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Hiring (and Keeping) Leaders: What Employers Value Now

In this time of high turnover and hybrid work, companies are aiming to hire leaders with a fluency in modern technology, the ability to cultivate team trust and the capability to deliver results even during the pandemic.

A man and woman sitting at a table in front of a laptop.

​Call it the great resignation, turnover tsunami or the employment zeitgeist; as world economies re-open, workers are feeling safe to seek new roles in record numbers. Whether they are burnt out, unhappy to be mandated back to the office (or relegated remote) or simply ready for a new challenge, workers are quitting their roles and leaving employers searching for new talent. This time of turnover is also the era of opportunity. But what are companies looking for? We interviewed business operators, HR executives and outplacement specialists to learn what companies value most when hiring leaders in the new era of work.

What's Happening

The many changes in the last year and a half have sparked an increased examination in workforce turnover. Various estimates described a U.S. voluntary turnover rate of almost twice what it was in 2018, with even more employees examining their options. Changes in automation, dissatisfaction with workplace advancement and support, and burnout are all attributed to some of these decisions. However, turnover churns psychological safety, productivity and impacts others' decisions to stay. Therefore, when organizations set to hire new leaders, they want them to stay.

Priority Now: Embracing the New Normal

Learning from the experiences and changes of the pandemic provided a pivot point for organizations to focus on practices that incorporate a critical examination of essential roles and skills, including foundational principles such as work location. New technologies, such as data visualization and AI-enabled product management, and hybrid/remote work tools that have now become familiar present a different workplace reality for workers and leaders alike. Leaders must build cohesive teams that may be in person, remote or both.

An HR executive we spoke with noted that, when evaluating leadership candidates, "a fluency using modern technology (like Zoom and Slack), and a willingness to embrace them in their work will basically be required." David Hennessy, a Partner at Keystone Partners, which specializes in career management and transitions, shared that "leaders today must facilitate all aspects of DEIB in how they lead their teams and organizations." DEI standing for diversity, equity and inclusion…the B stands for belonging. In other words, leaders in this era need to not only equitably manage their diverse organizations, they need to ensure cultures are inclusive and that even remote and hybrid employees feel like they belong. And that isn't easy. Explained another HR executive "the here-to-stay hybrid work model has made these qualities more critical than ever. The ability to build and successfully manage teams that are a blend of in-office and work-from-anywhere, on any given day, requires more blending people and technology skills than ever before."

Gauging one's tech-savvy begins in the interview. Explained a talent acquisition director, "We interview almost exclusively through zoom now, with only final rounds in person. We may also simulate how they lead meetings or trainings, or give feedback where we turn the screen over to them." Candidates are evaluated in terms of knowing where to look, managing lighting and online functionality, having a dedicated workspace free of distractions, and if they have successfully mitigated background noise. "Candidates that have difficulty with web-based interviews are often red flags as it shows lack of preparedness for what we'll need."

Quelling Turnover via Emotional Trust

Without trust, there is no leadership. A trusted leader is someone people will follow due to mutually respectful relationships, even in complex and uncertain times. Trusted leaders facilitate creativity, maturity, and growth because team members feel secure in sharing opinions without fear of judgment or retribution. Many leaders establish this trust by enacting emotionally intelligent competencies such as empathy and authenticity. As organizations are looking to quell turnover trends, they are looking to put leaders in place who will instill trust and keep their teams not just performing but thriving.

There are several themes for the competencies most desired in leadership role candidates post pandemic and beyond. "The leaders who have been able to successfully navigate working during the pandemic are open-minded, flexible and strong critical thinkers," shared an HR executive in the insurance industry. "Even now as we see a thoughtful return to offices in a true hybrid model, these are the managers that will not only retain talented employees but will be able to successfully navigate this new normal for optimal results."

A major emphasis for desired leader competence centers around communication. Hennessey said, "our clients are looking for leaders who understand and manage communication appropriately and effectively with all channels. It is hard to over-communicate, especially if you're managing a team that is not all in one place." Jessica Cunningham, Director of Brand and Employee Development at Medicus Healthcare Solutions, added that "with all of the changes in what work looks like and how it gets done, our focus is on staying connected to our people." Communication post-COVID-19 is therefore not only about coordinating work or status checks, it's about human interaction. To achieve success, Cunningham elaborated, "we want our leaders to know who their team members are as people, as well as their professional goals and struggles, and honestly to humanize the relationship as a whole."

Shields Healthcare Group Chief Talent Officer Christine Mavilia credits the pandemic with helping organizational leadership pivot their thinking and work strategy to do things differently. She therefore told us they will be seeking leadership candidates "who are open to risk-taking (trying something new to see if it works), and open-minded to adopt new ways that are proven successful." The environmental changes that offices and operations have experienced in the past 18 months further underscores the importance of these qualities.

Organizations have seen that making connection is not just espousing the ideal that managers should be interested in their people. What works are leaders who enact genuine emotional intelligence. Hennessey shared that the top competency his clients are seeking in leadership candidates is empathy. Other executives we spoke with shared how self-awareness, self-management and social adaptability have always been valued, and are even more important now. "People sense the difference between someone who is really here to support them and those who just say they are, and they will stay if they feel someone as their back."

What to Expect

Going forward, hiring managers indicate that while the modality may be different, the content of interviews will remain similar to pre-pandemic. Candidates should remember that demonstrating results will not be limited to typical business metrics such as increased efficiencies or process improvements. The experiences we've all gone through over the past 18 months should have given candidates great examples of how they've been able to adapt to the new dynamics and still keep their teams' performance at a top level.

As economies continue to normalize and organizations adjust therein, a key to long-term success will be the people in all levels of business. Managers who adapted their routines and expanded their scope beyond traditional infrastructure boundaries and work settings found success. However, it is those that that have done this and built trust via sustained emotional connections with their teams that will be the most desired candidates for leadership opportunities going forward.

Susan R. Vroman, Ed.D., is a Lecturer of Management at Bentley University and an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant.

Tiffany Danko, Ed.D., is an Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Southern California Bovard College and a Captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.


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