Executive Recruiting Blog

EFL Associates insights on executive recruiting, talent management and succession planning.

April 23, 2019

Higher Education Executive Search - How “Bad” Do You Want It

By: Steve Waldron, Managing Director, Higher Education Search Practice

We’re seeing some interesting trends in retained search--the practice of paying an up-front fee to perform a specific search for a new senior leader.  With the resurgence of the economy and corporate tax cuts there has been a rush to create new executive positions and to fill vacant ones.  With that demand has come a glut of “searchers” ready to try their hand at a new vocation.  While the Higher Education Search space has not been quite as hot as with our corporate brethren, we have seen an influx of searchers attempting to disrupt the market (while oftentimes merely disrupting the search).  Some thoughts and also some cautionary tales:

Right or Right Now:  We get it.  Speed to fill positions is critical.  EFL Associates has a great record for conducting timely searches; in 2018, we averaged 93.3 days for a comprehensive search across all of our search practices.  Recently, we lost an opportunity to a new competitor who offered to fill a President/CEO position in two weeks.  That is a major red flag.  A failed search is one where you hire the wrong person then suffer everything that comes with that decision.  “The industry rule of thumb is this: the wrong person hired into a position costs the company three times his or her annual salary.  A person hired for…$150,000 salary would cost the company $450,000 to fix the mistake. Then there’s the opportunity cost that comes from lost momentum and lost business.”[1]  The only way a Higher Education Search Firm can fill a positon in two weeks is to “round up the usual suspects.”  All established firms have multiple contacts, acquaintances, databases and outreach capacity but you won’t even scratch the surface of finding the right fit in two weeks.  Instead, you likely condemn yourself to repeating the process and prolonging the agony.  If you covet speed, go with a firm that won’t let you skimp on building your pool of candidates.  To conduct the focused research, personal outreach, review and especially the consultant’s interview of the candidates (be sure your firm does this), set aside six to eight weeks to build your pool. 

Go Fast, Not Furious:  Your time savings can come on the front or back end of building the pool.  Assemble a search support team and Committee responsive to the urgency of the situation.  A recent Committee member lamented that he didn’t have time to spend a whole day just interviewing for a Dean; he was not an ideal choice for membership.  We routinely advise our clients that we will work at all hours crafting and refining the Proposal and scheduling and conducting interviews but the art of the practice (understanding your culture and finding the right match) cannot be rushed.  New additions to the search profession simply don’t understand or appreciate this reality.

With LinkedIn, What is Your Value:  Many DIY’ers and new entrants to search generate names and targets using limited resources and rely almost exclusively on new technology.  While LinkedIn and similar repositories have an important place, they are but one leg to the stool.  Established Higher Ed Search Firms leverage their networks, contacts and relationships to dive much deeper.  It is highly likely that your ideal institutional fit is blissfully unaware that he or she is even looking for a new challenge.  Key to the practice is the ability to access these professionals and through personal interaction and relationship-building generate excitement and interest in your position.  Because this is our full-time job, we focus relentlessly on this aspect of the search.  Short of following the process of identification, contact, information-sharing, rapport-building and generating interest and excitement in your position, your pool will be limited to merely those with the goal of leaving their current position.  Be cautious of creating or accepting a process that inadvertently limits your choices.

That’s a Wrap:  The tales that can be told of candidates lost because of a breach of trust or loss of confidentiality are many.  At the core of our business is an understanding that confidentiality is paramount.  Candidates rely on the professionalism of the search firm to protect them during all but the finalist stage of the process.  Make sure your firm has a track record of success.  Our Higher Ed practice has used a secure, password protected application system for many years.  This fosters candidate confidence and seamless Committee review without sundry e-mails containing confidential information being launched to multiple parties.  Finally, be sure that the work is not only guaranteed but also from a search partner likely to be around long enough to honor it.  Remember, you want the perfect fit who will enhance your university and lead you into the future.  Choose the search partner who will find what you badly want, not try to find what you want badly.


[1] http://www0.dmst.aueb.gr/nikolaou/blogs/execsearch.pdf 



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