How Higher Education Can Reinvent the Leadership Search

By Suzanne Teer and Karen Burg

In the months since COVID-19 began dominating American life, colleges and universities have been forced to rapidly change how they conduct executive searches. Suddenly they’ve had to pay attention to details and nuances that often were lost or overlooked in the traditional search process.

Last March, two of our fellow search consultants wrote “As Classrooms Go Virtual, What About Campus-Leadership Searches?” It encouraged institutions to proceed with executive recruiting during the pandemic and offered advice on how to do so. Now, several months later, definite changes are underway. The following advice represents new “must-dos” in your efforts at successful leadership recruiting.

Your institution’s brand name is not enough to build a strong pool. The pandemic has prompted many people to re-evaluate their lives and careers, a trend that is particularly germane to leadership searches. Many candidates are saying they want to make a meaningful difference and exercise their leadership to help solve compelling problems. We know a leader who recently left academe to join a nonprofit research institute that is informing the nation’s policies on pandemic response, economic turbulence, and structural racism.

In other words, institutions looking for strong leaders in the COVID-19 era must now make a more compelling case — for the position, the institution, the locale — and can’t just rely on their name and reputation. Search committees must cast leadership opportunities in a way that captures the candidates’ imaginations, speaks to their motivations, and compels them to consider a move (potentially more of a hurdle in this era), all while providing enough information to determine if the “fit” is ideal.

If you don’t know what that compelling case is, then now is the time to figure it out. In which fields does your institution excel? On which of the world’s problems are your faculty members doing important work? How does your institution’s mission or demographics create a unique approach to those problems?

Institutions must also sell their campus and culture. What’s it like to be a member of your campus community? What are its unique benefits? Conveying those aspects is vital, especially as virtual interviewing becomes more the norm and candidates’ perceptions of a job and a campus are shaped by what they hear directly via videoconferences.

You need all hands on deck during a leadership search. This is no time for people on the hiring committee to sit back and expect the consultants to do all the outreach. Every member of the search committee should be pinpointing potential candidates and reaching out to them. Some candidates may not be actively seeking a job change, but a nudge could whet their interest. (The campus HR liaison needs to advise the search-committee members on the proper rules of engagement; don’t assume any of them, including the chair, know what’s allowed and what isn’t.)

Especially during recruitment of the initial candidate pool, it’s easy and tempting for committee members to be complacent and defer to the consultants. A good search firm will have a wide candidate network, but personal connections from people on the campus can make a big difference in candidate interest and retention. Those same connections also can lead to a more diverse pool of candidates.

Say the search is for a vice president or a dean. The final hiring authority — the president or provost, who makes the actual hiring decision — should welcome all finalists before their interview, thank each of them at its conclusion, and then thank them again after the final decision has been made.

Once a search is over, the president or provost also has an opportunity to obtain valuable and candid feedback regarding the institution’s perceived weaknesses and areas for improvement in the interview process. Only one person will be offered the job, but the goal should be for every candidate to retain a positive view of the institution. Every search holds the potential not just to gain a leader but also to win advocates and new insights for your campus and identify people the institution would want to consider for future openings.

Leverage technology strategically and effectively. For the past few months, campuses have used video technology for all aspects of the search process: preliminary talks with the various stakeholders, search-committee sessions, candidate-selection meetings, and interviews of semifinalists and even finalists. Video interviewing is efficient and effective — and it saves money.

In one university search, committee members said they had learned more than they expected about the semifinalists during online interviews. In the future, it may be difficult to justify — from both the cost and public-health perspectives — flying a candidate across the country for a 75-minute interview.

Everyone we’ve asked has been surprised by how well video works in the executive-search process, but participants have also unanimously agreed that it will never be better than an in-person dynamic. Still, remote hiring does offer some advantages beyond cost. For example, one university held virtual meetings with campus groups to help shape its presidential search, and found the level of participation was far greater than for previous such meetings in person. Also, the virtual meetings were spread out over time, rather than conducted in a day or two, allowing greater flexibility and engagement.

When it comes to interviewing finalists, technology is unlikely to permanently replace in-person visits to campus. But tech can be used to support and enhance this stage of the search process:

  • In the future, institutions will be more likely to provide virtual alternatives to increase participation in a finalist’s visit — perhaps to include an industry partner a few states away or a trustee or advisory-board member who is unable to travel because of time constraints.
  • Technology can also be used to help candidates explore the institution to a greater degree, and earlier in the process. Video walking tours, including aerial drone footage, can give candidates a personal, tailored look into your campus. Once created, a video tour can be shared easily and may encourage reluctant candidates to take a closer look.
  • Video interviews with your president, provost, students, faculty members, and others can inspire prospective candidates to engage in the search. The more genuine the productions are, the better. Admissions and communications offices may already have resources that can provide a curated video introduction to the campus and community.

Think strategically. A candidate may never have set foot on your campus. Your search team controls the virtual lens and should strive to provide candidates with a panoramic, representative view. The danger lies in underselling or misrepresenting the place, resulting in loss of a great hire or gain of a bad hire.

Technology provides an opportunity to tune up the referencing process as well. Checking a finalist’s references via videoconferencing allows you to see facial expressions and gauge reactions to questions. Likewise, search-committee members can more easily join reference calls conducted by HR or by the search consultant. Given the limited opportunity to interact with candidates in person these days, references have become more important to a search than ever.

Give your customer service a tune-up. By customers, we mean the candidates. Some institutions take candidates for granted, with the attitude that “anyone would be fortunate to work here,” and leave all the courting to the search consultant. We’re already seeing that change in the COVID-19 era. For example, in one recent entirely virtual search, the chair of the search committee took the time to schedule preliminary calls with each of the finalists, purely to extend a warm welcome and orient them to their two intense days of virtual interviews. That doesn’t always happen before finalist interviews, but it should.

Academe has the opportunity now to convert positive lessons learned from the COVID-19 era of leadership searches into long-term best practices. In adapting to this crisis, we’re all learning how to engage with candidates in a more personal and meaningful way, and how to use technology to improve the process. For all of its many downsides, the pandemic may help us to reinvent and reinvigorate executive searches.

Karen Burg is a chaired professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia.

This article was previously published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to republish has been granted.

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