The Road Forward: Executive Search in the Time of Covid

What’s it like to be in the higher education executive search business these days? How has the process changed for search consultants as well as the candidates themselves?

I asked those questions in a recent conversation with Nancy Martin, Patty Kepenash, and Jeffrey Papa of Archer-Martin Associates, a leading transition management and executive coaching firm about the current state of executive search in higher education.

The Brand Dame: It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a year since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the U.S., and it is still unclear when travel and gathering restrictions will be lifted nationally. How would you describe the impact this has had on executive search?
  It’s not just about the pandemic per se. It’s really about three things — the confluence of the pandemic, a disrupted economy, and what happened the day George Floyd was killed — a triple threat across the board. A lot of good work has been done due to the rapid movement to respond to change. There is a lot of success going on out there.

The Brand Dame:  What new challenges have arisen for institutions in their searches for senior leaders?

Martin:  There has been a fundamental sea change. Even though the search process appears to look essentially the same, the loss of face-to-face interaction is key. Both search committees and candidates need the opportunity to observe and process the non-verbal communication that isn’t possible from virtual contact alone — eye contact, body language, facial expression, etc. The search industry is continuing to do as it has always done. We don’t think the industry has paid enough attention to what the long-term effects of this loss of non-verbal and face-to-face communication will be.

The search industry should be about making a candidate successful. For example, in today’s environment; search consultants and the search committees do not have the same opportunity to sit with candidates and dig into what the real agenda is for the next dean, vice president, or president. They don’t have the ability to develop the relational capital that creates trust and mutual understanding. Zoom is fairly effective, but, frankly, a consultant can’t do the campus visit and interview a cadre of key stakeholders to evaluate and reflect on what the position actually entails.

Papa:  In order to effectively respond to current challenges, I think institutions need to take the time to get to know the candidates as best they can in a virtual environment. They should provide opportunities for informal interaction, as much as possible, even though they aren’t sitting across the table from one another. Part of what makes a search successful is to accurately assess the fit between the institution and the candidate — today’s COVID environment makes that more difficult.
The Brand Dame:  
Many institutions are being forced to evaluate their organizational structure and their current hiring practices in the context of new economic challenges. We’re seeing hiring freezes and searches being put on hold. What impact is this having on higher ed operations and management? How do colleges and universities overcome significant, if temporary, leadership gaps?

Martin:  Institutions are moving forward with searches. A few are on hold or canceled, but that is a mistake. Doing nothing is moving backward. It is an opportune time for higher education to look internally, at the people who already understand the culture and are poised for internal promotions — just as the corporate world has done for decades. There are many untapped and creative ways of searching.

Papa:  Although it may be difficult for an institution to trim its current institutional structure, this challenge may pose an opportunity for the institution. Are there opportunities to increase organizational efficiency? How can the institution collaborate between and among departments more effectively? How can the university best utilize existing talent among its current administrative rank? Identifying and cultivating existing talent may be a cost-effective way to respond to the institution’s administrative needs, while simultaneously creating greater connection within the institution and strengthening its overall efficiencies.
The Brand Dame:   
If the old rules no longer apply, how can candidates strengthen their own candidacy with so much economic uncertainty in higher education?
This is a very difficult time for candidates! Candidates don’t have the opportunity to visit the campus, to meet colleagues that they would be working with, or even see their new office after being hired. The best advice we can give is to take this time to build and undergird your career portfolio.

Papa:  There are many opportunities for personal development right now. One can be taking a free webinar every day. There a lot of opportunities for candidates to expand their skill set and their knowledge base through shared content. I have been in four webinars just this week — all at no cost — to learn as much as I can about the current state of affairs in higher education. There are lots of learning opportunities out there.
Good point. You can put more webinars and virtual learning on your CV right now and be able to check every box. That is a very wise thing. Sharpen your narrative, your materials, and your story.

Papa: Job candidates can and should take deliberate steps to strengthen and enhance their visibility through strategically placed social media posts. Now is the time to create a personal brand and communicate it broadly.
The Brand Dame:
  Institutions looking for strong leaders in the COVID-19 era must now make a more compelling case — for the position, the institution, the locale — and can no longer rely on reputation alone. How important is it for search committees to cast leadership opportunities in ways that “sell” the position? Has the role of the search committee changed?

Kepenash:  The role of the search committee has not changed; but the focus of the committee members, at its core, is to sell the institution and its achievements. In reality, during the final stages of the search process, the finalists are interviewing the institution to see if it is a fit for them professionally and personally.

Papa:  The search committee should not only serve as the gatekeepers but also serve as the spokespeople for the institution. They need to understand that it’s not just about hiring “the best candidate,” but also why an outstanding candidate should consider joining their community. Search committee members play an important role in providing a unified voice in communicating the distinctions of the institution as well as its internal organizational culture.

Many of us are in several Zoom meetings throughout the day but do we look at what’s being communicated in that virtual meeting– not just verbally but also nonverbally? As many of us know, what “isn’t said” can be more important (and telling) than what “is.”
The Brand Dame:  
We’ve talked a good deal here about the challenges for both candidates and institutions, but are there opportunities that would not have been evident otherwise?

Papa:  Schools have proven that they can be agile and responsive. Overnight, we’ve needed to change how we deliver higher education, and we did it. Institutions can change and respond to the needs of their environment. I hope once we are out of this pandemic, that institutions across the country will continue to embrace the notion of being nimble and responsive. It’s a great lesson for the future. I also hope that the perceived value of higher education has increased — it’s higher learning that will get us out of this pandemic. We need an educated society more than ever. 

The Brand Dame:  Are there lessons to be learned, for both candidates and institutions, looking to fill important positions?

Martin:  This is a moment of transformation for higher education, which depends for its prosperity on the quality of its people. People have to come first. HR must now play a more central role.

Papa:  Higher education needs to create a culture of upward mobility, much like in the corporate world, and now is the time.
The question that arises is once we are out of COVID — will search still be virtual?

Martin:  It will be a blend. I think we search consultants have learned that after a lifetime of a suitcase and a tote bag on my shoulder racing through airports is not the best way to go. I think virtual is more efficient, but as search consultants, we have to be willing to spend the time to build trust and relational capital.

Nancy Martin, with Gary Posner, merged Educational Management Network with WittKieffer, now one of the most recognized search firms in the education industry. Since 2005, Archer-Martin Associates has served higher education with search and presidential transition services. Today the firm focuses on high performance executive coaching.