Ciara Smyth is an accomplished and innovative human capital leader with over twenty years’ experience across a variety of global technology organisations spanning public and private ventures, from startups to mature enterprises. Throughout her career she has partnered with a diverse set of management teams (from entrepreneur/founder led to transformational/turn-around CEOs), and with a diverse set of investors (including private equity and venture capital backed businesses). Today she acts as an advisor to a portfolio of growth-oriented tech companies across Europe.

She talks to Maria Josife, Senior Partner at Erevena about the challenges of hiring leaders during lockdown.

What hiring are you involved with currently?

I’m currently supporting clients with 5 searches; 4 are C level roles across various functions and one is a Head of People role. Some of these searches kicked off before the pandemic, but a couple have been started since the lockdown. My observation is that if companies needed the role before Covid-19 they recognize that they may still need the role now, and they prefer not to wait to start the hiring process for critical roles. These leadership roles have the potential to be super impactful on a business this calendar year.

What are the challenges that you’re facing engaging with candidates at the moment?

The biggest challenge recruiting now at the C level is that potential candidates are the very people who are actively engaged in trying to get an understanding of the scope of impact that this crisis is going to have on a business in 2020 and beyond. They are likely completely entrenched in their businesses today, dealing with issues such as reforecasting, furloughing, and down-sizing and it can be a challenge to get them to engage in discussions about a new role. This, added with the element of loyalty that people are feeling towards their existing company, means that people may not want to be seen to be ‘jumping ship’ during a pandemic. This may have an impact on the pipeline of candidates that are willing to consider new opportunities.

An additional challenge for some candidates is that they may feel it’s better to stay put in something large and established with more security, than to move into something potentially a bit riskier, however exciting an earlier stage company may seem.

Is concern about investment causing a lack of good candidates?

I have heard some concern from candidates that funding may decrease as the appetite from investors dries up. However, my experience tells me that the investment is still going to be available, and there will be lots of deals still done.

How have you been addressing the issues raised by not being able to people meet face-to-face?

Not meeting candidates face-to-face is actually less of an issue as we have great tools available to us now and we’re all getting more proficient at using them.  However, it has meant that I spend more of my time thinking about the candidate experience. A slow internet connection or bad video experience can be very challenging for anyone to establish rapport or make a compelling first impression. I am being more sensitive about how challenging it can be for people to convey themselves over the medium of video.

My advice to clients is that you need to be prepared to give people the benefit of the doubt if that first video interaction isn’t a great Hollywood production. I’ve met candidates’ children on camera often in the last month, doorbells have needed answering, cats jumped onto desks unannounced.  We are all juggling far more in our personal and professional lives today than before, and candidates are real people too. 

I typically start my calls asking about where people are in the world and inquiring how they are doing, listening carefully. I have extended our calls from sixty to ninety minutes to give ample time. Other than that, I use the same interview techniques as before.

Have you changed how you assess people?

Now more than ever, I think we need leaders who can lead through times of uncertainty and volatility, accomplished leaders with high EQ as they need to be able to lead with passion and empathy.  I tend to ask very probing, competency-based questions, asking for examples of how people have coped and managed in times of crisis as well as asking people to reflect on their leadership journey.

We are planning to go to offer stage without meeting people in-person, we’ve mapped out the process and it hasn’t changed but the delivery medium has had to change. Thorough reference checking at the end of the process will become even more critical, rather than just a rubber stamp at the end.

I always recommend the use of psychometric tool for new C level hires, such as Hogan, for successful candidates. The use of a diagnostic now in the age of Covid-19 could become even more important as an additional data point to better understand your new hire’s preferences, motivators and possible de-railers. I would not use it as an input on the hiring decision, but as an important insight for on-boarding new executives successfully.

How can you think creatively about assessing culture fit?

You need to understand fully the culture of the organisation that you’re recruiting into first and foremost.  It’s important to understand the candidates’ personal values and how they might align with that culture. At this level these candidates will need to be culture carriers or creators so it’s really important that they can get enthusiastic about the mission, the culture and values. 

Have there been any advantages?

I’ve seen a tremendous increase in unsolicited activity from my global network, with people reaching out to one another, sharing CV’s or appointment details and offering help.  I think we’re all having to be a little bit more understanding and compassionate, and I see plenty of people trying to look out for others, which is wonderful.

I’ve also seen an acceleration of the conversation around whether teams need everyone to be in the same physical location at the same time. The concept of flexibility of work location is with us to stay I suspect for the immediate future.

Times like these make us all reflect on where we are, and where we are going professionally. I encourage anyone who is thinking about what comes next, to really embrace it, network, update the CV, be open to new opportunities. Even in times of great uncertainty, your next amazing career opportunity could be just over the horizon.