How to Design a Leadership Search in Crisis Times

This fall I’ve been leading a search committee for a new dean of arts and sciences at our university. It’s my fourth time as chair of an academic-leadership search, so I knew the usual best practices. Yet I have found that so much has changed about recruiting chairs, deans, and provosts. We have reinvented the process in the face of inflation, health and safety protocols, labor and supply-chain disruptions, and general uncertainty. And it increasingly looks as if the update of our administrative-hiring playbook is not a temporary patch.

In writing the Admin 101 series I talk with a lot of academics, administrators, and search consultants around the country and the world. What I keep hearing in those conversations: The challenges to “searching as usual” are proliferating and cannot be ignored. Those who rethink and remodel the leadership-hiring process will end up in a more competitive position versus peers who daydream that “things will eventually get back to normal.”

So what does our revised playbook suggest? Here are a few takeaways:

Clarify and update the job description. While faculty duties in research, teaching, and service have changed in the past two years of tumult, they are not nearly as altered as the average portfolio of leadership responsibilities. Your old job ad for a chair, a director, a dean, or a provost must be rethought, or it won’t be accurate and credible.

On the search committee I’m leading this semester, members have been educating one another about the deanship we are looking to fill. As a dean myself, I’ve shared insights on universal aspects of the role (for example, fund raising), and I’ve learned about specific duties of the arts-and-sciences job from members of that college. We’ve also explored new or revised demands facing deans, such as budgeting for health and safety protocols and revising risk-management projections.

Academe has always been remiss in understanding the nuances of administration, but revolutionary times demand that we educate ourselves more deeply. Consider:

  • Search committees represent many constituencies. Some of them may lack intimate knowledge of the position, and especially how it has changed in these months of crisis. They may even need a primer on what a dean or a provost actually does. Ann Die Hasselmo, a senior consultant at Academic Search and a former university president, told me about a recent provost search in which a former provost briefed the search committee about the role.
  • Internal communication on the committee is more difficult than ever, given that some of us are in the room, others are attending virtually, and everyone is busier. Getting the whole team on the same page at the beginning of a search can minimize some problems down the road.
  • The search itself will gain better candidates if the job description and hiring criteria reflect a real position rather than erratic slices of antediluvian ways, different viewpoints, or personal agendas.

Sweat the logistical details. When I started hearing about supply-chain shortages, price spikes, labor mismatches, and the “great resignation,” I assumed, like most people, that the main effects would be on consumer goods like pickup trucks, Thanksgiving turkeys, lumber, and other construction supplies. But higher-education searches have been affected, too. Here are some of the impacts that I’ve personally witnessed and experienced:

  • Candidates’ schedules have been disrupted by transportation confusion, including increased flight delays and cancellations.
  • Bills for restaurant meals with candidates have skyrocketed, and the wait for service is far longer than it used to be.
  • It’s more common now for people on the campus who hoped to meet the candidates to end up sidetracked by emergencies at home or at the office.
  • There are shortages and back orders of equipment we need, such as microphones and cameras for videoconferences.
  • We hit logjams in trying to reserve meeting rooms that (a) are large enough to accommodate an in-person crowd and (b) have the requisite equipment for virtual participation.

The trusty logistics and facilities template that you counted on for previous searches, thus, may not fit modern reality. The big lecture hall you reliably booked lacks the microphones, cameras, and acoustics for Zoom participation. The budget that you allocated for a search three years ago is probably insufficient for the same type of search now. Local restaurants you used to take candidates to may no longer be open or may have long waits for service that don’t work with the candidate’s itinerary.

In sum, details that were plug-and-play in the past now must be approached creatively and triple-checked.

Expect to do a lot more problem-solving on the fly. I was born in a country famous for its emphasis on punctuality, and my fundamental character impels me to make sure plans and processes occur on time and correctly. Circumstances, of course, rarely cooperate, and our new era is full of the unforeseen. But you can learn to anticipate it.

Our search for an arts-and-sciences dean is a case in point. We had decided that the candidates would visit the campus and have in-person meetings, including meals, with different groups of people. We had previous templates for each of the different events and venues, but ended up making a lot of last-minute adjustments.

For example, we thought people would want to meet the would-be dean face-to-face. So for the first candidate who visited, we scheduled a presentation (open to everyone on the campus) in a medium-size lecture hall in the student-union building. We offered a Zoom option, too, and I planned to read aloud any of the questions posted in the virtual chat. What happened, however, was that only one person showed up in the meeting room while 89 logged in remotely. The room’s sound system limited us to a single mic I shared with the candidate. It was workable but awkward. So for subsequent campus visits, we used videoconferencing for large events and adopted a hybrid approach only for smaller ones.

In the end, good people — candidates, committee members, technology and administrative staffers — made it all work, but the playbook for future searches is now rewritten. My chief takeaway was a simple one that administrators regularly apply to curriculum design, lab safety, and many other areas we oversee: Part of planning is spinning scenarios of what could go wrong, doing what you can ahead of time to forestall failure, and then being as Zen as possible when your best-laid plans are derailed.

Put selling, not just buying, at the forefront. Years ago, when I first sat on a search committee, I observed that our discussion centered primarily on what we were looking for in a candidate, with far less concern about what would make us attractive to a potential new colleague. Today, by contrast, there is more of a realization that a search is a two-way enterprise — more like a marriage and less like a cattle auction.

Since the pandemic and the consequent disruptions, search consultants and colleagues who are (or were) candidates say they are seeing a greater reluctance to “jump into the applicant pool” than ever before. With so much uncertainty in higher education — political instability, financial pressures, heightened demands of the job — candidates who are already nervous are not going to apply if we don’t spend considerable time convincing them that our institution and our position are worth the effort. Above all, we must remind ourselves that the people we want for our particular opening are probably going to be wanted by other institutions with similar openings.

Accordingly, our revised how-to-hire manual focuses more on selling — the position, the institution, the culture, the region. What that means in practice is aggressive recruiting and thoughtful branding. Specifically:

  • Make the most of the diversity and size of your search committee. Encourage each member to take an evangelical approach in reaching out to interest candidates in your department, college, and institution.
  • Craft what might be called a reverse job ad. It should answer questions about what the institution has to offer the new hire: What makes this position an exciting prospect professionally? What help and collaboration can the hire expect on the job? What positive elements of campus and local culture can be emphasized?
  • Enumerate all the reasons your leadership position is more attractive than the 100-plus other ones out there at any particular time. What does your campus and locale have to offer candidates of diverse backgrounds? What misconceptions about your location need to be corrected?

A detailed pitch is crucial in an era when so many good people are undecided and even fearful about joining the administrative ranks. The best and the brightest need to be lured, not just informed and vetted.

It’s a management cliché to say that every crisis is an opportunity. But colleges and universities are full of people who spend a considerable amount of time thinking about what they study and teach. We have to apply that same creative impulse to a thorough redesign of the academic-leadership search.

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