A few years ago, I curled up with a cup of tea and watched The Female Lead’s interview with CNN’s Clarissa Ward. Throughout her career, Clarissa has covered the most dangerous and war- torn areas on our planet. Although as a journalist she had long come to terms with her limited role, i.e., to bear witness, she found that her storyteller’s heart was too full of the courage and suffering she had witnessed. She therefore took a career break and wrote a book to pay tribute to the people she met, whose stories might otherwise go untold.
Clarissa’s storyteller’s heart deeply resonated with my own. Although my professional setting as a Partner at Borderless – a boutique executive search firm – is admittedly not nearly as tantalizing as a raging battlefield, I nonetheless spend my day talking to professionals around the world and gathering their stories, many of which are no less heroic and moving. But unlike Clarissa, whose job as a journalist is to bear witness, I am tasked with delivering real leadership solutions to my clients. I also hold economic and professional opportunity in my hands. As such, I believe that taking the time to hear people’s stories is the very essence of my job, perhaps now more than ever.
Accelerated by the pandemic – but an evident trend for the last several years – clients have been routinely demanding resilience, agility and empathy as “must-have” candidate leadership traits for business success in these uncertain and dynamic times. Life events that build such traits, however, are often not packaged in a tidy ‘climb-up-the-traditional-career-ladder’ bundle. They instead evolve in response to a lifetime of challenges and experiences, which are left undiscovered if we allow common CV biases and/or assumptions to prevail. CVs with hidden gems of character buried in unexplained career transitions and/or progressions are often discarded because someone with hiring power falsely attributes such discrepancies to undesirable characteristics, such as job hopping, lack of commitment, or even (imagined) poor performance.
I have therefore taken a personal and professional oath to wade deeper into people’s career progression mysteries, which often peak out a bit messily from the corners of resumes, CVs, and LinkedIn profiles. This is even more true in our post-pandemic and climate-challenged world, where a vast majority of people continue to be impacted by disruption, a trend that continues to accelerate. In such a climate, it is important to resist the urge to engage in cursory CV reviews, substituting one’s own negative assumptions, and triggering instead a storyteller’s curiosity. At Borderless, we do this by being aware of CV biases and taking time with our potential candidates. The dialogues we encourage following our initial review of a CV, resume, or LinkedIn profile is where the true exploration begins, and the real story unfolds. This level of engagement is critical to understanding the unique skills and experiences each candidate can bring. Frankly, it is also the level of professional commitment needed to bring you, as a client, the leadership skills you have requested.
Cultivating a storyteller’s curiosity is also essential to building leadership and team diversity, as it requires you to go beyond rounding up the usual suspects. There are many reasons why people’s career paths may stray, wobble, or be interrupted, such as illness, taking care of sick relatives, balancing dual careers, political instability and war, facing up to personal priorities, or inherent system-wide obstacles. The list goes on.
As a powerful example, in 2016, then Novartis Leader Christi Shaw made big news when she stepped down from a thriving executive career to care for her sister who was suffering from cancer. Most people do not have Christi’s public profile to garner such career acceptance, but this type of life event is a common explanation for interrupted career progression or an unexplained transition. Guess what? Such life challenges build resilience, agility, flexibility, and empathy which leaders can then incorporate into their professional lives.
At Borderless, we have found that taking time to hear people’s stories is an essential approach to successfully identifying a diverse slate of leaders and professionals with the indispensable traits needed for business success in an increasingly uncertain world. As such, we will continue to set aside common CV biases and trigger our storyteller’s curiosity when assessing candidates for your next leadership role. We hope we have inspired you to do the same when we present such leaders to you.