The All-Virtual Executive Search


The Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service (COA) is a 501(c)(6) membership association founded in 1951 by a group of Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Officers. Located in Landover, MD, outside of Washington, DC, COA’s membership is approximately 5,000 and consists primarily of active duty and retired members of the PHS Commissioned Corps. COA also has a related, 501(c)(3) foundation, the USPHS Commissioned Officers Foundation for the Advancement of Public Health (COF). The Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC) is one of the eight uniformed services of the United States. Its origins can be traced to the establishment in 1798 of a system of marine hospitals.

COA/COF selected Sterling Martin Associates (SMA) to conduct the Executive Director search in late November 2019 and the process got underway immediately.

Launching the Search

The COA/COF search began with a series of Zoom video interviews with Search Committee members. SMA typically holds these discussions via video conference for practical reasons, as committee members are usually located throughout the United States or internationally. The SMA team also conducted a site visit in January to COA/COF’s headquarters to meet with the outgoing Executive Director, who was retiring from his role, and to meet with a number of staff members.

Through these due diligence discussions, it became clear that COA/COF was seeking candidates with uniformed service experience. The USPHS reports to the Surgeon General, and the committee felt this would bring credibility with both the COA/COF members and the Surgeon General’s office. The committee also sought senior management experience in a professional association or nonprofit organization, ideally within the healthcare sector.

SMA began a nationwide search for potential candidates. Outreach and initial screenings began in December and took place over the next several months. SMA assembled a roster of highly qualified individuals for COA/COF to consider.

Responding to the Pandemic

Early in the search, first and second round interviews were scheduled with the Search Committee for mid and late March, respectively. The committee had already planned to conduct the first round of interviews via videoconference and the second round in person. The first round went smoothly, giving committee members confidence in using the Zoom technology.

As coordination was underway for the second-round, in-person interviews in late March, stay-at-home orders were being put into place and large gatherings in Maryland were becoming increasingly restricted. It was clear the situation was changing rapidly, and the committee would need to move to an all-virtual format for the second round. Because of their roles in the USPHS, a number of the COA/COF Search Committee members were either called for deployment, or were on standby, in response to the pandemic.

“Meeting people face-to-face is always highly valued and presumed, reasonably enough, to be the best way of identifying the most suitable candidates for a position,” said Search Committee Co-Chair, Captain Jessica Feda.

“The commitment by the Search Committee members during this unprecedented time was amazing to experience. When one of the committee members had to call in to an interview while on deployment, where she was working from the back of a converted tractor trailer, it was an example of the incredible commitment this group had to getting the job done,” said Sterling Martin CEO David Martin.

Interviewing and Selecting a Candidate Remotely

The candidates also needed to remain flexible during this process. Their ability to connect with the Search Committee through video interviews was a challenging proposition. Those who were adept at using Zoom demonstrated their comfort with using technology and flexibility in a changing environment.

“We found that the virtual interview process did give us enough information about candidates to make an informed selection. This included the candidate’s demeanor and comfort with the virtual process,” said Search Committee Co-Chair, Rear Admiral (retired) Steve Solomon, MD. “I think this helped demonstrate some adaptability, the ability to project personal traits virtually, and ease with an atypical process—all qualities we valued in our preferred candidate.”

The Search Committee selected Dr. Jacqueline D. Rychnovsky as its next Executive Director. Dr. Rychnovsky had most recently been the Vice President, Research, Policy & Strategic Initiatives for the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN), where she oversaw all programs related to policy, research, and strategic initiatives. She began her career as a nurse practitioner in the Navy Nurse Corps, eventually rising to hold Chief Executive Officer roles for the Naval Health Research Center and Naval Medical Research Center.

“Sterling Martin arranged the interviews in a manner that made me, as a candidate, extremely comfortable and prepared for the experience,” said Dr. Rychnovsky. “In many ways, I feel my interview was more polished and organized than in face-to-face interviews. Panel members made the sessions feel personalized, and there were minimal distractions. Overall, I would strongly recommend virtual recruitment for all organizations, large and small.”

“Unless a position can remain vacant, incorporating virtual interviews into the process addresses several concerns during the pandemic,” said Captain Feda. She noted that the additional coordination and preparation support provided by Sterling Martin ensured that interviews ran smoothly and that all Search Committee members were fully engaged in the selection process.

“Virtual interviewing is also a way that organizations can reduce cost and keep their candidate pool large and diverse,” added Dr. Rychnovsky. “The employer did not have to cover any travel expenses into the headquarters office, which is a plus when recruiting out-of-town candidates.”

For More Information

The SMA team has more than 30 years of experience facilitating national and international searches. The use of video conferencing and other virtual meeting technologies has expanded in the past five years.

If your organization is considering an executive search, please contact us at [email protected]. We can customize our process to meet current social distancing guidance, identify outstanding candidates, and help you select the right executive for your position.