Executive Search Firms Adapt Services to COVID-19 Pandemic

Storbeck Search & Associates takes an alternative approach as it presses on in its search for University of Wisconsin System president. Virtual recruiting could become the new normal, says one expert.

April 1, 2020 – A search assignment that was reported on last December has taken an unusual turn due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the U.S. The search for a new president of Wisconsin’s public university system, led by Storbeck Search & Associates, is making progress, even amid the current health crisis. Spearheading the assignment for the search firm: managing partner Shelly Weiss Storbeck, partner R. Thomas Fitch and senior associate Kenna Boyd.

“We continue to proceed with the search for the next University of Wisconsin System president given how critical it is to the future of Wisconsin,” said Michael Grebe, chairman of the university search committee. “Of course, we are proceeding differently given the pandemic and the constraints it has imposed, which will include virtual interviews for those candidates taking the next step in the process slated for mid-April. We are moving forward using the tools we have available at any given time with the hope that we can stay on schedule.”


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Asked what public input, if any, will be sought during the remainder of the search, university system spokesman Mark Pitsch said: “We are going to use the tools we have available given the situation at the time. We are taking it one step at a time.” The search committee’s website still allows people to submit written feedback, and several listening sessions were held in December and January.

“Storbeck Search & Associates is a preeminent executive search firm with a deep understanding of higher education,” said Mr. Grebe. “We look forward to this partnership as the UW System presidential search committee searches for the next UW System president.” The new president is still expected to be appointed in late spring.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the committee’s approach differs from at least one other large university system searching for its next leader. The California State University system suspended its search and plans to return to it later this year. The current leader had planned to retire in June, but will stay on for longer than intended. Executive search firm WittKieffer is leading that assignment.

Higher Education Searches

Storbeck Search & Associates is a woman- and minority-owned firm. It specializes in higher education executive recruitment for colleges and universities, with additional practices in independent school and non-profit recruitment. Ms. Storbeck is one of the most widely recognized names in higher education search, having recruited senior leaders for some of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Most recently, she conducted president searches for the University of Pittsburgh, University of Wisconsin, Bates, Denison, Haverford and Swarthmore colleges. Over her career, she has conducted more than 500 searches for public and private universities, colleges and schools, and non-profit associations and organizations.

Related: 11 Key Strategies for Seeking a New Job During a Pandemic

Dr. Fitch has more than 25 years of recruiting and search experience. Recent placements have included senior-level administrators at institutions ranging broadly from small liberal arts colleges to large private universities, to public institutions small and large. Over the years he has held positions in both higher education and corporate recruiting. Ms. Boyd has extensive higher education experience and a deep passion for advancing the mission of an institution through hands-on relationship-building, client service, and strategic planning. She brings special expertise to development and advancement searches. Prior to joining Storbeck, Ms. Boyd served as director of donor relations at the University of Virginia.

Adapting to the New Reality

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the nation, executive recruiter are using new methods to complete their work in a business that typically involves many face to face meetings. In today’s climate, online interviews could be the new normal — not just because of the coronavirus crisis but because companies are realizing meaningful cost savings. That is leading to a more broad acceptance of the practice. Carol Hartman of Hartman Group Consulting recently offered Hunt Scanlon readers with useful tips to master your next online interview.

“Conducting interviews as a hiring manager or candidate from your home is a critically important skill and may become a permanent way of doing business,” she said, long after the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Here are some factors to consider and master:

“Ideally, you should have a space dedicated for online meetings in your home,  whether you are a candidate or hiring manager—or just as a matter of best practice,” Ms. Hartman said. “This morning as I watched morning news programs, (I noticed that) even professional communicators do not have well thought out, professional situations prepared outside of their studios.”

Related: Crisis Management: Leading in Times of Great Uncertainty

Ms. Hartman also said to make sure that you understand how to use the service you’ve chosen. “Three minutes before an online interview is no time to realize that you don’t have the latest version of Skype or Zoom uploaded,” she said. “It has been reported that internet providers are experiencing significant issues with volume. You may want to consider scheduling your meeting time very early in the morning to avoid competing for bandwidth. Late in the day might have businesses dialing it down, but families are starting to settle in with evening entertainment.”


Working Virtually Keeps Everyone Safe and Productive
Staying at home may be the best way to stay safe in these early days of the global coronavirus crisis, but it also happens to be the best way to get the most done at work. That is according to a new Korn Ferry survey of professionals regarding working virtually. 


For an interview, she also said to avoid being surrounded with notes and research. You can have neatly prepared and organized questions and you should take notes. “There is often a brief lag (just a second or two) but enough that you can step on each other, laugh it off and then just wait a second before speaking and it won’t happen again,” Ms. Hartman said. “Pro-tip: Write questions or important things you want to remember on sticky notes and place them on the edge of the computer screen. That way you don’t have to look down or search for them.”

Firms Offering Discounted Services

Meanwhile, two other search firms shared with Hunt Scanlon that they will be offering discounted services to help clients during this pandemic. Executive search experts at Saenger Associates recently created a special program for clients who have an immediate need to fill executive or senior management positions. The firm’s new “Virtual Fast-Tracked 30-Day Retained Executive Search” offer, which is focused on the aerospace & defense and industrial products industries, essentially puts Saenger Associates’ well-known search strategies on steroids. The new plan is designed to immediately fill a vacancy in a critical position due to health issues, a resignation, or an incumbent who couldn’t perform to acceptable standards or the hiring away of a key executive by a competitor.

“Our time target for offer acceptance is usually 70 days, but for our Virtual Fast-Tracked clients, we cut it to 30,” Mr. Saenger said. “We do this by tripling down on research and recruiters as well as on the daily communication between all the stakeholders via phone, email and video conferencing,” he said. “The only corner we cut for the 30-day program is time. Of course, the 30-day timeframe is contingent on our client and candidates showing up and keeping up with our expedited priority schedule.”

“In conversations with our clients, all conducted virtually, several of them noted the urgency to speed up searches, and refine the process of handling all interviews, presentations, discussions and feedback virtually,” said search firm founder and president Gary Saenger. “We’re offering this new service because our nation is at war with an invisible enemy, and our lives, the economy and everything else is at stake, so no matter what our business is, we all have to step up and contribute,” Mr. Saenger said. “We all know colleagues, clients and candidates who are going through very tough times right now, and we’re committed to do our very best to be there for them, both personally and professionally,” he said. “At the same time that we all face this huge challenge, we’re also presented with huge opportunities to reinvent and improve the way we do business.”

N2Growth, a Philadelphia-based management consulting and executive search firm, will also be deferring 50 percent of all search fees for new engagements until after the COVID-19 pandemic has been contained. “This is a rather unprecedented time, and it’s during times like this that we need to come together and find opportunities to serve each other,” said Mike Myatt, founder and chairman of N2Growth. “The spread of COVID-19 is causing suffering for thousands of families around the world; it is disrupting daily life, closing schools, and impacting markets. We feel an obligation to lead by example and do our part to help the marketplace get to the other side of this.”

Related: Unemployment Claims Surge as COVID-19 Pandemic Crisis Deepens

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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