinkers and cross-functional performers. In tough times, more cross-training means more people can be redeployed instead of laid off.
Lesson: Great marketing minds have come out of finance and great sales leaders have come out of engineering – help employees explore their interests and develop their skills within the company and give them opportunities to grow outside of their immediate function.
They Embraced Virtual. Immediately.
Clients of all types and sizes did not waste any time embracing the video interview and quickly realized benefits in terms of speed to hire and breadth of candidates. Those who insisted on multiple in-person interviews lost great candidates who were uncomfortable with the in-person situation. And while meeting in-person is always best, a detailed interview process and well-structured zoom / video interviews are incredibly effective and time saving. Plus, you get the added benefit of seeing how they choose to present themselves within their own environment – things like bad lighting and messy backgrounds provide additional assessment points in how a candidate acts and communicates.
Lesson: Create a detailed interview process that incorporates multiple video interviews with a diverse hiring team (when possible). video interviews allow you to involve more functional leaders in the process while providing the candidate a broader view and additional perspectives.
They were empathetic and listened. Then they acted.
It is important to be empathetic, but the point comes where, if you do not make a decision and act, you are putting your company and employees at risk. Tough decisions are the core of what makes a leader a leader - someone has to decide and move forward. Trust is low in today’s world and people feel no allegiance if they feel they are being misled. Customers and employees alike will run if they sense you are hiding bad news with all talk and no action.
Lesson: People are listening and will not tolerate empty promises. Decisions in times of crisis are inherently risky but, as TR once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."
They Were Prepared to Pivot.
If this year has taught businesses anything, it is to be prepared for anything. Businesses had to learn to interact and function from remote locations. They had to figure out how to route customer service to individual homes instead of desks; investments in laptops and remote-work technologies were made. Sales organizations had to figure out how to measure and compensate outside sales teams who couldn’t be in front of customers. Companies that were already stretched thin had a much harder time adapting and were forced to cut corners, costs, and employees.
Lesson: Be prepared for the worst, while pursuing the best. Have financial plans and safety nets that allow you breathing room to respond, react, and pivot instead of throwing things overboard simply to stay afloat.
They redefined success, with an emphasis on people and purpose.
Many of the points we have covered so far have revolved around people, and rightfully so. Hand-in-hand with people is purpose; people like working for a company with a purpose – and customers like buying from them. For many years now that has been a growing trend amongst younger generations – we have seen people turn down big jobs because they didn’t believe the company was doing the right thing. No one wants to buy from a company that is harming animals or using toxic materials to cut costs – employees and customers will reward companies that make an effort to behave appropriately and will punish those that don’t.
Lesson: Profits and productivity will flow to those that prioritize people and purpose. Of course, if your purpose is to pollute the planet, this might not be true, so consider ways your business aligns and can help contribute to environment, community, or society. People will notice.
As 2020 has forced rapid and unexpected changes, the best leaders are thriving and changing the way we do business - remote and flexible work schedules, flatter organizations, zoom happy hours, more internal mobility options - companies are learning, adapting, and figuring it out – in ways that are improving work-life for many.