Identifying Successful Leaders during Changing, Challenging Times

WittKieffer is always strengthening its team of consultants to ensure that colleges and universities have the support and expertise that leads to successful recruitments. Relying on more than 13 years of executive recruiting experience, Ryan Crawford works with clients and search committees to create and implement a carefully crafted search process. Known for his ability to adapt and respond to changing factors or the revelation of new information, Ryan focuses on identifying truly innovative thinkers and leaders who will take responsibility for preparing the next generation of college students.

Over the course of your career in executive search, what has changed most about the characteristics clients seek in new leaders?

Crawford: It is not so much the skills leaders need to succeed that have changed, but rather the environment in which they are asked to lead that is frequently evolving. The core skills that clients seek have largely remained the same: the ability to shape a collective vision, the ability to make decisions that further progress towards goals, the ability to effectively communicate with a wide range of stakeholders, and the ability to lead in an authentic and ethical manner. My career in higher education executive search has now spanned two major global events (The Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic) with many other challenges (shifting regional demographics, changing regulatory environment, etc.) and trends (online education, MOOCs, etc.). It has been interesting watching how these external forces affect how clients speak about their leadership needs and how they prioritize what is most important. However, the core skills have tended to remain the same.

As the pool of executive leaders becomes younger, what should clients know in order to make an informed decision when dealing with a new generation of executive candidates?

Crawford: Search committees will need to be willing to take more risks early on in the search process. There will be more individuals who have not had the years of service or the career pathway that committees have become accustomed to in the past. That does not mean they may not have the leadership skills or potential to effectively serve the institution. Search committees should opt to see more candidates than less during the interview process. Thankfully, advances in videoconferencing make this possible without adding significant cost. Additionally, I think more care will need to be given when it comes to referencing. Often times, search committees and clients place significant emphasis on how candidates perform in the interviews, but minimal emphasis on how someone has operated in the past (according to their colleagues and peers). Referencing often becomes more of a question of “Are there issues?” than “Are their experiences and style a good fit?” As candidate profiles change, this assessment of fit through referencing will be critical to ensuring successful hires.

How do you work with search committees to help them avoid their personal biases when reviewing a slate of candidates?

Crawford: I have seen this evolve significantly during my time in executive search. Institutions are doing a much better job of providing training on implicit bias, designating inclusion advocates on the search committee, and other practices that help to minimize bias in candidate evaluation. As a consultant, our job is to help facilitate the committee’s discussion of candidates so that individuals are on a level playing field and the committee focuses on the qualifications listed in the job description.

Drilling a little deeper into that last question, cultural fit is often a key factor with many committees. How do you help the members balance cultural fit while considering the advantages that diversity – be that gender, ethnicity or leadership style – can have in creating a strong, passionate leadership team?

Crawford: “Fit” is a term used often when evaluating candidates, and for good reason. A candidate’s ability to understand an institution’s context can have a big impact on their ability to succeed in the job. (Do they understand the institution’s student population? Do they understand working within a university system?) However, fit does not have to focus solely on what the candidate and the institution have in common. It should also focus on where the candidate may be able to bring new perspectives that will help the institution move in desired directions. However, fit can become dangerous when it is used vaguely or in discussing areas outside of the job’s qualifications. Too often, fit can become an exclusionary term that put candidates from underrepresented groups at a disadvantage. The best committees are ones that recognize this issue and push each other to keep discussions of fit focused on the position.

What is the key for search committees to keep a search moving forward and on schedule?

Crawford: Search committees that struggle to make decisions will struggle to stay on track. A highly engaged committee where members freely share their perspectives is the ideal group, but can also be challenging if there are not structures in place to synthesize input and make timely decisions. Decisions abound in a search: determining the process, writing a job description, determining interview questions, evaluating candidates, etc. Search committees must determine when and how these decisions will be made to keep the search on schedule.

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