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Getting institutions and candidates to 'yes' in a search (essay)

Getting to Yes

August 10, 2012

The languid days of August signal the beginning of a new season of recruitment and hiring on campuses all across the country.  Except for the few entry-level, tenure-track faculty positions available these days, most openings will involve seeking out candidates who already have jobs.  They have the option to decline an offer, just as the college or university has a choice among candidates, including not filling the position.

No one likes a failed search, least of all those of us whose business it is to make matches.  And everyone involved in filling important positions longs for a proven formula for getting the parties to “yes.” 

But we have learned that when you see one strong candidate or one fine university or medical school, the results are that you have seen one strong candidate and one fine school. Generalizations beyond this are risky.

Still, we can offer the following suggestions, beginning with candidates.

The Candidate Perspective

When we speak with prospective candidates for a position, often the first response is, “Thanks, but I am really quite happy here.”  Even if the potential employer is a major institution of note and prestige, most prospects have invested years and much talent and hard work in their current jobs.

If a potential candidate is prepared to listen further, the next caution light to go on is personal and includes:

  • How will my partner/spouse react to news that I am being invited to be a candidate somewhere else?  What about his job?  Could we actually live in X?

Another amber warning then lights up.

  • What about the kids?  Ryan, Sara and/or Ravi love their schools and have so many friends.  Won’t they be upset at even the prospect of moving?

A third consideration that usually arises is real estate:

  • Could we sell our place?  For what?  And can we possibly buy a home in X?

From here on, the prospect begins to consider who at the recruiting institution is known, what research is going on, how successful have potential colleagues been in securing funding.  But the salient point here is that very personal concerns are involved in even considering a possible move.

But those concerns seldom surface in the search process until much later on.  Speaking with one dean who successfully recruited 8 of 9 positions in the past year, he noted that there was virtually nothing that could be done to win the one that got away, since spousal employment considerations were very complex and, in the end, of the highest priority.

Paradoxically, these personal concerns do not surface precisely because university administrators are often cautioned by legal counsel and HR officials against asking about such matters, lest a disgruntled candidate claim that she/he was denied an offer on grounds other than qualifications.  As we note below, candidates are best-served if early in the search process they share with the search firm personal considerations that trump professional ones.

The Institutional Perspective

We have had the good fortune to work with several outstanding universities and medical centers as clients. In addition, our outreach to provosts and deans with whom we may not have worked previously was rewarded with time and great candor.  Here is what we learned from them:

  • Even institutions with great prestige have to “sell” themselves to the best candidates.  Reputation and substantial resources are attractive, but good candidates usually already work at places with similar qualities, so time and effort has to be devoted to making a possible offer of employment – with all it entails on a personal and professional level – attractive enough to overcome the pull of the known and comfortable.
  • Have the search firm explore with candidates their respective personal and professional concerns.  No two candidates are alike: each needs to be understood in her/his own right, and it can be awkward for the hiring organization to explore the personal considerations with candidates. Stated differently, no surprises as the recruitment process moves to closure.
  • At the same time, clients should make known early on the lengths to which they will go to recruit for a given position.  Across the country, universities and medical schools located in close proximity have both formal and informal means for collaborating to assist one another with spousal employment:  How far will the recruiting organization go in using such arrangements?

Some Suggestions for Successful Searches

Beware of falling in love with the C.V. in the case of the hiring institution, and on the candidate’s part, the reputation of the institution.  A good search firm will have worked hard with its client to hone a position profile to what the people doing the hiring feel they need.  Don’t forget the profile because you are impressed by a resumé that is indeed impressive but not what you set out to hire.

Similarly, candidates need to know that the tables they will sit around for the next decade or more will not include the University of Amazing, but Robyn, Frank, Marilyn, Ali, Ojibo and Ken of the department or school of _____________.  And while it can be a real pleasure to be part of a great institution, you have to work with a relatively small group of people day after day, year after year.

Over and over again, we have found the “fit” of a finalist or a semifinalist to be of extraordinary importance to both parties – candidate and client.  By the time finalists have been brought for interviews, the question of qualifications has usually been resolved.  What’s left is the answer to a tough question to answer:  Do I want this person as a colleague for the next 20 years?

Much is at stake when major research institutions seek out new talent and it is tempting to see the recruitment process as a version of “trial by fire.”  Forego the idea that suffering builds or reveals character and focus instead on the person and how to resolve just how well she or he will advance the organization.

Bio

Jeff Harris is managing partner and Richard Skinner is a senior consultant at Harris Search Associates.

 

 

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