You are here

Professional Opinion

Talent headhunters should focus on internal employees, not recruitment

Colleges and universities are now incentivized to lure away each other’s rising stars
University Business, June 2017

The Chicago Cubs finally learned this lesson: A baseball team without a good farm system won’t make it to the top. Higher education needs to focus on employee development and start rebuilding their own farm systems. Why do so many colleges look externally for new talent instead of developing their employees?

Due to an external-candidate bias, many staff and faculty look elsewhere to advance. The current theme seems to be “out, then up”; employees switch often. This practice creates an environment where institutions are incentivized to lure away one another’s employees, and succession planning is disappearing.

Talented employees are scarce resources for institutions, and essential to maintaining operations. Many leaders take a consumable approach to hiring—looking to an external “shelf” for candidates—rather than fostering home-grown talent in a sustainable way.

This practice differs considerably from the talent management approaches found in international higher education and in other businesses. The divide, for the most part, is not generated by human resources. Academic hiring managers, acting without considering internal talent first, often run narrowly focused external searches.

Ignored potential

A lack of effective diversity hiring plans has accelerated this atmosphere as well. Colleges and universities are competing fiercely to fill open top spots with available qualified candidates. Colleges entice another school’s rising star to join their ranks, causing a chain reaction. During this chase, diverse internal candidates are often overlooked.

Potential is ignored in favor of experience.

The vast majority of new college presidents, more than 80 percent, also come from outside of the institution. External candidates are now hired to provide a different perspective, shake the status quo and bring about change. This outsider-hiring philosophy seems widespread across academia, even extending to non-academic hires.

An employee who has worked at another institution is often considered more valuable than one developed internally. The externally recruited employee will often land higher-paying positions over an internal candidate (UBmag.me/wd).

Over time, a prevailing attitude emerged against the internal development of talent, perhaps inspired by a bias against hiring an institution’s graduates. While it is common for universities from other countries (UBmag.me/gh) to hire from their graduate pool, the practice is frowned upon in the United States, and dismissed as “inbreeding.”

This label suggests an abnormal practice, but it used to be the norm.

In the early part of the 20th century, Harvard hired as many as 60 percent of its graduates as faculty. But in 1908, Harvard President Charles Eliot started pushing away, warning that “it is natural, but not wise ... because [inbreeding] has grave dangers for a university.”

Conflicting views

Researchers have received mixed answers when they have asked if internal hires make for less successful faculty. A team from the University of Washington found that some of the bias in favor of external hires was well-founded. They concluded that so-called inbred scholars do not produce research at the same rate as outside academics.

The research has led to vastly different hiring practices, even among elite institutions. Top finance schools hired approximately 57 percent of other top schools’ graduates.

Two institutions, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of Pennsylvania, retained none of their graduates, and yet hired 60 percent and 63 percent of other school’s graduates, respectively. At the other extreme, Harvard hired approximately 41 percent and Stanford, 31 percent, of their graduates.

Efficiency at a cost

Revenue challenges, lower enrollments and fierce competition have forced colleges and universities to become more efficient and cost-conscious. Recent trends toward hiring more part-time and non-tenure track faculty and filling fewer tenured positions adds to faculty mobility.

The shift toward efficiency comes at a cost to the faculty or staff member assigned to deliver the product, and ultimately, the institution.

The person hired to deliver the product has become interchangeable, and hiring practice have swung toward quick fixes of hiring the best outside candidate on the market, rather than relying on a sustainable talent development system.

High-quality support personnel and low- and mid-level employees are essential to operations as well. However, not all staff are qualified or interested in mission-critical positions. A system-wide development program for every employee and position is not practical.

Certainly, not everyone on the Triple A team becomes a big leaguer. But that doesn’t excuse poorly implemented hiring plans and the lack of institution-wide development processes that leave qualified employees stuck in place. Properly designed and implemented programs will allow for opportunity and healthy competition.

The talent will rise to the top, and employees will stop thinking about escape routes.

Balanced practice

What should be done? For starters, senior leaders should identify the most crucial positions within the institution. Second, the required competencies and skills for each critical position must be identified. Next, as part of a diversity hiring program, the strategic plan must emphasize the advancement and internal development of current employees.

Succession plans should build real team strength over time to create healthy, internal competition for positions.

Administrators should look outside the institution only after considering internal candidates. Balanced recruitment practices must be maintained, and senior leaders should be held responsible for developing the appropriate people to fill these roles.

Provide opportunity

While it’s true that internal candidates should be exposed to different practices and techniques, the external hire bias needs revisiting. It’s important to foster a balance between internal and external hiring. An employee with an opportunity to advance will likely have a more positive attitude than one without an upward path.

Talented employees will stay in the minor leagues only for a while, and higher education institutions that always overlook the fruits of their labor are degrading their long-term sustainability.


Christopher A. Gearin is president of Hickey College in Missouri. Rodney C. Gee is the interim director of human resources for Harris-Stowe State University, also in Missouri.

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>