Three Tips for Remote CEO Interviewing and Onboarding

CEOs who are used to managing in person have had to make adjustments in the remote environment. The same holds true when interviewing and onboarding with a new organization. Here's how one exec made it work.

Linda Thomas Brooks, the new CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, has prided herself as a management-by-walking-around-type. “As an executive, you look at people’s desks: ‘Oh, you’re a dog person? You’re a cat person? That picture you have on your desk, where was that taken?’ You learn a lot about people from having those sorts of casual conversations.”

The past year, of course, has been tough on “casual.” Brooks, who started at PRSA in January, has been through a wholly virtual hiring and onboarding process. And though the association’s staff is slowly making its way to reconvening in person at its New York offices, Brooks’ situation will likely be common for some time. CEO candidates will have to ask: How does a leader navigate interviewing and orientation when the usual emotional-intelligence tools aren’t near at hand?

“Your ability to read the room and understand reactions from people has to be calibrated in a whole different way,” she says.

Brooks offers three bits of advice for CEO candidates going through a similar situation.

I’m just very intentional about asking, “What don’t I know about this situation?”

You need a different way to learn about culture. Every responsible leadership candidate will conduct their due diligence on an organization they’re interviewing with: scanning news sites to identify potential trouble spots, pulling up past 990s for a glimpse of the organization’s financial health. Personalities and atmosphere typically emerge in the interview process—but not when the interview is a Zoom call.

“Previously, I would have focused more on the business metrics and left the cultural fact-finding to the [interview] conversations,” Brooks says. With PRSA, without the ability to read the room, she was more direct in trying to understand the subtler ways the organization operates, and she recommends not being shy about asking interviewers to be clearer. “I asked a lot of really blunt questions—‘I’ve seen this’ or ‘I’m picking up on this. Can you talk about it again?’ Some of the nuance that might have come up easily in a casual conversation, I just had to be very purposeful about this time around.”

Make those first calls with staff low-key and task-free. When Brooks set up her first remote meetings with senior staffers, she established upfront that they wouldn’t be talking about KPIs and the org chart. “I say, ‘Tell me your story,’” she says. “Give me a picture so I can understand the whole person. In an environment where people are working at home, I want to know the complications that might influence how your day works.” That conversation goes both ways, of course: “It’s a reciprocal thing. I tell them about me, my kids, what I like to do when I’m not working.”

Build in shorter but more frequent board check-ins. Every new CEO absorbs a massive amount of information during their first weeks in the role. Similarly, boards these days are notably spending more time on the job (if only to keep up with the productivity they once had in pre-COVID times). That means board members have been more available, and Brooks takes advantage of that with brief check-ins with volunteer leaders.

“My communications with them are probably shorter but much more frequent,” she says. “I’m not waiting for a monthly meeting. I’m shooting off emails and texts to ask what’s going on with projects. It has just changed the type and the cadence of the communication. But the good news is, they’re all adapting to it as well for their workplaces.”

And just as Brooks recognized the virtue of being more direct in the hiring process, the same goes for board conversations now that she’s in the CEO role.

“I find myself asking more frequently, ‘Am I missing anything here?’” she says. “I’m still the new kid, and being in a room I could see somebody tapping their fingers and sense ‘something’s going on here.’ Now I’m just very intentional about asking, ‘What don’t I know about this situation?’ People are very helpful and respectful when I ask that question. But I have to be very intentional about gathering that information.”

(fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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