‘No One Has Dealt With Something Like This Since 9/11’

Recruiting in a pandemic.

Illustration by II

Illustration by II

How does a Wall Street bank or major nonprofit hire an executive if they can’t meet in person?

The answer, recruiters said, is that they probably don’t.

“Obviously, the issue is that you aren’t having in-person interviews — or you’re very cautious if you are,” Anne Keating told Institutional Investor in a Friday phone interview. Keating places executives at major nonprofits, and recently facilitated a search for Mount Holyoke College’s chief investment officer.

“Initial screening is possible on Zoom, because the technology has gotten really good,” Keating went on. “But a CEO role is being hired by a board, and a board has a search committee, and a search committee can have three or four people. It’s totally new territory for recruiting.”

The conversations inside companies and institutions about open roles — whether to pause them, push forward, or ignore them for larger issues of safety — aren’t necessarily reaching recruiters.


And that’s OK, said Keating. “There are more pressing issues than recruiting right now. It’s a moving target. There are all these processes for fires, or war, or hurricanes that are being adapted. No one has dealt with something like this since 9/11.”

Many firms larger than Fraser Keating Associates have moved their staff to work from home, but that the scope of work is limited.

The founder of David Barrett Partners, for example, reported late last week that his team was working their trade virtually.

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“Things happening so quickly,” Barrett said over email. “Searches not yet getting canceled, and new activity still occurring but pace of searches slowing due to travel restrictions — finalist meetings that need to be in person are slowing, or being rescheduled. We can still make calls, but access to investors also slowing as they need to focus on ‘day job’!”

Recruiter Marylin Prince of the Prince Houston Group likewise said she and colleagues “are having very little in-person contact with clients and candidates,” as people switch to various video technologies and candidate travel gets restricted.

Both Prince and Barrett came out of the same recruiting talent factory: New York-based Russell Reynolds Associates. The CEO of that head-hunting giant published stern guidance Friday.

“External hiring for top talent is about to get much harder” for recruiters and their clients, CEO Clarke Murphy wrote. “In environments characterized by extreme uncertainty and risk, high performers in stable roles often become highly risk averse and unwilling to risk a transition, even when unsatisfied with their current situation. Many forecasters believe that we are heading toward a buyer’s market for talent. We are not.”