Leadership Hiring in the Post-pandemic world

Published: 15 November 2021

It feels a little glib to suggest that we are amidst uncertain times, but acceptance of your environment is a critical part of coping and ultimately thriving. Since early 2020 in some way each of us has been challenged to redefine our relationship with work, at the same time the very nature of business has similarly been altered. Due to the constraints of the pandemic employees and customers have evolved to fulfilling their roles, and consuming products and services, through new channels and with dramatically changed tempo. 

Identifying leadership talent which can lead change in these ‘VUCA’ times requires a fresh lens. The traditional assessment of leaders through competency-based interviews feels comfortable but not without risk. If the hiring process is hoping to surface comparable experience of steering the ship through ‘unprecedented times’, it is going to come up short. So, how do you square this circle? 

With the ebbing of the pandemic, focus has shifted from survival to recovery and growth. Leaders must quickly assess lessons learned, what new practices need to endure, and which changes must be made to capitalise on the flux in the market. And just like that leadership success is less about what they did in their yesterdays, but whether an individual has the skills to evolve to the demands of ‘now’ and ‘next’, alongside the mental dexterity to cope with strategies for ‘later’ that hold a higher degree of uncertainty than ever before. The currency of leadership is fast shifting towards adaptability, resilience, collaboration and communication. In our VUCA world, past performance is seemingly ever more unreliable as an indicator of future leadership performance. 

This has substantial implications for talent retention, talent development, and talent acquisition processes. Firms are ever more seeking leaders with a rich personal capacity for change, adaptability and learning, rather than a play book of past success. Re-gearing hiring processes to reflect this is a major challenge, especially in a market which is coping with challenges of scarcity, uncertainty and a new set of motivators and values from prospective candidates. If the pandemic proved anything, it is that work is a thing that we do, not necessarily a place that we go. 

Here we are again at the ‘War for Talent’ 

And just like that here we are again at the ‘War for Talent’. Many have suggested that in economic downturns the war for talent stops. As a veteran headhunter of the last three decades, I’ve worked through a number of major market depressions. So let me quickly dispel that assertion, smart firms hire well, always. A universal truth of my world is that there are always good jobs for good people. While options may be limited in comparison to boom markets, I’ve never yet seen demand for talent dry up. 

Consider that relative to the entirety of the market, quality leaders who are able to thrive in a VUCA world are scarce and consistently sought after by the many. The willingness for overseas leadership talent to venture to the UK has been dented by Brexit and the constraints of the pandemic, while opportunities for UK leaders to work internationally remain plentiful. 

However, it isn’t all bad news. Inherently those who are motivated by transformation and change, are self-insulated against market volatility. They actively seek to avoid BAU leadership and run towards the uncertain and the volatile in order to create something new. Capturing their attention is key to success. Clearly strong relationships with recruitment partners who actively talent spot, build networks of quality trusted candidates, who take their call when the opportunity is right, will pay dividend. It has never been more critical to choose partners able to articulate, reflect and share the values, purpose and ambitions of your business. Authenticity counts and speaks up loud above the clamour. 

It is clear to see that the in order to have sustainable communities of talent available to meet business demand, smart firms must have both external and internal supply. A business based on importing talent at every turn risks a disjointed culture, and one in which people struggle to see their route forward. ‘Grow your own’ succession schemes can cast a long shadow. They are material in supporting the career ambitions of high potential employees, while sustaining cultural continuity, and in turn attracting growth minded leaders. High potential candidates need the opportunity to perform and prove their worth. Arguably there is no better time to do this than when market performance baselines are being rethought and reimagined. 

Developing talent must come hand in hand with retention. There is little glory to be had in training leaders for your competition. An honest appraisal of your existing leadership community is key to attracting and retaining future leaders. If your Board, ExCo and SMT lack the ability to grow and learn in order to meet the challenge of the now and next, they will never captivate those candidates who can consistently evolve – be they internal or external. 

Reset and recovery 

Across the many search mandates, we have led through the pandemic, and now into the reset and recovery, there has been a palpable focus upon these harder to evidence traits of curiosity, tenacity, innovation and people engagement. We are in a largely unchartered world, and anyone claiming to have the map leading out of the swamp should be met with caution! Firms are recognising the need to equip their leadership teams with new mindsets. New and future leaders have to be prepared to trail find – to show willingness to explore new routes, use all of the resources available to them as they seek out the right path, and encourage their teams to contribute and follow with confidence. At the risk of oversimplifying it, we’re seeking to identify people who are led by how they define and own next actions, over and above what they’ve done many times before. 

While I would happily erase the pandemic from history, it’s an exciting time to be involved in hiring transformational leaders. As the quote says, bad things do happen, but how we respond to them defines character and quality of life. Helping great leaders to find other great people, to deliver improved quality of life (through products and services) for colleagues, and customers alike, is a pretty rewarding place to be. 

Matt Cockbill is a Partner and leads the IT & Digital Leadership Practice, Berwick Partners (an Odgers Berndtson company).

*This article first appeard in The Global Recruiter in October 2021 

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