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Boards of directors are responsible for diverse aspects of leading an organization, but none quite so complex or important as selecting the right CEO. AgGeorgia Farm Credit planned for its CEO selection well in advance of the planned retirement of its long-time leader, allowing time for a months-long transition period to ensure the new CEO would have a strong foundation for success.
Then COVID-19 happened, and with it physical distancing requirements and travel restrictions that couldn’t help but impact the board’s selection process.
“We could see early in the pandemic that we were going to have to change our selection process, but delaying the search wasn’t an option for us,” says Dave Neff, AgGeorgia’s board chair. “Our CEO had announced his well-deserved retirement for the end of this year, and we wanted six months of overlap so the CEO transition would be a smooth one, so we had to keep to our original schedule.”
Already working with FCC Services to support its CEO selection, AgGeorgia embraced the proposed modified search process: replacing an early round of in-person candidate interviews with remote Zoom calls with the selection committee, which was chaired by Dave. Not surprisingly, there were some concerns, including from Dave himself, who relies a lot on body language and non-verbal communications cues. And there were a few technical hurdles, most notably ensuring that all the committee members had the application loaded and sufficient bandwidth to enable the calls. But with the selection timeline firmly set, the board saw no choice but to continue with their selection process.
“It could not have gone any better,” says Dave. “Sure, we didn’t like missing out on the in-person interviews with the semi-finalist candidates, but we needed to do things safely for everyone, and FCC Services figured out how we could do that while also making sure that we found the absolute best candidate for our organization.”
FCC Services’ Jay Lux, Vice President of Organizational Development, employed the standard selection process for the most part, soliciting candidates, completing an initial screening and conducting exploratory interviews with the preliminary group of candidates.
“Jay did an outstanding job vetting candidates and narrowing the field based on the parameters we’d already set for what we were looking for in our next CEO, and really brought us a group of candidates with a variety of experiences and expertise,” says Dave. “He consulted with the selection committee regularly and kept us advised of his progress and the reasons for his recommendations.”
With the candidate pool narrowed to 17, the selection committee then conducted regular telephone interviews with candidates, calls facilitated by Jay. After narrowing the field to six semi-final candidates, Jay then scheduled and led the Zoom interviews, assisting AgGeorgia in drawing out critical information to support their decision and also working to highlight each candidate’s attributes and why they should be considered. From there, the final three candidates were interviewed in person by the entire board, safely distanced in a hotel conference room, which incidentally was challenging to find, given pandemic-related closures.
“None of us are experts in interviewing, whether in person or remote, so we relied on Jay to prepare for and lead all our interviews, and then he facilitated the conversations among ourselves following each interview,” says Dave. “Throughout the process, we as a board did grow more confident in asking our own questions as they arose naturally during the conversations, and we credit Jay with that development.”
While he would have preferred the semi-finalist round of interviews be done face-to-face, Dave does believe that the Zoom calls were effective, and in retrospect would have preferred that the first round of telephone interviews been conducted over Zoom as well. His advice for other boards conducting remote interviews: “Don’t hurry through the interview just because you’re not together. Be prepared to sit for a couple of hours, and then be quiet and give the candidates time to prepare and give their answers.”
AgGeorgia’s new president and CEO, Farm Credit veteran Rob Crain, started with the organization on August 1, and the outgoing CEO, Jack C. Drew, Jr., will retire December 1 after 39 years with AgGeorgia Farm Credit and its predecessor entities.
“It was clear at every stage of this process that Jay was absolutely on AgGeorgia’s team and was working hard for the best possible outcome for us,” says Dave. “I’d turn to FCC Services for another executive search in a New York minute. There’s no doubt in my mind that we got our money’s worth, and I expect we’ll turn to FCC Services for other engagements as well.”
For more information about FCC Services’ CEO selection services, contact Jay Lux at 651.982.4568, or via email at Jay.Lux@FCCServices.com.