Success with Virtual Exec Searches During the Pandemic - from Museum Search & Reference

AUGUST 19, 2020

By Connie Rosemont, Senior Search Consultant, and Marilyn Hoffman, Principal THE CHALLENGE OF COVID-19 LOCKDOWNS FOR EXECUTIVE SEARCHES  The abrupt closure of businesses and cultural institutions due to the coronavirus crisis and the shut-down of local and national travel left museums that were in the middle of a hiring process feeling frozen in place. If museums were suddenly unable to bring in candidates, how could the interview and hiring process move forward? If the search were postponed, what would the repercussions be?  We found ourselves in this situation with three searches, asking the same questions. Because it was important in two cases to keep to a calendar and put an executive director in place without undue delay, we opted to design a process where everything but the final confirmatory visit could be done remotely over Zoom. It has worked out surprisingly successfully.

CREATING AN ADAPTED REMOTE SEARCH PROCESS At Museum Search & Reference, we’ve had success bringing three executive searches to completion by relying significantly on virtual interviews and meetings. The re-designed “remote” interview structure required us, as a search firm, to evaluate the goals of face-to-face interactions and create steps that could substitute.  We worked to creatively replace our usual onsite search-committee meetings and two rounds of candidate interviews with Zoom gatherings.  We discovered that, in some ways, the virtual experience allows for a cleaner process, more explicitly focused on institutionally identified evaluation metrics. The face-to-face meetings, now placed at the very end of the search, became confirming events – especially for the finalists – that the hoped-for “chemistry” and social compatibility were present. It takes extra effort to set up the virtual processes to allow the Search Committee to have an apples-to-apples comparison with all candidates remotely. While our pre-coronavirus searches had often incorporated video interviews for the first round of candidates – often to save travel money for the museum client – in the last few months, we needed to replace even the onsite finalists’ visits with a remote format.  We all were pleasantly surprised at how successfully Zoom could replicate the process. 

For example, for one search, we set up a full day and a half of online interviews for each of the two finalists. This included a series of 20-minute, one-on-one meetings between the candidate and key staff, longer meetings with bigger groups of staff, and a lengthy one-on-one meeting with the sitting director. Finalists also had an informal interview hour with a few key donors. Each candidate gave a presentation with PowerPoint slides using the Zoom webinar format to 40+ invited staff, board and stakeholders, who were then able to ask questions using the Q&A feature. This give-and-take after the talk turned out to substitute nicely for what in normal times would have been an in-person reception and chance to chat with each finalist. The Q-and-A portion went on for about 35 minutes and felt close to actually mingling with the candidate. The format also had the advantage of permitting distant and even ill stakeholders (one had COVID-19) to participate, so that instead of the usual 25-30 participants, there were over 40. 

We, as a search firm, coordinated all the Zoom meetings and stayed online as an administrator to ensure there were minimal technical glitches. We also amended our participant feedback form to include a numerical rating sheet for ease of online response, as well as space for comments.  We asked all participants to send us their feedback within 6 hours, which we then compiled, so that on Day 2, the Search Committee could conduct a formal interview with the finalist, having taken into account feedback from all participants from the prior day.

Getting all invited participants onto the Zoom calendar required more coordination than our traditional face-to-face invitations and RSVP’s, but with careful attention to detail, this piece also worked well. Because Zoom meetings were new to at least half of the participants, we held a training session in advance of the actual candidate interview dates. With email memos laying out the ground rules and participation steps, museum staff, trustees and invited stakeholders all made the commitment to participate in these online conversations, and everyone was able to get online. The format was popular and successful.

The Search Committee was comfortable ranking the two finalists based on the collected staff and participant feedback, along with their own Zoom interviews and meetings. From there, they made the decision to invite just one finalist – their top choice – to visit onsite. If this first candidate had withdrawn after seeing the museum and city, the Search Committee was committed to bringing in the runner-up. Why did the Search Committee not directly offer this first-choice finalist the job?  In spite of the clear ranking, the in-person verification seemed critical to everyone. Without it, perhaps the board would miss some intangibles or be open to criticism for missing a character trait, if no one had met the finalist in person and the hire did not work out.

More importantly, neither candidate had visited the museum before. Both signaled they could not accept a position without first visiting the museum and community. Consequently, we arranged a format that once again broke from the normal process. Because the museum was still closed to the public and the community was only in Phase I of post-lockdown re-opening, the top-ranked candidate came on her own by car and toured the closed museum with only the retiring director, both wearing face masks. She was then led on a driving tour through the community with a Search Committee member (who was also a realtor) leading the way in his own car and the two connecting via phone to chat about neighborhoods and local sights. This was followed by a 10-person, live meet-and-greet session in the main gallery of the museum with members of the Search Committee and two key donors, set up to allow everyone the proper social distancing, and with masks.

At the conclusion of this visit, with both parties still excited, a job offer was made and quickly accepted. The Search Committee completed its tasks exactly on schedule. As the Search Committee was going into the finalist interviews, all of us were unsure whether the virtual platform would give us what we needed to measure and evaluate candidates. Our own responses were favorable and, after collecting feedback from all participants, we found that everyone was able to state clearly a preference for one candidate over another and give reasons for their preference. Still, a few key stakeholders said they would prefer to verify these preferences by a face-to-face follow-up. It emerged that many participants had doubted that they would have enough information to make a good, “gut” decision using only a video and computer interface. Unexpectedly, everyone found they were comfortable making an informed decision without the face-to-face piece. When that piece came, it validated what had been experienced remotely. As a final step at the conclusion, the hiring choice was approved unanimously by the full Board at their next (Zoom) meeting. 

TWO MORE SEARCHES In the second successful CEO search, the hiring committee had done a virtual first-round of interviews but felt that the face-to-face experience with two finalists would add critical information. Because the state had re-opened as the search reached this stage, small onsite meetings became permissible. The two finalists were both within driving distance of the museum (a third finalist withdrew because of the need to fly and to potentially move from across the country), so the museum organized a modified site visit with social-distancing protocols. What became apparent was that the social-distancing protocols – wearing masks and keeping people far apart in meeting rooms – was a negative factor and impeded the ability of people to judge whether their “gut reactions” were legitimate. If someone’s face is covered with a mask, can you tell if they smiled when they made an ironic comment, or if they were serious? The awkwardness of the “new normal” for in-person gatherings underscored that using Zoom video for virtual meetings actually erases a level of second-guessing that might now arise in face-to-face social interactions, where, for instance, it is harder to discern social cues if someone is speaking through a mask. Another challenge was getting some participants to follow all the safety protocols. Thus, we left these two different search experiences recommending to our clients that Zoom meetings actually worked better than in-person masked-and-distanced meetings. 

We conducted a third search where the meetings took place before the March pandemic closures, and interviews for the finalists could be held onsite just before the close-down.  Even so, a few search committee members were in high-risk categories for COVID-19, and therefore, we provided a Zoom platform for them to join the live meetings.  This hybrid formula worked successfully, and a hire was made on schedule.  A hybrid format might be the wave of the future, as museums re-open but not everyone is willing to travel or join live meetings, or as gatherings in some states remain limited to 10 or 20 people. 

Conclusions In normal times, a fair percentage of the money budgeted for a search goes towards flying in candidates for face-to-face interviews. Adapting to COVID-19 restrictions has taught us that it may not always be necessary to spend that money on pre-finalist visits or even finalist visits. A full commitment from the Search Committee to virtual meetings and a patient open-mindedness to using new technology can keep a Zoom-based search process on schedule and can produce exciting results, even with travel restrictions and closed museums. The anticipated challenges of remote engagement dissolve in the real-world moment of being together in a virtual Zoom meeting – our collective senses continue to work with our judgment capabilities to provide the evaluation tools we need to make good decisions on behalf of our institutions. Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms allow Search Committees to creatively adapt their hiring processes to these unprecedented times. With good consultant facilitation, the process can be straightforward, enjoyable, and productive for both the institution and the candidates. 

Additional factors to consider in doing a search remotely include the candidates’ ability to visit the site, their needs in the housing market, and their own ability and willingness to potentially start work by leading from afar if travel restrictions continue. If these additional factors can be managed, we wholeheartedly recommend that searches go forward using Zoom and virtual technologies. 

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Sharing this here! An amazing blog post by Tom Adams about the mother of all transitions: Trump to Biden.

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