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This is how you hire an executive leader you’ve never met in person

This is how you hire an executive leader you’ve never met in person 1

By Anne Murphy, Partner and Global Head of the Financial Services Practice at Odgers Berndtson,

discusses how financial services firms can overcome the limitations of remote hiring when making their next leadership appointment

Before coronavirus, it would have been highly unusual for organisations to hire a director to the board or executive committee without ever having met them in person. Appointing someone to your leadership team requires a detailed exploration of an individual, beyond their skills and experience – what drives them, how they lead, how they’ve achieved what they have, how they manage difficult and complex situations, how they respond when faced with adversity, whether they’ll fit in with the rest of the leadership team and importantly, whether they are being truthful. Much of how we form an impression is ascertained from physical responses – a tapping leg, fidgeting hands or stiffening or relaxing in a chair. These are bodily reactions that an interviewer can see in person but are incredibly difficult to pick up when that person is reduced to a small box on a screen which only shows their face and upper torso.

In short, organisations didn’t conduct interview processes entirely by video calls before the pandemic because in-person interviews are far more effective. Yet financial services firms still need to make critical leadership hires, and whilst the UK and other countries may be easing lockdowns, many are not and the financial services candidate pool at this level is global. Even in countries where the R rate has reduced, strict social distancing measures will be in place for some time and the risk of future waves, localised lockdowns and reticence to travel means that remote interviews are here to stay. How do we therefore adapt the interview process for leadership appointments so that they are just as effective remotely, as they are in person?

Firstly, increasing the number of people in the interviewing process so that the candidate meets more people from across the organisation, over both formal and informal video calls is helpful for both parties. By doing this, you can piece together a more complete assessment of the candidate from people in a variety of settings – they may have asked questions you didn’t think of or elicit responses you didn’t pick up on because the tone of the interview was different. With multiple views on a candidate, the hiring party is better able to assess soft skills and cultural and team fit.

Increasing the number of people you introduce a candidate to will (within reason!) also have a positive impact on how that candidate feels about the organisation and the process. Currently (and most likely for the next six to nine months), there is an enhanced risk for candidates, perceived or otherwise, when it comes to moving jobs. Increasing the number of touch points for the candidate demonstrates that you understand this risk and that you are serious about them and the role. In the absence of a visit to the office to meet people and get a feel for the place, speaking to a range of people they would interact with and who have recently joined in addition to the core interview group will help with the due diligence.

The next thing you should look at is the interviews themselves. Apart from the rare occasions when a child, pet, delivery driver or poor Wi-Fi connection interrupts them, video interviews can be overly formal affairs; there’s no handshake or natural pre-interview small talk where tea and coffee is handed out and you chat about the journey or the weekend. This makes it a lot harder to put the candidate at ease and therefore to evaluate EQ and chemistry indicators. It’s easy on a video call to get straight to business and not make the effort to properly engage. To overcome this, interviewers should make a conscious effort to spend the first few minutes in general conversation to relax the candidate. Preparing some social icebreaker questions will help mimic the informality of the in-person pre-interview welcome and afterwards, ensure there are more casual questions to end the interview with.

Building rapport is another aspect of the interview process that is key to determining ‘fit’ and something much more easily achieved in person than over a screen. Using eye contact during remote interviews helps overcome this hurdle and to do so, you either need to be looking directly into the camera when possible or you should move the tile/image of the candidate closer to the camera to provide a more natural sightline. Addressing or responding to the candidate by name can also help build the rapport you would otherwise achieve in person.

‘Overtalk’ is common in Zoom interviews – particularly in panel interviews where there are multiple interviewers. In this situation, it is particularly important to plan and agree who will chair the meeting and who will have responsibility for asking specific questions. To overcome the inability to read fellow interviewer’s physical queues, the chair should ‘stage manage’ the move from one interviewer to another and stick to an agreed format. Rules for ad-hoc and follow up questions should also be made clear in advance and be managed deliberately to avoid interviewers tripping over each other.

Finally, it is worth recognising that remote interviews do have a number of advantages over those conducted in person. Whilst uncommon, how someone reacts to an unruly child or inconvenient delivery will offer you a window into that person’s character and how they handle the unexpected. Zoom interviews are also a good measure of emerging leadership competencies. From now on, leaders can expect to work with a blended workforce of on-site and remote teams; those candidates who demonstrate patience, empathy and the ability to listen and read an interviewing panel’s ‘mood’ virtually are more likely to have the skills to lead the workforce of the future.

Whilst a completely remote interview process may seem unappealing or difficult, it is still very much possible to carry out a senior appointment during the pandemic. By adapting them correctly and recognising that as an interviewer you must do more to bring out the candidate’s personality, you can reduce their formality and overcome the limitations of judging character to the point where you are in fact, more likely to identify and appoint the type of leader that is fit for the emerging workforces that they will be required to lead. Combine this with extra data sources such as detailed referencing and leadership assessments and you will have a robust process to support the hiring decision and provide the right coaching and support to ensure success.

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