Hacking Hiring in a Competitive Market: A Conversation with Monica Bua
Recruiting top talent is challenging these days — just ask Monica Bua, Managing Director at executive search firm Morgan Samuels. Monica built and now runs the emerging products and technology practice, where she finds, assesses, and develops the leadership that transforms companies.
The good news, Monica says, is that despite steep competition for talent, there are steps companies can take to optimize the search process and find the right executive candidates, fast. We discuss her top hiring hacks, how expectations of CEOs are changing in the wake of the pandemic, and why placing the right people in the right roles has the power to increase fulfillment and energize teams.
Tell us about what you’re seeing in the job market right now.
Companies are competing to hire c-suite leaders from a limited talent pool. There’s a lot of demand for qualified candidates, but not much supply. In our executive searches over the last 6–8 months, we’ve had more candidates turning down roles than ever before. Candidates right now are entertaining 2–4 external offers at time. They may be weighing internal offers as well. Remote work means that candidates are no longer constrained by location — they can consider a broader set of opportunities. It reminds me of when I started my career in the late nineties. Companies were vying to hire the same talent. Fast forward 22 years, and the market feels very similar.
Diversity is and should be a top priority. Hiring diverse leaders is a corporate mandate that’s central to many companies’ strategies and success. We know that companies do better when they have diverse boards and executives who can bring new ways of thinking, seeing, and problem solving to the table. Firms are starting to internalize that, and hiring managers are being much more deliberate in sourcing a diverse slate of candidates. 75% of the candidates that our tech practice places are diverse. I’m really proud of that.
Given it’s such a competitive market, what advice do you have for companies that are hiring executives?
Finding the right candidate is critical. The average cost of hiring the wrong executive is around $400,000, and then there’s the opportunity cost that comes with not having the right person in the role. You want to make sure you’re not shooting from the hip when it comes to making major decisions that affect the future of your company.
There are a couple of hacks I recommend to ensure that companies keep the hiring process effective and efficient. The first is to focus on your top 2 or 3 hires. Taking on too many searches at once is not effective, and then you have to onboard a bunch of new executives at the same time. Instead, I recommend that companies prioritize their most important hires, commit to a shorter search cycle time so they can get the right people in those roles, and then move on to filling other positions.
It also helps to focus on the future. My clients tend to be in the emerging products and tech space, so a lot of times they’re building something that didn’t exist before. We’ll often receive a laundry list of qualifications from the board or CEO in terms of what they want from their hires, but sometimes there’s a disconnect with the realities of the business. That’s why I always start by identifying the results that companies want their new hires to drive. What are your key business objectives? What does this candidate need to accomplish in their first 6, 12, 18 months on the job? Once we answer those questions, we can find the right executives to accomplish those goals. It helps to look across industries and evaluate P&L, growth, IPOs — KPIs that are indicators of someone’s ability to translate their past into future success.
It’s also important to get compensation right. Basically every client says to me, ‘bring the best talent and I’ll pay for it,’ but in reality that’s just not the case. Companies need to be clear on how much they’re willing to spend and recognize that attracting top talent can require you to be competitive with the market. I always joke that candidates have memories like elephants: they only remember the highest number. So it’s important to talk to your stakeholders, decide how much you’re willing to offer, and build in the wiggle room you need.
How can companies get the most out of their relationship with a recruiting firm?
Partnerships with recruiters are vital. We have deep knowledge of market dynamics and we’re on the phone day-in and day-out talking to talent. That gives us real-time data about what companies are investing in, what business units they’re building out, what their hiring needs are, and who’s considering applying for new roles. Having this information available early in a search saves time and sets realistic expectations. Eighty percent of the time our placements are uncovered within the first two weeks. My rule of thumb is to talk to one or two candidates that are a stretch and to have 3–4 options that are in a company’s price range and that we have a higher probability of landing.
Recruiters have deep relationships with talent and make a point of checking in with their contacts regularly, whether they’re on the job market or not. That means we often identify candidates before they’re explicitly interested in taking on a new position. Sometimes that interest is just a glimmer in their eye. Often, the executives that we end up hiring actually tell us no in the first conversation. They need to be convinced the role is a good fit. It can be a very powerful tool when recruiters and company leaders work together to sell candidates on why it’s the right time to take on a new position, especially in today’s market.
You recently wrote a piece in Forbes about how CEO roles are changing. You noted that CEOs aren’t just responsible for running their businesses anymore — they act as companies’ “chief accountability officers,” “chief enablement officers,” and “chief change management officers.” Tell us about that.
We increasingly look to businesses to level up the conversation, lead in a complex global environment, and make a positive impact on society. The CEOs who I think are the most incredible and inspiring are the ones that bring their full selves to leadership. They’re the ones who can lean into their superpowers and leverage them to best lead their team. They’re also the ones who can embrace ambiguity. The pandemic really asked a lot of leaders: they had to keep their organizations running through an unprecedented period of uncertainty. They had to reassure their employees and keep them engaged in a remote environment. These were new, challenging demands, and they demonstrated that the best CEOs need to be able to navigate disruption, empower employees, and stay accountable to stakeholders.
We’ve all seen the recent articles that say half of Americans want to quit their jobs. What’s your take on that? What does it mean for executive recruiting?
I think we’re seeing more job openings because people are making lifestyle changes — they’re moving to less expensive areas and deciding how they want to live their lives differently. The pandemic has set a precedent for living life on your own terms, which I think is amazing, but it creates even less people in the market to do the jobs that everyone’s hiring for. That’s challenging for leaders who still have deliverables. They have to show up and get their jobs done, maybe with less help than they had before, and that can be a vicious cycle because they can get burnt out. I think we’re in a time where burnout and overwhelm are systemic. It can make people lose confidence in themselves. I don’t know how we can fix that on a broader scale, but I do know that finding the right role at the right company can be enormously rewarding and fulfilling for candidates, and energizing to the teams that they join. That’s a win-win, especially in this environment. And my team and I are committed to making that happen.