While executive search stats in Q2 were thrown awry by COVID-19, there was one data point around completion times that offered a potential glimpse into the future: Executive searches closed 5% faster than they did in Q2 2019.

This isn’t just notable because of the timing, but also because of the consistency. We observed this acceleration across industries and functions, with few exceptions.

While that acceleration was driven by a number of things (less critical roles were put on hold—or cancelled altogether—at the beginning of Q2, for instance) there’s a deeper story inside the data that reveals an important lesson for executive search teams.

Having a firm grasp on search cycles is becoming a competitive advantage at a time when the gap between fast-moving placements and slow-moving placements is widening significantly. 

For teams looking to gain such an advantage, the first step is benchmarking themselves against the characteristics of fast-moving executive search placements—and there are a number of quantitative and qualitative data points to understand. Let’s break them down.

Executive searches in Q2 consistently closed faster

Most functions cluster near or surpass average search velocity in Q2

The clear feedback from executive recruiting teams when discussing Q2 results was that less critical roles were put on hold or canceled altogether. In fact, our data backs this up: In the last week of March, the number of searches canceled increased by 766% and held searches increased 340%.

Still, for roles that remained open, executive placements happened faster on an extremely consistent basis.

As noted in our Executive Search Quarterly Report, most functions and industries clustered around the average in terms of search cycle acceleration.

Digging deeper, though, we found there was a widening of the gap between fast-moving searches and slower moving searches

The gap between the top and second quartiles for search velocity widened in 2020

When comparing the fastest 25% of search cycles to the second quartile, the gap in time to close increased from twice as long in 2019 (209%) to nearly three times as long in 2020 (273%). In short, the fastest searches got faster, and the rest fell further behind. 

As executive searches begin trending back up (opened searches were up 13% in June and virtually flat in July and August, YoY) this stat becomes a warning: Running even slightly behind the leaders in search velocity might mean spending more time filling roles, and less bandwidth to take on new searches.

In a recent Q&A with industry leaders, Joe Riggione, co-CEO and founder of True Search, said that it isn’t just the market opening back up—it’s also getting more competitive.

“There is a recognition that there are so many searches going on right now, that when you have a candidate’s attention, you better make a decision pretty quickly,” Riggione said. “They know if they wait, someone else will snatch them up.”

So, what’s the secret to these faster-moving searches? We spent time digging into this further with industry leaders from in-house teams and executive search firms.

Hiring companies reap benefits from increased flexibility

There was clear consistency in search cycles across industries and functions, and a widening gap between fast-moving searches and slower-moving searches. But what moved the needle in Q2 wasn’t an anomaly that’s easily quantifiable. It was organizations adjusting, or not, to the changing landscape.

For companies unwilling to concede traditional executive hiring practices (think face-to-face meetings, let alone a handshake with candidates), making placements is virtually impossible in our current environment. As long as travel and social distancing remains an obstacle, these companies should expect to fall at the bottom of search cycle performance.

Businesses that recognize the consequences of sticking to tradition have had to fundamentally change the way they conduct searches. 

Many of these organizations are willing to forgo in-person meetings, creating increased calendar flexibility and an ability to schedule conversations more quickly. What may have taken several weeks to coordinate a cross-country flight for a candidate interview can now be executed in a fraction of the time.

“Because of COVID-19, our clients have been forced to embrace video interviewing at all levels, which has allowed us to move the process along much quicker than we’ve been able to in the past.” said Chelsea Garrett, managing director at Garrett Search Partners

Other businesses are going a step further, and in turn have opened up a talent pool that wasn’t previously on their radar.

While the future of remote work has certainly captured headlines, businesses that are actually embracing a remote workforce are already seeing the benefits from expanding the regions they traditionally target for pipelining. 

“Recruiting will never be the same for us, because one of the biggest hurdles we face is execs not being ready to physically move,” shared one in-house executive recruiter. “Our last 26 hires will work remote permanently, so we’re now attracting people that would typically say no.”

And for the surge of businesses that are heightening their commitment to diverse and inclusive hiring practices, this strategy offers a bonus benefit. A wider net increases your talent pool in quantity, and practically guarantees sourcing a diverse slate of candidates more quickly. 

While we’ve received mixed feedback from organizations as to whether remote work will become increasingly acceptable in a post-COVID world, those that are prepared to make concessions could drastically increase their talent pool and complete searches faster.

Executive recruiters also make adjustments

Recruiters have also needed to reevaluate the way they prepare for and run executive searches. At the onset of COVID, unanimous feedback from our roundtable discussions pointed to a focus on nurturing relationships and enriching databases. 

Though hiring volume was lower, forward-thinking recruiters mapped out anticipated hiring needs and started sourcing accordingly. This preparation left them armed with hefty pipelines as new searches picked up and, as a result, was likely a key driver of faster searches in Q2.

In terms of search management, many executive recruiters also reported an increased focus on efficiency and have encouraged hiring teams to do the same.

“We’re challenging our team and our clients to take a critical look at every step of the search lifecycle to see where we can improve efficiencies and deliver even quicker, without compromising quality,” Garrett added.

It’s a competitive market—and candidates won’t wait on a potential offer with another already in hand. Executive recruiters need to feel confident countering hiring teams’ demands that might be distracting them from the key objective and unnecessarily delaying the search process.

“Some of our clients are adding more people than usual to the interview panel, all with conflicting schedules,” said Cathy Moll, partner at Thinking Ahead Executive Search. “So, we’re trying to educate them that it’s adding unnecessary time to the search and other companies, vying for the same talent, are getting it done in one sitting.”

Considerations to compete with efficient hiring teams

By nature, executive searches aren’t meant to be done at rocket speed—and that’s certainly not the goal. Our high-touch, white-glove industry requires a level of quality that can never be sidelined for speed. 

Still, organizations and recruiters alike recognize how clock-conscious they need to be in today’s competitive landscape. So how can teams improve search cycle velocity while maintaining a commitment to their core value proposition?

Finding a balance between efficiency and maintaining high standards is possible, and that’s only become more evident over the past several months.

Here are a few tips for executive recruiters to optimize search cycles without sacrificing quality:

  • Be the strategic advisor you claim to be: Challenge hiring teams to adapt to more, or all, virtual hiring and consider remote/hybrid executive hires. In turn, you’ll also need to offer guidance around virtual onboarding best practices.
  • Perfect your process: Virtual hiring in any capacity has surely revealed weaknesses in your search process. Identify any lags and work to eliminate them.
  • Commit to better data: Sourcing, evaluation, and collaboration with hiring teams are only as efficient as your data is accessible. Up-leveling your commitment to data will also enable you to track the effectiveness of any process changes.

As business continues to rebound and reopen, these types of adjustments will become an advantage in a market that will only increase in competition.

Thrive will continue to keep a close finger on the pulse to support executive search teams through these unique circumstances. Look out for future quarterly reports and blog posts for more insights!