Administration 101: Working With Executive Search Firms

Like it or not, consultants are part of the process, so set aside your antipathy and learn from them.

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

March 05, 2017

Thanks to my research on academic careers and to my involvement (as committee chair or candidate) in more than a dozen hiring committees for senior administrators, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with search consultants. Usually they have proved to be knowledgeable, straightforward, and pleasant. Yet across academe, the mere mention of "the outside search firm" often draws eye-rolls or cynical snorts from professors — and not a few administrators, too.

Why the negativity?

In part, academic search firms are victims of their own success and prominence. If you want to become a dean, provost, or president in higher education, you can bet a search firm will be intimately involved in your quest.

Because they are often not academics themselves, consultants can be seen as outsiders interfering in a faculty matter. They are regularly held liable for the mercenary (in both senses of the word) nature of many modern academic careers, with leaders who serve two to three years in one place only to head off to the next job. When searches run into trouble, consultants are easily blamed, and even when they are not culpable, many consider it part of their job to take the fall. And, yes, search firms are paid very well.

In this series on becoming and thriving as an academic administrator (from chair to dean to provost and beyond) we have covered the initial decision to join the game and the ways to prepare for the job hunt. Now we turn to the part of the process that entails working with search consultants who can make or break your ambitions.

Get on their radar. The search firm’s first priority is to provide a strong, diverse pool of candidates. At any given time, thousands of people are interested in senior leadership positions in academe. But finding the ones who are qualified and a proverbial "good fit" for a particular opening is challenging to the extreme. Search firms, thus, are always looking for new talent to enter into their databases.

Even if you are not on the job market, it behooves you to send in your CV anyway to major search firms and follow up with a phone call to a partner or an associate. The introduction does not have to be complicated. Simply offer some variation of: "I’m happy here in my position at Large State University. But I want to get a sense of where I am in terms of my potential and what possibilities might be out there."

Alternatively, you might simply ask a colleague — preferably a highly placed one — to nominate you, either in general or for a particular opening. In the latter case a formal, bullet-pointed nomination is best.

Listen to what they advise. Search firms have assessed thousands of people and CVs so will almost always give you a reasonably accurate snapshot of where you stand vis-a-vis where you want to go, whether your aspiration is specific (toward a certain opening) or speculative (as in, "I would like to be a dean"). They will also sketch out the market situation.

Obvious incompatibilities are easy to spot. If you have never held an administrative position of any kind, it is unlikely that a search firm, let alone a search committee, will place you as a strong contender for a deanship or a provostship.

Nuances are a bit trickier. Suppose you are a department chair interested in becoming a dean. You have listed "some" fund-raising experience on your CV. The search consultants may suggest that your development record — measured against what they’ve seen in the past — is much less than that of many other potential candidates. And so on.

I have never heard of a search firm offering such insights in an insulting way. After all, you may not be "Dr. Right" at this moment, but you might be ideal for another position down the road. So hear out what the consultants have to say and mull it over carefully.

Don’t cover up a problem. No administrator has ever been universally popular with a spotless career. But some stumbles — a "no confidence" vote by the faculty, for example — are more serious than others.

What you share with the search firm is your call, but know this: There are very few secrets in academe. By the time search-committee members are deciding whom to invite (or not) to a campus visit, they already know a great deal about you. Your best course may be to opt for full disclosure with the search firm to give your side of the story. They might help make your case during internal meetings where your candidacy is reviewed.

Learn what matters most to the campus. By the time an administrative position is officially announced, the search firm will have spent many hours talking and listening to people on the campus. From those conversations, the consultants will have a fix on what really matters to the various constituencies, and will play a crucial role in determining who gets picked for "airport interviews," campus visits, and the position itself.

Most consultants will readily share some of those insights with you because of their eagerness to build a pool of strong candidates who perform at their best. Learning what most matters to the committee in a particular search can be incredibly helpful to you as a candidate — given the typically long list of required qualifications (sometimes dozens) attached to any administrative position. They are all listed there because the hiring profile emerged from a committee, but in truth some of them are vital while others are only the fond wish of a single committee member or a less-powerful constituency. So take note of what the consultants tell you about the priorities for the position.

Realize that they don’t always know. Last summer, I was contacted by a search firm about a university presidency position. I was not interested in the job nor am I on the market but, since I am always curious about how searches work, I was willing to learn more. I wondered aloud about the interim president, who was an extremely renowned nonacademic. The consultant assured me that the interim leader was merely there for the transition, and that the university’s board was definitely looking for an academic to be permanent president. A few months later, the interim leader was formally installed as president.

I don’t think I was lied to; the firm most likely believed the search was fair. But, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson (and Selena Gomez), the board wants what it wants — or it does not care.

Nor is a search firm aware of every political variable at stake in every search. I have sat in front of search committees that were obviously and deeply divided — and started bickering right in front of me, the candidate. I have heard from other administrative candidates who witnessed committee members sit in stone-cold silence, express haughty indifference, and even come to near fisticuffs.

Search consultants can give you a reasonable assessment of what is most important on the campus, but they are not all-knowing. So do not expect them to tell you everything.

If you embark on the hunt for senior administrative positions, you will spend more time talking to search firms than to search committees. The hours are well spent: Savvy consultants will offer — if you are willing to listen — intimate tips about a position, about the general hiring market, and about how to be a better candidate for one campus and for all of them. Just always keep in mind their limitations and motivations.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.