October 5, 2020 – Over the past six months, The Bowdoin Group has completed several executive searches with venture- and private equity-backed companies. Although the majority of the firm’s clients and their investors expressed some degree of concern kicking off the assignments, according to the firm’s Sean Walker, “as we moved through each successful placement, it became clear that COVID-19 has not necessarily changed executive search fundamentally – it has only moved the processes and tools we use to build trust and relationships into a digital format.”
Mr. Walker said that client companies who are forging ahead with talent hunts are navigating the pandemic landscape well, and many are using the opportunity to bring new talent on board as a competitive advantage. Zoom meetings, facilitated socially distanced walks, and virtual tours have all played their part in the new normal of recruiting.
Bowdoin Group said there are important nuances to know if you’re hiring an executive for your C-suite or your portfolio company during COVID-19. The firm offered three ways leading investors, boards and CEOs are pivoting their hiring process to stay ahead of their competition and sign incredible talent:
1. Creating 1:1 Connections
The traditional executive search process often relies on multi-person group meetings. “As a stakeholder, you want to understand how that individual would lead and command a room, and how they would socially connect with the broader team,” said Mr. Walker. “You want to see a dynamic where the leaders at the table are intellectually stimulated and create a safe environment where the candidate can respectfully challenge and be challenged to demonstrate their vision and leadership abilities.”
There are also many benefits to this way of recruiting. According to Mr. Walker, it can allow stakeholders to get a sense of the cultural fit of a particular candidate and develop camaraderie as a social unit. But when interviews are moved online, he noted, it can be challenging to capture the same atmosphere in a group video meeting as you could with large, in-person meetings.
Sean Walker has over 25 years of search, sales, and business development experience with venture-backed and emerging growth companies in the innovation economy. As a partner at The Bowdoin Group, he started a number of the firm’s practices, including those in digital health and healthtech. Mr. Walker is deeply integrated in the digital health ecosystem, having worked closely with BoDs, VC and PE firms to define their go-to-market strategies and help them understand and define the types of C-level leaders they want and need.
To cultivate the right social atmosphere and make it easier to connect, Bowdoin Group found it is important to limit large group meetings – which can feel very isolating or awkward on video – while facilitating more smaller group and creative 1:1 meetings. The firm said that enabling stakeholders and executive candidates to interact in a setting that is the most effective and comfortable for them, such as a socially distanced outdoor walk or curated 1:1 quick-hitting strategy session, makes it possible to give everyone involved the information they need to feel comfortable making a decision.
2. Increase Frequency, Decrease Duration
There is no denying COVID-19 has had an impact on how CEOs, investors and candidates experience the recruiting process. In most cases, it has revealed a need for more transparent and frequent communication. “We have consistently found that replacing less frequent longer meetings with more frequent shorter meetings as well as frequent check-ins made the process less frustrating,” Mr. Walker said. “These meetings are also easier to schedule in close proximity to each other because travel no longer poses a significant scheduling challenge.”
For example, when Bowdoin Group experimented with two- to three-hour Zoom dinners, both stakeholders and interviewees gave feedback that the experience was not an effective use of time. But when the firm modified these events to be short but intimate Zoom discussions, both sides of the table felt they were able to form a connection and get the information they needed to move forward.
3. Build Trust with Transparency
When the pandemic disrupted normal operating procedures, it was natural for stakeholders and candidates alike to feel more stress around the executive search process. “Building trust as a collective unit – among the C-suite, investors, the candidate, and us as search partners – became critical to creating connections and understanding the hurdles we’d face in building a consensus,” Mr. Walker said. “To achieve this, an entirely new level of transparency and communication between all the stakeholders involved was needed and necessary.”
Bowdoin Group, for example, recently worked with one executive candidate who had been through countless interviews for a recent chief executive position. To put it bluntly, said Mr. Walker, he was exhausted. As a current CEO, he had been through this exact process before, but this time it looked and felt very different for obvious reasons. While this CEO candidate was still eager to take on the job, the interview process had dragged on with new interviewers and marathon meetings added to the list daily.
To address this disconnect, Bowdoin Group created a concrete two-week plan to get that CEO through the process that created a deeper level of transparency for all parties involved. Since he was one of the first candidates in that particular search, the firm was able to work with the candidate to understand their needs and wants while partnering with the search committee to accommodate their candidacy to the best of their abilities.
The Bowdoin Group, a Boston-based executive recruitment firm, has placed the new chief executive officer for Alpha II, which provides software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions for healthcare professionals, clearinghouses and government entities. Todd Doze joins the Tallahassee-based company from TransUnion, where he was vice president of reimbursement solutions. The search was spearheaded by Josh Gottlieb, managing director, digital health, and Sean Walker, partner.
Pre-COVID, Bowdoin Group would set out on each search with a defined process. Early in this pandemic, the firm found that in order to reach the best outcome with everyone on board, they needed to refine and continuously think through the typical interview schedule because this was not “business as usual.”
“Reaching a consensus on a CEO candidate during a pandemic takes extra work for all parties involved,” said Mr. Walker. “Being transparent throughout it all – and the changes that have occurred due to the pandemic – helps all stakeholders feel confident they know where they are in the search and builds trust that we’ll ultimately get to the right decision together.”
One thing is clear in the era of COVID-19: Everyone has their own level of risk tolerance. “Whether it’s at home, at work, or in hiring, we’re all coping with the global pandemic as well as we can,” Mr. Walker said. “Unfortunately, that has also translated into some growth-stage companies slowing down or stopping their executive search processes due to the uncertainty of COVID-19. They’re hesitant to make any significant changes when so much is still unknown.”
“Based on my experience, I’ve started to see that now is not the time to take a watch-and-wait approach to your next executive hire – and not just because I work for an executive search firm,” he said. “Today, the process behind that successful search still requires the same conversations, connections and results. But now that the process must take place almost entirely virtually, companies and their investors must adapt and update their approach to be flexible to changing communication preferences, risk tolerance and speed of every individual involved in the process.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media