Searching Without a Search Firm

September 14, 2017

Leadership searches are inherently risky and costly affairs, especially measured by the hours and money invested in the process. Announcements are made, committees appointed, outreach conducted, processes managed, campus constituents engaged, candidates interviewed, references conducted — the workload is enormous, and higher education tends to do this for nearly every open position.

The costliest search, of course, is one of lost opportunity, when the best candidate is not hired. However, the internal costs of any search are significant, and when the expense of hiring a search firm is added, it is no wonder that people start to question its value.

As search consultants, my colleagues and I have heard those concerns. So consider the following a guide for deciding when you may not need us.

Sometimes you don’t need to hire a consultant because you don’t need an external search, such as when:

  • There’s an obvious successor. Succession planning in higher education is rare, and internal succession to leadership roles rarer still — despite evidence in many economic sectors (such as the health-care industry) that promotion of an internal leader is the best strategy for maintaining momentum and moving the institution forward. One of the main points in Jim Collins’s 2001 book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, — which he has since broadened to apply to nonprofit groups and higher education — is not without merit: Insiders make great leaders more often than not. Is it necessary to compare that person with an outside field? An effective internal vetting process that seeks substantive input on strengths and concerns from key constituents can go a long way toward ensuring an inside candidate’s success.
  • The campus climate isn’t right. We live in a time of unpredictability — dynamic political, demographic, and economic environments; legislative and gubernatorial meddling; inflamed social media; campus unrest; campus tragedies. There are many unnerving events or situations that may make a search for new leadership a bad idea. Sometimes it is simply bad timing. An external search could be disruptive, counterproductive, even impossible.
  • The cost is too prohibitive. Hiring is expensive when you add up the labor of everyone involved and the costs, which include advertising, search materials, committee meals, travel, meeting space, and background checks. As colleges and universities continue to tighten belts and look for ways to cut expenses, they should be asking themselves whether a search is necessary for every position. The time alone is a big investment and can impose drag on momentum.

Furthermore, an external search is no guarantee of a successful result. Sometimes the better, more reliable investment is to look hard at the internal organization, identify who among you is a creative, innovative potential leader in waiting, and support that person’s growth into the role.

Even when an external search is warranted, a search firm is not always required. In answering the question — to hire or not to hire a consultant — consider the following factors:

What is your institution’s reputation and draw? Some argue that Harvard University "can have its pick of candidates" as it looks to find a new president. Is it necessary to retain a search firm to develop a diverse applicant pool when any member of the search committee could pick up the phone and get high-profile candidates on the line? The stronger the college’s reputation, the assumption is, who wouldn’t want the job? That doesn’t apply only to Harvard. Many institutions — because of location or reputation — have no trouble attracting a strong pool.

"A search firm was involved in the search that brought me here, but that is not why I came," says Donald Birx, president of Plymouth State University, located in beautiful central New Hampshire. "The firm was helpful on both sides, but our location and mission sells itself. We get plenty of candidate interest in our openings." If you believe that your institution is well positioned to attract strong, diverse candidates without much effort or outreach, a search firm may not be needed.

Does your college have robust administrative support? To streamline budgets and remove fixed costs, institutions are outsourcing more functions than ever, including internal administrative support for national searches, which is one of the reasons they turn to search firms for help. That said, there are good examples of institutions — large and small, complex and simple — that have made it a high priority to conduct staff and support searches with well-trained, effective internal support.

Elizabeth Davis, president of Furman University, in South Carolina, said she would opt to go without a search firm "if there is a strong internal person who can run searches and who can train deans and chairs how to conduct better searches." That would have to be someone with the time and authority to hold numerous conversations with prospective candidates and sources on behalf of the institution, so as to recruit a diverse pool. If an institution ends up hiring a search firm anyway, it should consider asking the consultants to run a workshop for the campus on how to conduct better searches in the future.

That is not just about processing applications but also making sure your human-resources office is up to speed on best practices in recruitment and talent management. It’s also about supporting the development of leaders internally and learning how to manage the logistics of a search so that both internal and external candidates feel well treated.

Is your search committee experienced? Margaret Drugovich, president of Hartwick College, in New York, believes that successful searches depend heavily on effective evaluation and management of the candidates. Interviewing takes skill and training to get to the competencies, behaviors, and issues that matter most in hiring a new leader. Committees and chairs with deep experience and good judgment in hiring leaders are out there, but they are rare.

If you have established best practices and strong leadership on the committee, you can forgo a search firm. That said, Drugovich points out that committees often miss things that search consultants consider to be standard operating procedure — for instance, complicated candidate-relocation issues.

A few other caveats: Search firms are often hired to ensure that top candidates can make initial inquiries about the job in strict confidence — some of them insist upon it — and committees often cannot guarantee that. Moreover, constituents seek assurance that no stone was left unturned in the recruitment and that a diverse slate of qualified candidates was put forward and thoughtfully considered. This is where search firms excel in terms of the scope of their networks and their experience in identifying "passive" and other candidates who may not be readily apparent. Sourcing exceptional candidate slates can be challenging when the people doing the search have day jobs and are dividing their time and attention.

What is the known universe for the hire? In some fields and for some positions, the number of potential candidates is small and/or already known to the institution — so it can forgo hiring a consultant. The most obvious examples are leaders in specific or narrow academic disciplines. That said, a small universe of talent might mean that few candidates apply, so the institution may end up turning to a consultant for help. Likewise, a search professional can be a resource in persuading reluctant candidates, evaluating leadership ability, and contacting references.

Is it a buyer’s market? In other fields, the number of potential candidates is quite large, primarily for entry-level positions. The search committee may truly have its pick of the field and have no need for outside counsel.

Have your top administrators done hands-on recruiting? I have spoken with several presidents who recruited their own senior-management teams while honoring process and vetting candidates with key constituencies. These leaders had active networks they could tap and were willing to make the reference calls and handle the direct conversations themselves. They had the time, interest, and ability to do the work required for a comprehensive search.

Are there multiple and/or obvious internal options? Sometimes the pool of talent within the organization is so strong that it is appropriate and effective to "search" among the current employees, knowing that there is a high chance of a successful result. There is still a process, and people are invited to apply, but the search is handled internally. Many good examples of campus leaders promoted from within this way can be found. What makes an internal search most effective is coupling the process with deep vetting and assessment of leadership potential and ability.

For better or worse, the broadened use of search firms has set the bar high for how applicants expect to be treated. Everything from how applications are acknowledged to the onboarding process plays a role in effective recruitment, especially in a competitive market.

If you are going to do the search yourself, you want to make sure that the outward-facing part of the search is placed in the hands of someone or a team of people who can stay engaged with candidates, use discretion and uphold confidentiality when requested, make themselves available to answer questions, and otherwise ensure a good experience for candidates and the best hire for the institution.

Lucy A. Leske is a senior partner at Witt/Kieffer, an executive-search consulting firm. She has been a recruiter there since 1992 and has led a broad range of searches, including for presidents, vice presidents, deans, and provosts.