Executive Talent Nuances in COVID Times

When borders were closing in March 2020 and the movement of people started to be restricted, the expectation was that board and executive recruitment would be severely curtailed. There was a hiatus in some areas, but it was temporary. Over the past 18 months, the search for board and executive talent and executive appointments have continued apace. But there have been a number of differences, both from employer and candidate perspectives.

The broadening of the readily available talent pool, now that many Australian expats have returned to the country, has been a regular focus in the media. But experience and talent are just two factors amongst many others. Culture, strategic aspirations, executive team balance and broader potential contribution are also very important. 

What have been some of these differences in COVID times, as they relate to the availability of candidates, both locally and internationally? To what extent have candidate expectations changed?  How have expectations of employers changed, or are they changing? 

Below we outline some of the experiences of our Partner team working with boards and CEOs on major appointments across the private and public sectors, as well as the not-for-profit and education sectors.  

Is there a bigger executive talent pool?

The potential broadening of the readily available talent pool mentioned above is not quite as straightforward
as it might seem. There are quite a few nuances to
keep in mind. 

The International Perspective 

There are indeed significant numbers of expats who have returned to Australia in the past 15 months or so and have been part of executive candidate talent pools. For Australian expats continuing to live outside Australia there is, and has been, considerable attraction to senior roles back in Australia and this seems to be consistent across sectors. 

However, the fact that borders are closed means there are additional hurdles to bringing other key talent into Australia. This applies both to returning expats and to citizens of other countries who would ordinarily
be competitive candidates for roles in Australia. Currently, being able to come into Australia in a
timely way is a challenge. 

Some returned expats are in fact continuing to work in their previous roles from their new home base back in Australia. Companies that most commonly have these arrangements in place include major international financial institutions, as well as large and smaller tech firms. At the same time, we are aware of some executives who would normally be based in Australia, however for family support and other reasons are currently undertaking their role from a base in another country. Keep in mind too, that talent movement does not happen in only one direction. Some expats from other countries working in Australia have decided to leave as our travel arrangements are too restrictive. On taking such appointments, they had the expectation that they would be able to travel back to their home country base regularly to catch up with family and friends or deal with family emergencies. But this is no longer the case and makes Australia much less attractive as an
ongoing location. 

Concurrently, for Australians with partners working internationally there have been real impediments to maintaining their personal relationships. We are aware of Australian executives who have not seen their partner for up to 18 months, as they are based in other parts of the world. Again, they were used to catching up in person at least every two or three months, but this has not been possible. This particularly impacts Australian-based federal government employees where they are not permitted to leave Australia. This can bring forward a resignation to provide the option of at least re-uniting with a partner working in another part of the world. 

The National Perspective

The reality now of so many people working remotely – and doing this successfully – has had a transformative impact in terms of rethinking what would once have been absolutely essential location requirements. This is a positive development. We have experienced several situations where roles were initially structured to be located in one particular city; but, upon reflection and reviewing the success of remote working, the possibility of a strong candidate from another location was then reconsidered. 

However, continuing state and regional lockdowns are in some ways impacting this situation.  As one candidate recently mentioned, she thought a commuting arrangement would be fine - she had done this before and it worked well. But then closed state borders again reduced that flexibility. Being caught at short notice, out of one’s home state, can bring about an added layer of uncertainty, not to mention personal or family dislocation.

To what extent have executive motivations shifted?

The willingness to move sectors and industries, even if there is a financial cost, is now more evident, as notions of service and meaning become more important to individuals. Over the past 12 to 15 months, we have experienced a stronger focus from candidates in the broader purpose and contribution of a potential new employer. This is the case both between different employment opportunities in the private sector, and the interest of those in the private sector to work in the public sector. 

NGS Global has always had a strong practice bringing those with a private sector background into the public sector. This requires a deep understanding of potential cultural fit and the lived values of candidates. Three or four years ago, if we rang a potential candidate who was on a much higher income with the idea they could make a great contribution in the public sector at a reduced financial reward - but a greater psychic reward - it was usually a very short conversation. 

These days, those conversations progress much more easily: a period working for government is now often seen as a valuable part of an otherwise commercially focused career and gives a different opportunity for meaning and purpose.   

Importantly, ‘moving for meaning’ is not confined to moving from the private sector to a not-for-profit or into government. We have seen this reconsideration amongst executives in various industries and firms. 

At the same time, we are aware of senior public servants who are having more and deeper interactions with private sector executives than might normally be the case. This might relate to collaborative discussions about how to manage logistics with border restrictions both within Australia and with our trading partners, as well as rethinking how we can deal with the impact on universities of fewer international students, and how to address the lack of migration and the workforces needed in industries such as agriculture and mining. Again, the impact here has been largely positive as those private sector executives demonstrate a strong focus on
national rather than parochial or purely their own commercial interests.  

Executives from many different domains are rethinking what really matters to them and what type of contribution they really want to make, or the legacy that will distinguish their contribution or career. 

How is the employer’s situation impacting talent attraction?

At the executive level, we see Boards and
CEOs seeking C-level talent that will be able to come into their organisation and ‘get up to speed’ quickly. This means a stronger preference for clear cultural alignment, greater situational awareness with diversity of experience, and the ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.  

Cultural and Team Fit

Boards and CEOs are more aware than ever of the importance of cultural fit with potential members of their executive team. It is not about being a cultural clone, but about having sufficient shared values and agreed behaviours to work effectively with colleagues. It is
about the ability to lead and experience robust and respectful debate, as senior teams work through new
or different scenarios.  

It is easier to build trust when there are shared values, and when those values are evident in supportive and consistent behaviours. And, as seen again and again, the ability to build what author Stephen M.R. Covey calls ‘the speed of trust’ enables teams to work with agility in uncertain and ambiguous environments – and these abound currently.

Situational Awareness and Diversity of Experience

Situational awareness is more likely prevalent where individuals have had to deal with different environments and have diversity of experience. Boards and CEOs are keen to meet candidates who will understand their particular context and have good diversity of experience. That diversity means where the candidate has been faced with a wide range of challenges and has likely experienced some steep learning curves. This addresses the need for adaptability and resilience. Diversity of experience is also likely to increase the range of options or solutions that an executive might consider in addressing a situation or a problem. 

One challenge for some expat candidates who have worked for large commercial organisations outside Australia is that their role might have been more narrowly based. Very large organisations can have their own career tracks that might not give an executive or manager the breadth of experience expected for often broader or more generalist roles in Australia. This might sound counter-intuitive, but they might lack the diversity or breadth of experience expected.

Ambiguous Environments and Diagnostic Capabilities

Boards and CEOs know that the executive talent they are seeking – internally and externally – will have to deal with ongoing uncertainty, but none-the-less be timely and judicious in their decision making. This situation can really benefit from those with good organisational diagnostic skills – those who can assess the context of a situation in a short period of time. 

Much of the experience of COVID has been about the ability to understand a shifting situation and to react to a significant changes in circumstances. There has been increased focus on anticipating situations, the need to be pro-active and allow for different scenarios and contingencies - to use that now over-used term, ‘to pivot’. Some people thrive amidst uncertainty whereas others might want more and more data to lay the foundations for a decision. 

Finally, we are seeing greater importance placed on diagnostic skills – being able to come into an organisation and quickly see ‘the lay of the land’. This might involve really active and intense listening, quickly figuring out who are the key stakeholders and influencers, and a level of comfort with the insights of others and ‘just enough’ information. 

These are often the skills of a good internal or external consultant who has a finite period of time to clarify and confirm an issue, then quickly work through the options and risks to address this. These skills also underpin the capabilities of those who have led the shaping and delivery of significant transformations. Executive experience might combine a period as a senior consultant along with strategic acumen and sound operational delivery experience. 

Yes, there have been impacts. . . and they are ongoing

In summary, COVID has had an impact on aspects of executive talent from both candidate and employer perspectives. There are shifts in some of the executives who might now be available, while there are also some ongoing constraints. It is always challenging to find the right person for a specific role. Experience and talent are just two aspects of that fit. Increasingly, the focus from candidates is real meaning and purpose. For boards and CEOs, it is cultural fit and the ability to make a real contribution in uncertain times, and to do that sooner rather than later. 

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Dr Marianne Broadbent