The Executive Recruiting Road Ahead for 2022

COVID-19 has dramatically shifted the leadership job market in higher education, with much more turbulence and turnover than in the past. It’s a seller’s market, says Zachary Smith, Ph.D., head of WittKieffer’s Education Practice, in the interview below. Candidates must carefully consider their readiness, and limitations, before jumping into the job-hunting fray.

What are some of higher education’s greatest challenges facing its leaders heading into 2022? What’s keeping leaders up at night?

Smith: There are a number of challenges impacting the leadership of our nation’s higher education institutions. Among the most immediate are the evolving laws and mandates related to COVID-19 vaccinations and the political pressures driving many of these changes. Some states have implemented vaccine mandates as conditions of employment, which are directly impacting recruiting and retention strategies.

From a more long-term perspective, declines in enrollment due to the decline in high school graduates across the country are impacting institutions that did not have comprehensive enrollment strategies in place. Enrollment declines are straining institutional budgets due to the associated decline in tuition. While state and federal support has stabilized to some degree more recently (thanks in large part to government stimulus), on a macro level the trend for public funding continues its decline. While philanthropy is up at many institutions, private funds cannot make up for the difference in decline in state support and loss of tuition revenue. These forces, combined with aging facilities and infrastructure needs, are testing the resolve of higher education leaders.

Looking back, how has COVID-19 changed the way that institutions recruit senior leadership? Is it a permanent change?

Smith: COVID-19 has had a significant impact on how institutions hire and recruit executive leadership. A significant portion of the recruitment process has shifted to a virtual environment. There are pros and cons with the virtual search. However, we believe there are many more benefits that have resulted from virtual recruitments, including lower travel expenses, greater efficiencies in the search process and increased engagement with campus constituents, among others.

In most of our searches, we have seen an uptick in attendance at search-related activities, including listening sessions, candidate open forums and even candidate engagement in a search. Candidates are withdrawing less often from first-round interviews in virtual versus in-person formats because it’s much easier to find 90 minutes for an interview than two days when traveling in person.

Virtual interviews also increase the likelihood of building more diverse candidate pools since women and people of color typically feel more exposed to negative blowback at their home institutions if their candidacies are made public (and traveling to a first-round interview increases the likelihood their candidacy may be exposed). Furthermore, holding first-round interviews virtually has in many ways removed inherent biases in the interview process related to physical characteristics. As professionals have become more and more comfortable conducting business virtually, candidates and committees have become more and more comfortable holding interviews virtually. Many of these changes may become permanent if institutions focus on the benefits of virtual interviewing.

COVID has forced every professional to reevaluate their career, creating a lot of turnover. Do you think we’ll continue to see leaders change jobs (and careers) in 2022?

Smith: COVID-19 has certainly increased movement in the higher education job market. However, at senior levels, this has been magnified alongside the aging baby boom population. We’ve been expecting to see more openings in executive-level positions, but COVID-19 sped this up. We believe we’ll continue to see a lot of retirements and job changes well into 2022 that shows no signs of slowing any time soon. Candidates know it’s a seller’s market. There has never been a better time for ambitious professionals to seek next-level opportunities.

What advice do you have for those individuals considering a job change in this environment?

Smith: The basic principles of job searches apply today like in the past, but preferred requirements for executive-level jobs have shifted in some ways. Candidates should be thoughtful about how they articulate their experience with things like change management and managing through crises, while simultaneously articulating a vision and developing and implementing strategic plans.

Furthermore, there has been a heightened focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the job search. DE&I has always been an important consideration, but the events of the last couple of years have rightfully put these topics at the top of the priority list when it comes to hiring executive leadership. Candidates seeking their next position should be able to demonstrate their own personal commitment to and impact on DE&I in their workplace.

Finally, on a more practical matter, candidates entering the job market should be thinking about three things: 1) what job are they realistically ready for; 2) at what type of institution do they want to work; and 3) in what part of the country would they consider living. It’s important to understand both your readiness and limitations of your search before considering a change and jumping into the market.