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Recruiters on landing a top executive job now

Be prepared to talk about how you responded to the pandemic and racial justice movement; don’t rely on notes in a video call

Watch the Webcast recorded on February 18, 2021

By Kathryn Walson

Boards are more comfortable with virtual interviews than they were six or nine months ago, but CEO candidates still face the challenge of forming a connection with people through a computer screen.

“You have to keep your energy up. You have to really lean in. You have to be crisp. You have to answer the questions. You have to figure out how to build rapport with people in this medium when you can’t sit across the table,” said Lorraine Lavet, association sector leader at executive search firm Korn Ferry.

Lavet participated in the CEO Update LIVE Feb. 18 webcast on executive recruiting. Also on the panel: Jim Zaniello, president and founder of Vetted Solutions, and Julian Ha, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles. CEO Update Managing Director Mark Graham moderated.

Graham noted that new vacancy announcements tracked by CEO Update are running about the same so far in 2021 as they were in the years before the pandemic.

Zaniello said boards of directors are seeing the need to operate under a new business model and are looking for innovative and entrepreneurial talent in their C-suite. At the same time, he said talented executives are more comfortable making a move—now that they’ve put a plan in place for their organizations—and more willing to be recruited for a new opportunity.

One particularly desirable skill? “I do think search committees light up when CEOs are talking about how they used last year to transform everything they do with the lens of technology, and technology at a level that’s never been seen before,” Zaniello said.

But the hiring process continues to be affected by the pandemic. Ha said that because he may not have met a candidate face to face before, he is doing even deeper vetting and more referencing than ever.

“We’ve really doubled, tripled down in some cases, in terms of both formal and quiet referencing,” he said.

Previously, recruiters had to get “all the stars to align” for seven or eight members of a search committee to meet in person, Ha said, but now they all just “jump on another Zoom” call. As a result, some searches are closing more quickly, but in other cases associations are interviewing more candidates or requesting more rounds of interviews.

The recruiters cautioned candidates to remember the basics—such as wearing pants even in a virtual interview—and how to project through a screen. Lavet said some people get stuck on reading notes, which they probably wouldn’t do in an in-person meeting.

“They sound very scripted. In debriefs, we hear that from the client that, ‘We want someone at a CEO level who is extemporaneous, who can just answer the question because it’s organic for them,’” Lavet said.

One issue that has come up more frequently during the pandemic has been relocating for a job. While some professional societies are flexible about where a CEO lives, trade groups often require a CEO to be based at the headquarters, Ha said.

Lavet said she has had a couple of situations where candidates were ready to move, but at the last minute spouses changed their minds because of a COVID-19 outbreak or the in-person versus virtual instruction situation at a new school.

“Really give some thought with your families. Is this really a good time for relocation? I would be upfront about that,” she said. “Some organizations are more patient in terms of the timing of the relocation. So you should ask about that. Do I have to relocate right away? Or can I be virtual, at least for a period of time, and relocate in six months?”


Candidates today must be ready to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. Ha said clients have started bringing up DEI before he does.

Ha recommends reflecting on how you led your organization through 2020’s upheaval, including the pandemic and racial justice movement: “What did you do to address these issues and move the needle in the right direction?” he said.

DEI leadership must come from the top, Lavet said. Boards want to know how CEO candidates have incorporated DEI into how they approach the entire enterprise, including strategic planning, board succession, organizational culture and decision making at every level, she said.

Lavet responded to a question from the webcast audience about how a candidate, who is a person of color, can confirm that an organization is being genuine in its commitment to diversity. Lavet said it is very important to ask direct questions in an authentic and engaging way. She said the second round of interviews is probably the time to start having this conversation.

“Be really sure they’re going to support you. Because when you join the organization, you’re going to want to make some changes, and you don’t want to be going uphill,” Lavet said.


It’s more important than ever for organizations to be transparent about their finances with CEO candidates, Zaniello said. He recommends candidates ask for projections going out 12 to 18 months and sometimes two years beyond the current budget.

“If you want to recruit top talent, you’ve got to completely open the books,” Zaniello said. “If an organization is experiencing challenging financial times, so are a lot of other organizations, and I think you can still bring incredible top talent who might be excited about helping to turn that around, just so long as they understand the dynamics that they’re walking into.”

Candidates want to avoid a situation where they are told one thing about the group’s finances and find out something else once they start, Lavet said. Just because it’s a big, well-known organization doesn’t mean it has been run well.

Ha said some associations under financial pressure have gotten creative when making offers: “They say, ‘Look, we’ve opened our books. You know where we are. We can only afford X. But hopefully under your leadership … we’ll all share in the upside.’” 


Recorded November 17, 2021


Julian Ha
Julian Ha

Partner, Heidrick & Struggles

Lorraine Lavet
Lorraine Lavet

Section Leader, Association, Korn Ferry

Jim Zaniello
James Zaniello

President, Vetted Solutions

Mark Graham
Mark Graham

Managing Director, CEO Update

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