Avoiding a Failed Search

Even in a buyer’s market, administrative searches fail more often than you would think. Here are a few tips to keep it from happening to you.

  • Don’t assume that conducting a successful search is just a matter of posting an advertisement far and wide. Advertising in multiple venues is important, but having a well-written job description is critical. Explain what’s unique about your campus and the leadership role you’re seeking to fill. Review similar job postings so you have a benchmark. Nominations and referrals are also keys to your recruitment success. Always ask search-committee members and campus leaders to call or write to colleagues in their networks about new leadership roles and career opportunities at your institution.
  • Make sure you have the right person chairing the committee. The chair’s excitement for the role should be evident in the first call to the candidates. This person should be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the institution and the position and should be prepared to answer questions like the following: Why is this position open? What are the challenges and opportunities of this role? What is the team like within that division or college? What is the division’s or college’s operating budget? To whom will I report? Remember, the chair is the recruiter, the face of your organization, its cheerleader and advocate.
  • Don’t stop recruiting candidates when you receive a few good-looking résumés. You haven’t yet vetted the candidates and don’t know if they are serious, if you can afford them, or if they’ll be a good match. You need to have a solid group of four to six finalists to proceed. Take time do your research and consider up-and-coming talents who might be ready for the next step in their career.
  • Let candidates know what to expect. Once you’ve narrowed the pool, it’s time to call the candidates. Tell them how the process will unfold and what your time frame is. Candidates welcome the screening process; it gives them added insight into the opportunity, the campus, and the seriousness of your search. At the close of the initial call, let them know what happens next (e.g., “We are conducting screening phone calls this week, and we expect to narrow the pool and conduct Skype interviews over the next two weeks. We hope to conduct campus interviews with finalists over the next month.”)
  • Is your campus-visit schedule candidate friendly? Make sure the schedule includes meetings not only with the search committee, but with the team this new campus leader will manage and key peers, as well as one-on-one time with the manager to whom the candidate will report if picked for the job. Set up meetings with student, employer, or alumni groups, too, if appropriate. Day 1 is usually a travel day, so give the candidate a little time to catch his or her breath. Offer a real-estate tour in the afternoon and host a dinner that first night. Those are great ways to set the right tone. Excellent hospitality will make a big difference in your recruitment effort. Don’t forget to arrange for someone to meet the candidate at the airport or hotel and escort her/him to and from campus. Make sure someone takes the candidate to the airport when the visit is over.
  • If at first you don’t succeed … try again. If, following on-campus interviews, you still haven’t found a good match, then it’s time to regroup. You and your committee must figure out what went wrong. Did the ad and your recruiting efforts not yield the interest expected? Does the job description need to be rewritten or retitled? Talk with the finalists about how the search was conducted; you might gain some added insight. You can start the search over, but unless you change your recruiting practices and consider the feedback offered by the finalists, you may get the same results the second time around. Searches fail for many reasons—salary and benefits issues are often cited, but these can be vetted much earlier in the process. Did your top candidate withdraw for personal family reasons, or were their high expectations not met? Was the committee divided over who would be the best candidate? Were there other internal issues?
  • Seek outside help. Search firms are often called in because the first recruitment effort did not yield the results the committee had hoped for or the top candidate was the one who got away. This might be a good time to seek assistance from a trusted search partner who can commit the time and resources to recruiting candidates for this important leadership role on your campus.

Have you been involved in a failed search? Why did it fail, and what would you do differently next time?

Diane M. Fennig is a senior consultant with the Human Capital Group, an executive-search and leadership-consulting firm based in Brentwood, Tenn.

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