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The Art of the Executive Search

A search firm can help universities avoid trouble when trying to fill a high-level post.
University Business, Oct 2004

There's no getting around it: A search committee's effectiveness in filling senior-level faculty and administrative positions often varies greatly and can be fraught with perils. Committee work is tough enough--but it is even more so when it involves something as emotionally and politically charged as a search for a key employee for the institution. Yet, understanding what makes a search committee effective, and then implementing those ideas, will increase your level of success in the timely selection of the best candidate for the position.

The most significant variables to a committee's success include: size of the committee, commitment of the committee members, leadership skills of the Chair, timeliness of follow-through, and the level of consensus required to complete the search process (a point which is often determined by the culture of the institution).

Clearly, the search committee Chair is vital in determining the ultimate success of the search. It is this individual who leads the process and guides the decisions in order to keep everyone and every thing moving forward. But more challenging and equally imperative, the Chair must be able to make sure everyone on the committee is heard without letting the dissenters and detractors run away with the group. The challenge is to gain consensus from the group, remembering the adage that you cannot please everyone. Minimally, the chair should: a) set an agenda for each meeting and stick to it, b) make sure the next meeting (at least) is scheduled by the conclusion of the last one, c) commit to paper the consensus on candidate selection criteria and process, d) create the list of interview questions the search committee will ask each candidate, and e) shepherd the group in implementing the process and making a final selection. But there are other critical issues the committee will be facing, and in these too, the Chair's leadership is essential. In fact, after the committee is assembled, the initial committee decision may very well center on the issue of whether or not to bring in professional help, to assist in the search.

The answer is... "It depends." Does the level of the position warrant the expense of a search firm? When the position to be filled is a dean, vice president, or above, we believe the answer is clearly, "Yes." In certain instances, a search firm is also appropriate at the associate vice president or director level. Our rule of thumb is this: Generally, any senior level administrator whose position is highly visible and critical to the institution's mission is worth employing a search firm to locate. Using an executive search firm in conjunction with a search committee can improve the chances for a superior outcome in a short period of time.

Every search holds a radically
unique set of challenges.

Why a search firm? Institutions are increasingly aware that a particular position requires a somewhat unique set of skills or is surrounded by political circumstances, both of which will make a good hire difficult. The usual methods of placing an ad and calling on a network of colleagues is frequently not all that effective, especially where there is the need to ensure that the marketplace has been thoroughly covered and as many people as possible have been approached. For these reasons, and the fact that securing quality management talent has become more critical, university partnerships with search firms have become increasingly common in higher ed over the last five years, just as they have with their peers in the private sector.

Defining roles and expectations. Typically, the relationship between the committee and the search firm works best when the recruiting firm is brought in during the first or second search committee meeting. The firm does the legwork for the committee, reducing its workload, and can also serve as a facilitator throughout the entire process. An experienced search firm will conduct a complete market survey, identify the target market, locate and contact all appropriate candidates, screen resumes, and conduct preliminary interviews. But importantly, before any of this happens, the committee should take full advantage of the firm's expertise in helping to refine the position description, set realistic expectations, determine selection criteria, and devise the interview strategy. Later on, the firm will also offer its expertise in negotiating the final offer.

The committee is then free to decide which of the candidates submitted by the search firm are most appropriate for the position, conduct the finalists' interviews, and make the ultimate selection. A search committee should always keep in mind that the recruiter is the consultant, working for the institution. Their role is to advise and guide, not to dictate and decide. When the committee and the search firm are clear on their roles in the search, defined at the onset of the engagement, the process is very efficient.

Size. Smaller committees can move faster than larger ones simply because it is easier to get everyone in a room together and get them all to agree. But small committees are not always possible. In larger committees, it is crucial that each committee member be fully committed to participating and will make committee meetings and interviews a top priority. Anything less and the process becomes bogged down. The committee should agree that everyone will not be available for all sessions, but that the process will move forward regardless.

Reaching consensus. Often, members are not in synch with each other. Committee members should be encouraged to be honest about what they want and what their expectations are. The time to hammer out a consensus on what is most important and what is secondary is at the very start of the search, not when the committee is in the middle of picking finalists. These tough discussions and decisions are to be made at the beginning of the committees work, to avoid causing even greater difficulties later on. If the committee has elected to use a search firm, it might be helpful to have the outside consultant facilitate these discussions and decisions.

Length of time. The number one complaint about search committees is that they take too long to get through the search and make a selection. The timeframe to develop an initial slate of candidates depends on many factors, however, it is absolutely critical that once candidates have been identified, the process be expeditious for all concerned.

To give a sense of order to the process, these questions should be on the agenda for discussion and decision early on:

How often will we meet? Schedules and commitment?

What search process will we use? Search firm or on our own?

What are we specifically seeking: Needs vs. Wants? Position criteria?

What is the timeline and final decision date?

How will candidates be recruited? (Direct sourcing? Placing ads? Targeted networking?)

How will resumes be evaluated?

What will the interview process look like?

Who will be involved in each step of the interview process?

How many finalists will be chosen to visit the campus?

The more of these process questions the committee can answer before beginning the actual search, the less likely a slow down will occur later. Committees that keep candidates waiting while they make these basic decisions risk losing their very best candidates.

A key factor which impacts any search's success is how realistic the job requirements actually are. A position description that includes highly rigid qualifications, especially if the institution is not offering a fair market salary, creates challenges in filling the position. Think flexibility.

Once a group of candidates has been generated, the committee must be prepared to act quickly. If a search firm is being used, they are responsible for submitting pre-qualified individuals who meet the position criteria established by the committee. Rely on the recruiter's expertise in making recommendations as to the strengths and weaknesses of the slate and, with input from the committee, determine the best course of action going forward. Otherwise, it is up to the Chair to moderate the evaluation discussions and decision-making.

The number one complaint:
Search committees take too long.

When a slate of candidates has been endorsed by the committee, campus visits must be scheduled as quickly as possible. Candidates should be offered multiple available dates for these visits to allow for candidates' previous commitments. It is common for searches to lose momentum at this critical point and, as a result, lose candidates. More candidates withdraw from a search because of a drawn out process than virtually any other reason.

Many institutions neglect to obtain the candidates' current compensation up front and wind up with an unpleasant surprise in the final hour. It is imperative that the candidates' current compensation data, along with their expectations about making a change, be discussed early in the process. This will ensure that the institution and the candidate are on the same page. There is no more critical time for outside expertise than at the final stages of the process. A search consultant often plays a role in the negotiation of an offer and can be helpful in mediating an outcome that leaves everyone satisfied.

When one individual emerges as the finalist, reference checks are conducted. If a search firm is being used, it is typically their responsibility to handle this. Regardless of who conducts the reference checks, talking in-depth with individuals who have been in a position to evaluate the candidate's work is time well spent. Pay close attention to what is being said and, even more so, to what is not being said. Be sure you are comfortable with what you are hearing. Red flags are often overlooked in the rush to quickly make the hire.

Every search holds a radically unique set of challenges and no one particular textbook model works in all cases. The wise search Committee Chair looks at each search as a new, unique endeavor for which innovative thinking must be used. Experience dictates that having the basic components in place produce a timely and successful outcome. The Committee Chair has the responsibility of leading open discussions, promoting honest communications, and gaining member commitment to achieving the goal of bringing new talent to an institution.

In an era where human capital has been defined as the most essential factor in organizational success, the search committee, guided by its Chair, holds a pivotal place in guiding the future of modern higher education.

Stacey W. Meyer and Shelli A. Herman are Vice-Presidents of Gary Kaplan & Associates, an executive search firm with a practice emphasis on non-profit and higher education and is headquartered in Pasadena, California. The authors can be reached at (626) 796-8100; email: or or visit

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