Recruiting Talent in Higher Ed

Nathan O. Hatch offers 10 maxims for successful searches.

May 20, 2013

A fellow college president recently asked about my philosophy for hiring outstanding leaders at a time when higher education is under increased scrutiny. While my philosophy can be articulated in just two words – hire visionaries – I offer 10 tenets for recruiting exceptional talent. In doing so, I hope that others may benefit from my experience and that I, too, may continue to surround myself with those I most admire.

1. Live by the conviction that no transformative change takes place in higher education without a transformative leader. Given understandable commitments to shared governance and historic continuity of colleges and universities, institutions will not see effective change without leaders of rare vision, unbounded courage and political skill.

2. Search processes will not succeed if put on automatic pilot. However carefully organized, a process will not automatically find talent. The person to whom the candidate will report, as the only person willing to go the second mile to recruit candidates, should chair the search. Search committees, in and of themselves, cannot understand all the dimensions of a given position. The search committee should provide its list of recommended candidates, not necessarily in priority order but indicating all would be acceptable, leaving the leader room to make the best hiring decision.

3. Ensure that there is nothing boilerplate about the written job description. Make certain that it is simultaneously convincing in its detail and personal in nature when describing the campus, the position and the qualities sought.  This allows candidates to discuss the opportunity with trusted advisers and to see themselves in it.

4. Go the second mile to ensure the confidentiality of searches. Persons of great talent, typically in a desirable and stable position, sense much risk in becoming known as a candidate for a position they know little about and have no assurance of being offered.

5. Enlist a trusted search consultant as an important and necessary step. Consultants have the time to ferret out candidates, connect with passive job seekers, and manage a complicated process. But there are only a few superb ones, the chief fault of some being taking on too many searches at the same time. The litmus test: Can they convince talented leaders who are not looking to consider the position? Will they confidently and assertively pursue the very best talent you know – without hesitation? These are the "candidate whisperers," as one of my recent hires called them.

6. Leave no stone unturned in discovering the right individual. American higher education is expansive and diverse. No one person or search consultant knows everyone. Great talent often thrives in surprising places.  We found a chief investment officer who had not worked in higher education; a distinguished scientist, now a dean, who was working in a high-tech startup; and a business dean who had been a Fortune 500 CEO. Creative, confident people often chart unconventional paths.

7. Spare no efforts in recruiting. Travel to show your passion and interest in a person, and to convince someone to enter the field. Make the extra call. Ask advice from the very best people in the field.  In one recent search, that adviser became interested in, and accepted, the position. Write the personal e-mail. Get others on your team to do the same. Work to untangle complications for spouses and partners. Restructure a position to tailor it for an exceptional candidate.  At Wake Forest, we created a new cabinet-level position for a vice president of personal and career development when a truly outstanding candidate emerged in a career services search.

8. Talent and teamwork attract more great talent. Great candidates are interested in the quality of an overall senior team, not just their direct report. They want to know with whom they will be rubbing shoulders and how the group works together. They will measure your effectiveness as a leader by the strength of the leaders working for you and the culture you have created and nurtured. Similarly, a new hire, even of remarkable leadership capacity and spotless integrity, will face an uphill climb in a new role if faculty do not feel engaged in the hiring process. Making academic allies early is important to candidates' – and your – success.

9. Attracting talent requires the forgoing of a degree of authority and responsibility.  Some leaders are so strong, their force field so unremitting, that they do not give others enough space to exercise their own creativity and vision. Sometimes strength actually repels strength or, at least, refuses to acknowledge it. Two of the greatest dangers for some outstanding leaders are overconfidence in their own abilities and insecurity in trusting others, and they may not need – or truly desire – other strong leaders around them.

10. Roll out the red carpet. Recruiting the best talent does not stop with extending an offer letter, or even with a candidate accepting a position. A public event to introduce the new hire soon after acceptance is a great way to establish the vital relationship between the new leader, the institution and the campus community. Regular structured and substantive conversations with the new hire before an official start date are also useful in building bonds, smoothing the learning curve and charting a successful journey together.


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Nathan O. Hatch serves as president of Wake Forest University.  He chairs the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I board and is past-chair of the board of the National Association of Independent College and Universities.


Nathan O. Hatch

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