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Demand surges for leaders on digital transformation, DEI
February 10, 2022 |

This is a great time to be a talented executive looking for a new job.

There is intense competition, from both the nonprofit and corporate sectors, for those who can lead on digital transformation or who have a strong track record in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Compensation is increasing, organizations are offering greater flexibility, better work-life balance and in some cases, full-time work from home—from wherever you want to live. Just don’t blow the job interview, as recruiters see even the best job candidates do.

Those are among the insights provided by three experienced association executive recruiters at the CEO Update LIVE: Recruiting webinar on Feb. 10.

On the panel were Julian Ha, head of the government, policy and associations practice at Heidrick & Struggles, Lorraine Lavet, leader of the association practice at Korn Ferry and Jim Zaniello, president and founder of Vetted Solutions. CEO Update Managing Director Mark Graham moderated.

Zaniello said the so-called “Great Resignation” that is roiling the job market is now having an impact on associations. Boards are working hard to retain executives.

“Boards that are happy with the CEO they have in place are sometimes renewing contracts earlier to lock in the executive and try to incent them not to go anywhere,” he said.

At the same time, corporations are offering high salaries to attract and retain talent. Ha said he sees a lot more private-sector clients reaching into the association world.

“Organizations, not just at the CEO level but in the C-suite, are all competing for talent with Amazon and Google and others,” Ha said. “And I’ve been doing a lot of work in the crypto and blockchain space. They’re all sucking up a lot of talent and paying sometimes very, very high amounts.”

Flexible schedules

Associations often can’t compete on compensation alone. Webinar attendee Anne Forristall Luke, CEO of the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association, asked about “creative strategies” to attract and retain executives and other staff.

Lavet said associations can offer better work-life balance. She earlier had noted that many organizations are willing to allow 100% remote work.

One way to compete “could be the flexibility that is offered, the hours people can work to accommodate random events and personal family needs, which are elevating dramatically, particularly with the next generation of employees,” Lavet said. “Organizations that are starting to think that way are going to be the winners.”

“It’s incumbent upon leaders of associations to really impart upon their team the impact that they’re having, the positive impact,” Ha said. “It’s just that mission-driven orientation that they need to cascade throughout the organization.”

Given the competition for talent and concerns about pay equity, Lavet said she is not seeing downward pay adjustments for association staff who want to work remotely from a lower-cost area.
Zaniello said he is seeing more sign-on bonuses for new staff, partly to help maintain pay equity within an organization.

Digital transformation, DEI

Lavet said competition is greatest for certain key roles and for those who have demonstrated aptitude in digital transformation.

“I can’t think of an organization that is not working through a reinvention of their business models,” she said. “It’s not just technical people, it’s strategic-minded leaders, COOs and others who know how to lead an organization into the future.

“Human resources people who are absolutely adept at leading DEI-related activity (are in high demand), she said.

“The supply shortage is in the right competencies to take an organization into the future in the post COVID era,” she said.

The recruiters said executive candidates should be able to answer questions about how they’ve helped advance diversity.

“If the candidate him or herself is not ethnically diverse or gender diverse, there’s many things that allies (of diversity) can and should be doing,” Ha said. “I think this is an opportunity for that candidate to talk about what they’ve done to either set into place initiatives within their current role or previous roles that relate to DEI, how they’ve been able to create succession planning for direct reports who are going to be sensitive to DEI. I mean, do they have a person who is responsible for DEI matters within the organization?”

“There’s no question that associations are interested to know what has been candidates’ track records, dedicated commitment (to diversity), how they’ve gone about doing that. It’s not about a program, it’s about a way of life, a very holistic approach,” Lavet said.

Panelists noted that the demand for a diverse slate of candidates is stronger than ever. But many organizations still put together search committees with no minority representation, making candidates question the organization’s commitment to diversity.

Interview do’s and don’ts

But even with all this competition for talent, highly qualified candidates can flub the interview process and cost themselves opportunities. It happens more often than you’d think, and leaves recruiters scratching their heads.

Send thank-you notes for gosh sakes: “I’m still surprised, search committees are still surprised, and CEOs doing hiring are surprised, at how few candidates take the time to send thank-you notes,” Zaniello said. “And sometimes, literally, we’ve had search committees or hiring execs say, ‘Did you get the thank-you note (from our lead candidate)? Because I got them from every other candidate.’”

The “I’s” don’t have it: “When somebody uses the word ‘I’ throughout their interviews, and forget there’s a ‘we’ in all of that, that is usually a derailer for that individual because it’s all about team leadership and bringing people along,” Lavet said. “So anyone who goes into an interview should leave the word ‘I’ at the door for most of it.”

Any questions?: “I wouldn’t say it’s a deal breaker, but it certainly would help the candidate’s chances if they have well-researched questions right at the end,” Ha said. “I shake my head when I have a great candidate, and when the search committee says, ‘Here’s your chance to ask us some questions and turn the tables.’ And one person literally said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t have any questions.’ I’m like, ‘How can you not have a question?’”

Be respectful of staff: “I can’t tell you how many people behave one way when they’re with the search committee and differently with our (staff),” Lavet said. “The interview starts the moment we receive your resume, not when you walk into the room with a search committee. Every interaction with us is part of your interview, because it’s not uncommon for a search committee to say, ‘How did they treat your administrator? How were they when you requested information or a completed form?’ They want to understand that not only can you manage up but that you’re going to work well with people at all levels.”

Zoom in: “We had a candidate who left the television on behind them during the interview,” Zaniello said. “That didn’t go well for anybody.”
Lavet said with culture and fit so important for winning the job, candidates need to find ways to build rapport over Zoom.

“When you join the interview, be human, have some light-hearted conversation. It’s OK before you jump right into it. It’s not a deposition, it’s meant (for you) to build a relationship with” the search committee.