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What Search Consultants Do

Inside Higher Ed - Shared Governance in Crisis
Originally published: “What Search Consultants Do,” Inside Higher Ed, August 5, 2009

Inside Higher EdCurious, a commenter on my IHE piece, “How Candidates Can Stand Out (in a Good Way),” wrote, “It is hard not to think that when search consultants are involved, the search process is already biased in favor of those whom they know through [their] network.” Curious then reported, “some of the best qualified people do not even bother to apply for a position that engages search consultants because of this perception (reality?) of bias.”

Another commenter, Jim, approached the search process in this way: “When search committees are chosen to send a message mostly about democratic inclusiveness, and when members lack substantive knowledge about administrative leadership, they understandably gravitate toward genial, upbeat candidates who remember their names, have done their homework, and have good interviewing skills. But mostly, they look for candidates who won’t offend the constituency represented by each committee member. This process is especially effective at weeding out strong, decisive candidates in favor of those who give bland, cautious answers that affirm the status quo and threaten no constituency.”

Because my experience runs counter to these thoughtful observations, I am glad to comply with Curious‘s suggestion that I write an essay explaining the role of search consultants and how candidates can work with them.

I do need first to offer the disclaimer that I can speak only for myself, because, as Henry David Thoreau put it in Walden, I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” I can also to a large extent speak for my immediate colleagues at Academic Search. Having said that, I want to stress that I imagine that most executive search firms working with colleges and universities use similar processes and have similar values to ours.

Let me begin by describing those principles that govern my work as a search consultant. All are designed to ensure that the searches have integrity and that they yield candidates who will both embrace and advance the mission of the college or university that has retained me.

● Recognizing that every institution is idiosyncratic, with its own history, culture, customs, strengths, weaknesses and challenges, I believe my first responsibility is to understand and then be able to articulate both its complexities and its possibilities.

To achieve such an understanding, I begin by reading a good deal of material, e.g. strategic and master plans, fact books, admissions and fundraising materials, alumni magazines, documents about governance, audited financial statements, presidential speeches and reaccreditation reports as well as documents about the curriculum, the co-curriculum, student life and athletics.

I then spend several days on campus listening to a great many people and asking lots of questions. This is one of my favorite parts of searches both because I am heartened by how candid people are with me and because this exercise requires me to think (as I once did when I was writing my dissertation on Faulkner) about the importance of point of view in understanding narratives.

My campus schedule looks much like those the finalists will experience later in the search: an extended meeting with the search committee; individual meetings with senior administrators; open forums for faculty members, students and staff members; and meetings with key faculty committees and administrative program directors. For presidential searches, I meet with trustees and sometimes with members of the local community.

Such an understanding of the unique texture of the college or university informs the ad and the institutional profile that I draft subsequent to my campus visit. It next enables me to identify and then encourage applications from potential candidates who have the qualifications the committee seeks. It helps me answer candidates’ questions — or know where to go to find answers.

● I believe that it is essential that search committee members observe confidentiality and that they think institutionally rather than as representatives of their own constituency. These are matters that the committee and I discuss at some length at the outset of the search and throughout. To my pleasure, every committee with which I’ve worked has made and kept that commitment to confidentiality. And although, as the commenter Jim suggests, many search committees are constituted with an eye to including representatives from key constituencies, the vast majority of committee members with whom I’ve worked quickly see their role as making decisions that will benefit the institution as a whole and not just their own areas. This shift away from constituency politics often occurs as committee members together agree on the criteria they will use in evaluating candidates.

● Contrary to Curious’ understandable assumption about the influence of the search consultant on the outcome of the search, I am committed to the notion that it is the responsibility of the search committee, not the consultant, to judge which candidate or candidates meet the criteria the committee has adopted.

Although most committees do ask me to tell them what I know about the candidates, that moment typically comes toward the end of a committee’s deliberations. Committees also want to be sure that they are not overlooking candidates who have impressed me. In truth, those on the committees’ top list and mine have, at least to date, always coincided.

Some committee members (often trustees who are used to a more corporate model for a search) have suggested that rather than their reading all the applications, I recommend to them those candidates whom I think are the strongest. Others have suggested that I rank candidates for them or even tell them who I think is the best candidate in the pool. I have persuaded these folks that having all committee members read all applications and having the committee do the ranking is a better methodology. Not only are more minds and perspectives better than that of one person, but the committee’s deliberations are part of its taking ownership of the search and part of the process by which the successful candidate gains credibility on campus.

At the same time, I do believe it is my responsibility to tell a committee if there is something about a candidate that in my judgment raises serious questions about the person’s judgment or integrity. For example, in one case, an otherwise strong candidate had misled the committee about the institution granting him a doctorate. In another, a candidate misrepresented his current employment situation, leading the committee to believe that he was still employed when in fact his job had been terminated.

● Even though a primary part of every search consultant’s role is to build the applicant pool, my colleagues and I believe — and decidedly so — that we are consultants and not merely headhunters. What that means is that we assume an even greater responsibility than simply identifying candidates. Rather, we work with committees and — in the case of presidential searches — boards to craft a process that will enable them to appoint talented and capable administrators who will in fact strengthen the institution. What this means in real terms is that I pretty routinely advise search committee chairs and — if pertinent — presidents and board chairs about how to handle a wide array of issues related to the search.

For example, the presence of an internal candidate requires special sensitivity since the committee has the charge of mounting an energetic and serious national search even as committee members seek to deal fairly with a candidate or candidates who are their colleagues and even friends.

Several board chairs have asked me to help them through the question of whether or not to offer a full professorship with tenure to their next president. In such instances, I’ve advised that the institution should only offer rank and tenure to candidates whom they would be thrilled to hire for a faculty position, and that such an appointment needs to have the endorsement of those normally in the chain of review, such as the department, the appropriate tenure and promotion committee and the board. The institutions should also clarify what the salary should be and whether they can afford it.

I’ve helped more than one president-elect and spouse work through politically loaded issues related to the president’s house. I’ve been asked to brainstorm with board chairs and presidents alike about how to handle personnel problems that, if unresolved or resolved badly, would affect the new appointee. I’ve been asked to advise board chairs about matters relating to governance, to review strategic plans and to make recommendations about the timing of an anticipated campaign.

I have also learned that candidates will ask me questions that they would be reluctant to ask the search committee chair or the committee as a whole. Sometimes these have to do with personal circumstances and sometimes with professional responsibilities. For example, I’ve been asked in several different presidential searches whether the campus would accept a divorced single parent as president and whether a commuter marriage would be a problem (the answer to the first question was always “yes,” and to the second, “no,“ but I am aware that the answers in these cases reflected the values of these particular institutions and that other institutions might answer them differently). I’ve been asked about possible jobs for spouses or partners, the local schools, housing prices, cost of living and expectations for community involvement. I’m often asked about salary, the institution’s participation in a tuition exchange program, the anticipated length of the first contract and whether there are internal candidates and if so, is the search authentic?

● Finally, although it is the institution that retains my services (although some firms charge one-third of first year compensation, we charge a flat fee because we don’t want institutions to think we are recruiting high-salaried folks to increase our fee), I believe I have a responsibility to serve as a resource for the candidates as well. For a search to be successful, the appointee must understand as much about the institution as possible, its problems as well as its strengths. Higher education is filled with horror stories of candidates who arrive on their new campus, confident that they have a solid understanding of the institution, only to discover significant problems about which they had not been told. Such a circumstance portends disaster.

Let me now turn to what else I do to facilitate a search.

Taking into account what I’ve learned and benefiting enormously from the input of search committee members, I draft the ad and an institutional profile. Once the committee chair has signed off on these documents, I begin to build the pool. I want to emphasize that I do in fact build each candidate pool anew. I do not have a data base of favored candidates whom I promote for every search until they land a new position. Indeed, in the searches for which I’ve served as a consultant, I had previously known only one of the successful candidates, and I had met her a year earlier when she had been a compelling candidate in a previous search that I assisted.

So how do I generate a pool of candidates? First, I do turn to my colleagues. Nearly two-thirds of us are former college presidents and the others were senior level administrators. Curious is right: I do have a huge network of both potential candidates and nominators, but in fact this network is merely my starting point, not my conclusion.

I next send e-mails describing the position typically to about 2,000 college administrators and officials in higher education organizations and foundations seeking expressions of interest and nominations. I spend countless hours on the phone, asking people whom I respect who they think either would be a strong candidate or a productive source of names of those who might be. I place the ad in selected publications, post the ad and the profile on the firm Web site and work with the campus to develop a search Web site that will contain both information about the search for the campus and lead candidates to important information about the campus. I also handle a large variety of administrative tasks, such as developing the search schedule, crafting a communications plan, recommending the materials that should be sent to semi-finalists and finalists, and drafting correspondence. I draft reference and interview questions for the committee. I advise the campus on the press release announcing the appointment.

My research associate schedules all my appointments, organizes the so-called “neutral site” visits with semi-finalists and keeps a log detailing all my contacts with potential and actual candidates as well as nominators. A colleague in our DC office creates a double-password-protected Web site on which we post all completed applications.

At some point, my energies shift to the candidates themselves as I spend a good deal of time answering their questions either in phone calls or by e-mail. Sometimes, candidates do ask for career counseling that I think falls outside my purview. For example, yesterday a candidate asked whether I thought that the vice presidency he was seeking was “good enough” to land him a presidency in five years. (I told him that I doubted it.) But more often than not, candidates have excellent questions that deserve answers.

Once a candidate has been offered the position, I generally serve as a liaison between that person and the campus throughout contract negotiations. I am clear: I’m not an attorney and both parties do need legal advice, but my involvement, for example, allows presidents-elect not to have to make the terms of their own contract their first substantive interaction with their new board chair. I can be the go-between and smooth some of the edges. I also typically recommend a transition plan.

Curious’s question about how candidates can work with consultants in the search process is a good one. My response is that candidates can and should be proactive if they are genuinely interested in the position. The consultant can be a great resource for them, but I advise that the candidate does her or his homework before seeking the consultant’s guidance.

Although this seems obvious, before doing anything else, candidates do need to read and think about the ad and the institutional profile and, even more importantly, whether their background and experience is pertinent to the stated criteria for the position and the challenges it offers. I am surprised at how many people ask me factual questions that these documents answer. Candidates might also profitably review materials on the institution’s Web site before reaching out to the consultant. (My own preference is to have candidates e-mail me or my research associate to ask for a phone conversation. I find it especially helpful if they attach to that e-mail an updated c.v. or résumé so that I can think about their backgrounds prior to our conversation and so that valuable time isn’t spent on their recounting their professional history.)

This, too, may seem obvious, but it’s wise for candidates to have substantive questions for the consultant rather than such mundane question as, “What is the college looking for?” and “Do you think I should apply?”

It is appropriate for candidates to ask about the anticipated timing of and process for the search. Once a candidate has been invited for a neutral site interview or for a campus visit, he or she might also ask the consultant for additional materials.

There is one other way that interested candidates can take advantage of consultant-facilitated searches. Some search firms have Web sites that list the searches they are assisting, with the ad and profile posted. By regularly reviewing these sites, candidates may discover positions that interest them. If so, they should e-mail the consultant a copy of their c.v. and ask for a phone conversation.

Perhaps most of all, Curious and Jim should take comfort in two facts: First, most search committee members become deeply invested in the search and are willing to devote an inordinate amount of time and energy to finding the best candidate. Second, most colleges and universities spend the money to hire search consultants precisely because they want an authentic national search facilitated by a consultant who can build a customized pool that addresses their specific needs. So rather than being fearful of consultant-facilitated searches, I would encourage them to welcome them.

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