It’s 2021: Why Are Good Leaders Seeking Greater Challenges?

By Mercedes Chacón Vance

As COVID-19 has dragged on, many career administrators are contacting my colleagues and me to ask us about new job opportunities. This is different than it was, for example, during the economic crisis of a decade ago—at that time, few institutions were hiring, and leaders were very risk-averse and looking to stay put in their roles. No candidate then was reaching out to me.

A recent WittKieffer survey report found that some 95 percent of leaders are currently open to new jobs, even if it means relocating. Why is today different? Why are leaders looking around? The following are a few reasons I see:

  1. COVID-19, while extremely challenging and chaotic, has created a unique opportunity for leaders to truly make a difference. There is tremendous risk in addressing the impacts of COVID on campuses today, but tremendous reward as well. Tressa Ries, for instance, recently jumped at an opportunity to join St. Cloud State University as Vice President for Finance and Administration due to the institution’s success in establishing itself as a comprehensive regional university. “I want to contribute to an institution where the mission, vision and strategy are innovative and there is a focus on strengthening our society,” she says. The role simply aligned with her personal values and commitment. Many leaders are willing to move if it means they can help out in a time of great need.
  2. The pandemic has forced leaders to reevaluate their careers. Even though there is a lot of uncertainty, people see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a freight train coming. Professionals in higher education are optimistic that now is a time to rejuvenate their careers and find a path that enlightens them and brings them passion for what they are doing. “I don’t want to continue punching the clock and doing the same thing year in and year out,” one advancement leader told me recently. “If I am not adding value, learning and coaching/teaching most days, then something needs to change.”
  3. Academic leaders hope to find an institution where health and well-being are a cultural norm. This era has made people reflect on their own happiness and wellbeing. We are hearing from professionals that they are feeling isolated and burned out from long remote working hours, navigating new family commitments and the social discourse in our communities. Finding new balance to our lives is increasingly more important and employees are looking to find a place that fosters collaboration, communication and an accepting working environment.
  4. Leaders rarely want a direct climb up the ladder anymore. They don’t want a job where they’re following a plan that someone else has laid. They are looking for new adventures in their careers, to broaden their experience even though it might not lead directly to the top. The millennial generation, in particular, is not following the same career path that their parents or grandparents did.
  5. People are looking to move closer to family. With the pandemic, most companies and institutions moved to remote work, our schools went to remote learning and our social lives came to a screeching halt. Bustling cities have been fairly quiet and the idea of venturing into large crowds makes most people nervous. People are taking time to reflect on their professional and personal lives and many are feeling a pull to get closer to family. “Seeing my kids interacting with their grandparents – I want to enable that as much as possible,” one candidate told me. “So I am thinking about this in addition to all the other reasons to be close to family (aging parents, free babysitting, etc.).”

Regardless of how the pandemic continues to play out, I believe more leaders will continue to take a look at their work and home lives and evaluate if now is the time to change. The best part of being an executive search consultant is to counsel candidates on how to sort out these questions, and help them find the professional opportunities to create the life they want. We also have the privilege of helping institutions find dynamic leaders who will shape the future of their institutions.

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