Woman on Video Conference

Thrust into a virtual world, organizations are forced to consider how this new context impacts leadership searches. Is it reasonable to hire a leader without meeting them in person?

The short answer is yes. In fact, the use of virtual interviews has been increasing in popularity for years. The best practices that guided search processes before we went entirely virtual still apply, with a few adaptations and new considerations. There are even potential benefits to widely adopting more virtual tools to support the recruitment process.

Organizations may never entirely return to how executive searches were conducted in the past. Virtual recruitment will continue to be essential in the months ahead. So, it’s important to consider which evidence-informed practices must be retained, what must be adapted, and what lessons learned from our global virtual immersion can be leveraged to bring the best of the virtual world into the future.

A successful search process is supported by five guiding principles: clarity, consistency, reliability, reciprocity and equity. This is true whether interviews are conducted face-to-face or virtually; however, the application of these principles must evolve.

Clarity: What do we want to assess?

To successfully recruit a leader, search committees must first understand and agree on the short- and long-term priorities as well as tasks, responsibilities and key behaviors required for the role. This information will directly translate into the competencies your new leaders must possess, as well as required credentials and experience they will require.

At a time when organizations are reconsidering their strategic priorities and adapting their operations, achieving a common understanding of the ideal leader’s profile will be crucial. A job analysis drawing on existing job descriptions, strategic plans, as well as input from key internal and external stakeholders can help to create a competency profile to guide the development of a comprehensive ideal leader profile.

Search committees often stray from the competency profile for a role in assessing interview performance, a trend that persists even in virtual formats. To ensure agreed upon profile competencies continue to guide the assessment process, it is critical that interview questions, assessments, and reference questions are chosen with target competencies in mind.

Consistency: Improving interviews

Whether conducted virtually or in-person, research and experience tell us that structured interviews (posing the same questions in the same way to all candidates) are the best way to gather candidate information for informed decisions. Situational (what would you do in this situation) and behavioural (what have you done in similar situations) interview questions both have merit in effectively predicting performance; however, behavioural questions have been shown to be slightly more effective in assessing performance for more complex management positions.

In a virtual interview, with the limited ability to see subtle body language and facial expressions of all participants, it is essential that search committee members understand their role in asking the questions. The committee Chair can play a lead role in ensuring that members understand who will facilitate introductions, who will ask each question, and how to pose clarifying questions or make a comment.

Investing time in advance of interviews to clarify the process can improve the experience for candidates. It will also enable committee members to focus on the interview content rather than worrying about the technical logistics.

Reliability: Checking references

References who can attest to a candidate’s experience and competencies are particularly relevant during these exceptional times. Individuals who have worked with a candidate in-person can provide valuable information about emotional intelligence, integrity, character and characteristics that are difficult to evaluate through an interview alone.

Reference calls should be conducted by experienced individuals and guided by consistent questions that explore each candidate in the relation to the ideal profile. When properly executed, reference calls provide an opportunity to validate the committee’s assessment and to explore issues that may have arisen through early assessment of the candidate.

In our experience, the reliability of reference information in assessing leadership candidates is improved by having the committee identify the referees from whom they would like information. This mitigates the biases a candidate might introduce by choosing only favourable referees.

Conducting reference calls with several referees and continuing to gather reference feedback until the committee is satisfied that they have a well-rounded and reliable perspective on the candidate also improves the value of this element of candidate assessment. Where possible we recommend the references be recorded and reported verbatim. Conducting references with a video conferencing platform is an opportunity to better gauge the referee’s response visually and, with their permission, record their response.

Reciprocity: The Candidate Perspective

Leadership candidates always have career options. It is important to ensure the interview experience is, at best, attracting them and, at a minimum, neutral in its effect on their assessment of the opportunity and the organization.

Human resource professionals or search consultants can play a critical role in hosting candidates, supporting them through the search process, and ensuring they are engaged and prepared. This is imperative in a virtual search as is planning for technology issues. Take the time to ensure audio, visual and connectivity are tested in advance, both for candidates and committee members.

Ensuring video conferencing etiquette is observed on both sides of the virtual interview table is essential. Discussing the importance of professional attire, neutral backdrops, good lighting and eye contact (by focusing on the camera) may be helpful. Reminding committee members to avoid multi-tasking can also contribute to a more positive candidate experience.

Equity: Reflecting on biases and barriers

Being conscious of bias in both in-person and virtual interviews is critical. Many best practices, such as consistent questions tied to the ideal profile and seeking information from multiple reliable sources, serve to mitigate the impact of bias. The movement towards virtual recruitment offers new opportunities to enhance objectivity and provide accommodations.

Having all candidates participate in a virtual format, rather than only those where geography makes it necessary, provides for a more equitable comparative assessment. Some virtual conference technologies may also make it easier to provide accommodations to candidates with disabilities, for example enabling closed captioning or displaying questions in the chat box as well as asking the questions verbally.

Recording interviews allows committee members to review the interview and assess the candidate independently, reducing the biases that emerge when ratings are done immediately following the interview based on recollection or influenced by the group’s immediate reactions. The structured nature of a virtual meeting also allows Chairs to better manage group dynamics, ensuring all voices are heard and enhancing the value of multiple perspectives.

While virtual formats minimize some of the cues that come from body language and physical appearance, participating in interviews from different locations can introduce new information about the candidate. Competence with technology, physical surroundings, décor, and even interruptions from family members and pets may all create impressions. It is important for both candidates and committee members to be aware of this. It is also important to remember to be proactive in asking candidates if they will require accommodations to fully participate in the process, so you can set the conditions for their success in advance.

The recent pace of change has been extraordinary. Out of necessity, organizations have welcomed new ways of working that had only been theorized before. The need for strong leadership won’t wait for that pace to slow, making virtual recruitment essential to ensuring a strong future.


Challenged in your search for a leader during the COVID-19 crisis? 

Reach out to one of our Executive Search Partners below for a confidential, exploratory discussion. 

Contact a Consultant

Anna Stuart
Anna Stuart , MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC
Senior Associate
Jeff Forbes
Jeff Forbes
Managing Partner
Kevin Stoddart , MBA, CMC
Managing Partner
Andrea Forbes-Hurley
Andrea Forbes-Hurley , MBA, CPHR
Managing Partner
Amorell Saunders N'Daw
Amorell Saunders N'Daw , BAA, MEd
Partner and EDI Lead
Katherine Frank
Katherine Frank , BA, CPHR
Partner, KBRS