David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
In Search Of . . .*

May 15, 2012:   In Search Of . . .*

Can you imagine the Indianapolis Colts asking an outside consultant to lead their draft selection process for this last draft?  Instead of their owner, general manager, head coach, scouts, quarterback coaches meeting with Andrew Luck, and evaluating all of the information about him and other players, they basically ask someone who doesn’t work in their organization to review the potential talent and make recommendations about who they should draft.  If that outside person also has contracted with the Miami Dolphins to do the same thing, wouldn’t that raise an even greater concern about the wisdom of the drafting philosophy?

Well, this is what has been happening in higher education for quite awhile, and has caught the eye of the Illinois state government, which has introduced legislation that would prohibit state universities from hiring search firms with state/tuition money.

You can read the article for a comprehensive discussion of the pros and cons of using search firms to find top level leadership for higher education institutions.  For the detractors, what you often see and hear, as in the article, is the question of ethics:  just who is the search firm really serving, the contracted institution, the candidate pool, or the search firm themselves?

However, I don't believe the issues are particularly about ethics.  Every industry is susceptible to ethics violations, so it is unfair to pick on search firms as being more open to unethical behaviors than others, including universities and colleges which in the past have not always led their own searches by occupying the highest ethical ground. 

I challenge the validity of search firms on a more basic level than ethics.  It's more about probability with relationships. 

Take the first relationship, the one between search firm and institution.  Upon being hired, the search firm's representatives are given a period of time to develop the institutional and position profile.  They can get this from interviewing the current leadership, ranging from the governing board to mid-level leadership.  They can get that from setting up focus groups where they can get more feedback from the trenches.   That period of time could be two weeks, it could be four months, but inevitably they will still only get a superficial feeling for the institution's situation or culture.  Everyone they meet with during the course of this profile development is fully aware they are speaking to outside agents who will find candidates for their key leadership position.  That means every person who speaks is cognizant of the opportunity to say what they want the consultant to hear.  How does the outside person even begin to peel that onion? 

Let's say that the search firm has been hired to find a new chief academic officer.  The Board members and the President, when interviewed, are going to stress what they want.  Knowing that the decision is ultimately the President's and the Board's, that information immediately takes high priority in the shaping of the profile.  Then they start interviewing the deans.  One dean talks about transparency, another dean talks about accountability, another dean talks about approachability, another dean talks about credibility.  Perhaps these terms have come out in the interviews with the President and the board.  As the search firm builds their profile, they have to choose which of these characteristics are the most important for the institution and the culture.  They may not know how dean one's faculty have chafed at the lack of transparency from the previous provost, and have quietly decided as a group to dig in their heels at the hiring of any provost who doesn't clearly show transparency.  The dean may or may not even have understood that himself/herself in reporting to the search firm.  In essence, the firm is making subjective decisions about what to include or what not to include.  Yes, they may ask the executive leadership team to comment on these things they've heard, but at that point, all responses are still subjected to the point of view of the person talking to the search firm representative.  At best, the final profile is an amalgamation of characteristics that suggest the university is looking to hire super(wo)man; at worst, the final profile is a paring down to characteristics that represent a minority at the university.  Somewhere in between is a profile that could have been written by an internal search committee that is steeped in the history of the institution and knows what is often never spoken.

Why does this matter?  Isn't it ultimately the decision of just a few people, if not just one, for any hire?  Maybe, but the institution is looking for "leadership."  Isn't the very point to find someone who can truly meet the challenges of the institution and position?

Let's look at a second relationship.  During the course of the search, which could take 6-9 months overall, to whom does the university develop the greatest working relationship, the final candidate or the search firm?  To whom does the candidate develop the greatest working relationship, the university or the search firm?  It's the firm in both instances.  Both the university's decision to make an offer, and the candidate's decision to accept the offer is based, in part, upon a relationship that is not the permanent (as much as any working relationship can be permanent) relationship.

For example, when I last looked for a CAO officer's position, I ended up in a position where I was a leading candidate for two positions where I worked directly with the institution and one position with a search firm.  I'll toss out my eventual acceptance at Southwestern Michigan College (one of the two where I worked directly with the institution) and compare the one position based in West Virginia (directly with the institution) and the one based in Illinois (through a search firm).  I had any number of great conversations with the faculty person leading the West Virginia search, and later with their head of Human Resources.  I look fondly upon that interview process because of those people. If I see someone from there at a conference, I will stop and ask at length about how the institution is doing.

I do not remember, even, the specific title of the person at the Illinois university where I eventually interviewed.  I know the person with the search firm, whom I worked with as much as the West Virginia faculty head.  She has since contacted me to see how I was doing and if I was interested in other positions (for all my anxious SMC colleagues, I told her I wasn't).  I have had no contact with any of the other people at either institution.  However, I am, at least for now, on the radar of the search firm in terms of any open positions they have been contracted for.

So, ultimately, I'm not sure the search firm as intermediary is helping the university in developing its leadership; it could even be hurting it, by becoming an interpreter/translator between employer and potential employee.

Finally, when search firms present candidates to institutions, they literally only have time to present a small number, which, of course, will represent the ones they have the greatest relationship with.  Maybe 10-15 will be presented in any kind of extended manner, with a long list of other names the firm received, and may have followed up on, filling pages after pages in a binder.  The institution's people may take a glance at those names, but they are literally a single line of a name and something about that person's current position.  Good luck pulling a name out of that list and squeezing it into the 10-15 main candidates, let alone near the top.

Set aside some legitimate concerns about conflict of interest, or lack or regulation, or the fact that the search firm is only successful if it finds a candidate (an institution could see a failed search as a good thing, a sign that they can move on without the leader they need; to the search firm, that is a lack of results it won't particularly post on its website).  Instead focus on the idea that so many institutions are willing to take its single most important decisions—the hiring of leaders—and ultimately placing much of the grunt work, and let’s face it, hiring is a lot of grunt work, in the hands of outsiders.  It’s allowing Mel Kiper to run your draft, vetting all of the talent, and telling you what he thinks you need to know, while at the same time consulting with your competition.  It doesn't make sense.


*an older blog where I ranted about some of this before.