Executive Search's Role in Post-Pandemic Success: A Q&A with Morten Nielsen

Morten NielsenIt's difficult to see what's ahead while in the midst of a storm. 2020 challenged leaders worldwide to lead through times of crisis. Now, in preparation for post-pandemic success, it's necessary to reflect on lessons learned. 

Executive search and leadership consultants feel the wave of opportunity to not only captain the ship and help their clients navigate through turbulent times but also to steer organizations towards post-pandemic success as trusted advisors. How can clients and consultants apply the lessons learned in the past year to achieve successful outcomes during a post-COVID recovery?  

We sat down with Morten Nielsen, Chairman of the AESC Board of Directors and Senior Partner, Life Sciences Practice at WittKieffer for an in-depth interview. 

As Chair of AESC, what is your outlook for our profession and for the clients we serve in the year ahead?

Because this past year was so difficult and traumatic for organizations across industries, there is an even greater appreciation now for the value of strong leadership. Clients will place a premium on recruiting leaders who can help them continue to weather storms—they will look to executive search firms to help them find stable yet innovative leadership. I'm optimistic that our profession will provide more value than ever to clients in the year ahead.

What are lessons learned last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that you anticipate will be key focus areas for CEOs and Boards in the year ahead?

There are many lessons learned from the pandemic. CEOs and Boards have grown to appreciate executives and teams that have been adaptable and resilient, and who have taken on new responsibilities to help their organizations get through the worst days of the pandemic. Qualities like adaptability and resilience will be important in future recruiting efforts. In addition, CEOs and Boards are very conscious of the need for contingency planning in anticipation of future pandemics and other crises. They are asking themselves: what lessons can be learned from the pandemic that can be applied should another major challenge arise in the future?

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In our recent survey, AESC members rank: Hiring leaders who can drive change; Attracting diverse talent; and Attracting digital talent; as the topics CEOs and Boards are most discussing with their executive search firms. Why are these three topics converging right now?

This past year has been all about change. This includes social change and the importance of issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion. And it includes digital change, especially as many workers and constituents have shifted to an online routine. Related to diversity and digital change, I think leaders see opportunities to move the needle in these areas that didn't exist prior to the pandemic. It's a rare window of time in which important, lasting change is possible if the right leadership is in place.

More AESC Member search firms than ever are offering their clients leadership assessment and succession services. How do these services help clients get it right and why are they so relevant right now?

Organizations want to give leaders a greater likelihood of success in their new roles. Leadership assessments and succession services can lay a foundation for this success. Assessments, in particular, can identify strengths as well as areas of need for individuals that provide context for how they will perform in their role. They can help predict how leaders will perform under pressure or in stressful situations. This information can be used in onboarding and transition support for new executives. Because of the challenging business climate, it is critical that client organizations hire the right leaders and set them up for success.

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Beyond finding and attracting top talent, in what other ways can executive search firms help CEOs and Boards better steer their organizations through to post-pandemic success?

The best retained search firms are those that not only find the best talent but also provide the best counsel for their clients. Executive search consultants have a unique picture of the marketplace and the challenges ahead and can provide strategic insights to their clients. For example, I speak regularly with my clients about what kind of leaders will be needed post-pandemic and what the availability of those leaders will look like. This is invaluable insight—without the right talent, CEOs and Boards won't be able to pursue the initiatives they need to after the pandemic is over. In this way, we as search consultants are trusted advisors.

Why is it so important that organizations choose an AESC Member when selecting an executive search and leadership consulting partner?

AESC member firms are those who have made a commitment to uphold the highest standards of quality and excellence for their clients. Much like a gold seal of approval, AESC membership tells client organizations that they are partnering with a firm that they can trust to deliver successful outcomes. AESC members are also committed to continuous improvement—they are collectively always looking for ways to serve clients better and improve the quality of leadership across all industries.

See what's on the agenda for CEOs and Boards with AESC's Executive Talent Outlook 2021, featuring insights from more than 750 AESC members. 

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