Executive Jobs in For-Profit Education: Risk or Opportunity?

January 12, 2001

While the number of for-profit education companies is on the rise, it's getting harder and harder to find qualified leadership to run them.

As an executive recruiter, my clients are usually business people intrigued by opportunities in for-profit education, which, according to many industry analysts, has become one of the most explosive segments of the economy. Private equity and venture-capital investors are raising life-sustaining capital for the industry with expectations of large returns. As a result, financial resources remain abundant for businesses with a worthwhile plan and strategy.

However, despite investor confidence, an important obstacle confronts everyone in this arena. Ask any investor or company what are the three most important needs standing between them and success, and you'll get the same response -- people, people, and people. Whatever happens to the economy, the scarcity of management talent will remain a constant. Judging from current employment figures, we are living through the tightest executive and overall labor market in American history.

For-profit education companies face an even more acute situation based on the limited supply of executives indigenous to the industry. Searches for senior managers frequently end up with an executive who has not worked in for-profit education. In fact, it is a rare situation when a candidate slate is populated by people with significant educational experience.

Companies are certainly nervous about hiring executives without educational experience, but they're also apprehensive about hiring managers directly from colleges and other nonprofit organizations for reasons they generally feel should be obvious. Namely, nonprofit executives tend not to appreciate the dynamics of making a profit. While this is a generalization that often proves inaccurate, it is equally matched by a tendency for those executives with backgrounds in higher education to minimize the challenges faced by emerging businesses.

For years, administrators in nonprofit education were highly reluctant to move to the for-profit side. That was easy to understand 15 years ago when the quality and management of for-profit education was seriously in question. Today, these companies are offering a much better product than their predecessors, and as a result, the number of college administrators seeking opportunities on the for-profit side is increasing. Money may be part of the reason. The typical C.E.O. of a for-profit education company can expect an annual salary in excess of $200,000, not including cash performance incentives and equity participation.

Still, most of the managers hired by for-profit education companies are not educators but business people who are looking for more meaningful work and have limited experience in higher education. In the future, these companies will have to look more frequently at traditional educational institutions as a source of talent, mainly because high-quality experience in education is becoming vitally important as the industry matures.

So, if you're interested in for-profit education, what's the best way to be prepared for a career in this industry? Consider the following guidelines:

  • Be positive. As a job candidate, try to identify business opportunities where the company has a shot at succeeding, as opposed to reasons for failure. Business leaders look at growth challenges constructively. Avoid direct criticism of the existing business. Instead, focus on constructive ways to build value for the business and its shareholders.

  • Don't take yourself too seriously. During the assessment process with a for-profit company, you will find far less ceremony than in the nonprofit model. Do not be offended or feel less wanted if the employer's recruitment practices seem less flattering than those to which you're accustomed. That means don't expect to be wined and dined, and don't take it personally if no one offers to pick you up at the airport. You might want to ask about the dress code before you arrive. Most businesses today (especially those in education markets) are 100 percent business casual. Don't expect to see a lot of suits, and don't be surprised if the people interviewing you are in short-sleeve shirts and khakis.

  • Convey an influential, not controlling, style. Today, management styles and structures in business tend to be highly collaborative and less hierarchical than in nonprofit, higher-education settings. Teamwork versus individual performance tends to be the rule. The contemporary management style puts more premium on influencing, than controlling, an outcome.

  • Speak in their terms, not your own. Vocabulary and "translation" skills are important to recognize when contemplating a move from nonprofit to for-profit education. Communicate in the language of business. With a firsthand understanding of an educational institution, expect to be called upon to help translate your former world when the company seeks out new business opportunities. In the job interview, it's not going to kill your prospects if you talk about deconstructing something. What will hurt you is the absence of business lingo -- words like "margin" and "product management" -- from your vocabulary: So, for example, instead of saying "student affairs" say "customer relations."

  • Speed. With the explosion of technology, business now moves at a faster pace than ever before. Few on-campus experiences can prepare you for the speed of a company engaged in an emerging education market. Accept this reality, and focus on how your experience can provide comfort to a potential employer that you "get it."

  • Business experience matters. Any work or experience that you've had with businesses will be seen as significant and will be evaluated very carefully. You should seek opportunities to work with businesses less as a consultant, and more as a customer or partner. The more you do, the more likely a hiring authority will take notice and contact you.

  • Rigorous interviews. The interview process will be rigorous, most likely utilizing the one-on-one interview as a primary tool as opposed to a panel or search committee. This most certainly will not be a credentialing exercise. Relevant accomplishments will be scrutinized.

  • High-risk, high reward. Many of the companies in this sector are quite young and consequently, their survival is not guaranteed. Nothing you as a candidate can do will change this fact. It's possible that you may be offered protection in the form of a separation agreement. However, it's not likely that any longer-term contract or multiyear guarantees will be provided. Most of the education businesses operate with a healthy respect for significant, albeit contingent rewards -- i.e. bonuses based on performance -- consistent with risks associated with each opportunity.

  • Résumés versus C.V.'s. Brevity is recommended for communicating with for-profit enterprise. Most of the information on a traditional C.V. reflects a lengthy list of research, publications, and appointments rather than what a company wants to learn about your track record. When evaluating candidates, companies are interested in accomplishments within the context of a particular role. The résumé should define each role and indicate specific accomplishments in each position. It should be brief and to the point. You can't give a 30-page C.V. to a business. They'll take one look at it and think, This is someone who likes to study things. Some of the top executives in the world have one-page résumés. There's no reason why yours should be more lengthy.

Career moves from nonprofit to for-profit organizations will undoubtedly become more prevalent as the demand for qualified talent increases.

For those considering such a move, you'll find the potential for a highly rewarding and stimulating environment. It probably won't, however, match anything you've ever experienced. So be ready for anything and prepare yourself for dramatic change.

No matter what the outcome, the experience will be invaluable.

Joe Haberman is a partner with Heidrick & Struggles International, a global executive recruiting firm specializing in senior-level management placement.