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It is doubtful that many higher education institutions included in their risk management plans the possibility of a global pandemic completely shutting down campuses across the country. At the same time, it has certainly been encouraging to see how higher education, largely perceived as being slow to change, has so rapidly responded to the COVID-19 crisis. We at AGB Search have witnessed firsthand the commitment of institutions to their students and their communities, as well as their collaboration with other colleges and universities around the nation to make this unexpected journey slightly less overwhelming.

In the midst of institutions shifting to both online teaching and virtual operations, a separate but related challenge is currently facing the industry: the impact of COVID-19 on executive search. A crisis is an exceptionally difficult time to have a leadership vacancy. Over the past two months, we have worked closely with our clients to determine the best course of action for them as they conduct leadership searches for positions at all levels. If your institution is in the midst of a leadership search, what should you do?

To Proceed or Not to Proceed

More than three months after the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the U.S., it is still unclear when travel and gathering restrictions will be lifted nationally. It may be an additional several weeks or months, and these constraints likely will be rolled back slowly. That uncertainty makes the delay of a search quite difficult, as it is impossible to know when it might be resumed.

Some institutions are electing to suspend searches until the fall. Others are continuing the process but extending candidate application deadlines. Some are moving forward with their original timelines and exploring creative ways to address the circumstances, such as using videos to give finalists a sense of the campus environment.

Delaying a search has some downsides, including the risk that it will place an additional burden on the existing senior team, which is probably already strained due to the pandemic. When an institution’s leadership team is not fully staffed, other leaders may have to assume the duties of the open position. There is also the possibility that another institution might scoop up a best-fit candidate for your college or university. Thus, for some colleges and universities, the importance of proceeding with the search -- including meeting with the candidates and conducting interviews and stakeholder meetings -- outweighs the risks.

Technology Can Facilitate the Process

In fact, if your institution is in the early stages of a search, it is still quite practical to proceed with the initial stages of the process through technological means. Your search committee can organize video meetings and conference calls to conduct a pre-search study, offering the opportunity for campus stakeholders and constituents to share valuable input and context. That allows for significant progress to occur, including the development of the position profile, marketing of the position and candidate recruitment.

You can also conduct semifinalist interviews effectively via video, with some simple strategies to make them most effective. Those include allowing extra time to address technology issues and restricting the number of video feeds during an interview so candidates have a limited number of screens to focus on, which creates a more authentic interview experience.

At the finalist stage of the interview process, you will have to deal with some added considerations. If you’re recruiting a president, for example, you will probably need to conduct virtual campus tours for them. You may also have to set up virtual interviews that enable constituents throughout the campus, region or state to meet the candidate and engage in dialogue. It is imperative that you conduct practice sessions before those virtual tours and interviews to troubleshoot potential technology and access issues. In addition, especially if candidates don’t live nearby, you should discuss with your finalist(s) expectations for performing the position remotely and possible plans for the new leader’s transition to living in the area and working on your campus.

Overcoming the Challenges of Virtual Search

Since the COVID-19 crisis hit, the number of virtual meetings conducted on platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams has skyrocketed, which has raised both privacy and security issues. While companies such as Zoom have acted quickly to address problems, we are advising clients to put in place some security measures, including implementing meeting passwords and waiting rooms, as well as verifying the identity of all participants. Likewise, we suggest developing team protocols to ensure security and privacy practices are preserved among all participants wherever they are located. We recommend that you consult with your IT teams to ensure optimal security measures are implemented.

For a number of public institutions, search committee meetings and candidate interviews are open to the public. Therefore, if you work at one of those institutions, we advise that you post video meeting information for public access. And you should record all committee meetings and interviews and make those recordings available to various constituents.

Video meetings and interviews have enabled institutions to continue leadership searches in the face of a global crisis. We caution, however, that virtual interviews should be complemented with enhanced reference checking to provide a comprehensive sense of the candidates’ soft skills -- social, interpersonal, communications and emotional intelligence -- that are usually observed and assessed in person. Additionally, behavioral assessment tools can assist in the finalist stage, providing insights into what drives and motivates candidates professionally. (AGB Search offers the Predictive Index Behavioral Assessment for this purpose.)

From the candidate’s perspective, it may be difficult for some individuals to feel comfortable accepting a position having only met stakeholders and “seen” the campus through a computer screen. Consider involving the candidate and their family in a virtual meeting with stakeholders, and connect them with other community members and leaders to learn more about the culture and amenities of the area. Additionally, allow the candidate ample time to ask questions that would normally be answered with an in-person experience.

Lastly, have a backup plan. Technology can fail, especially in times of such high usage. In the event of a widespread outage, would a phone meeting suffice? If one or two participants have technology issues, can the meeting proceed without them? If the candidate has a tech challenge, what would rescheduling entail?

Potential Alternative: Interim Leadership

If your institution has some flexibility in its hiring timelines, and you determine that campus interviews are required for selecting a long-term leader, you may want to consider an interim hire who can temporarily help maintain continuity for the institution. An interim candidate can bring successful leadership experience to the position via a rapid, cost-effective search process. While the interim, just as with a full-search candidate, will have to interview and start their position remotely, their background and expertise often mean they can jump in and add value quickly, particularly if the candidate has crisis experience.

The Future of Search

It is somewhat ironic that, these days, our highly relationship-driven sector has become almost completely dependent on technology to carry out our institutions’ missions. We have learned that it is possible to do more remotely than we ever thought we could (or should). But that does not eliminate the importance of meeting people face-to-face and experiencing a campus and a community in person. We expect that, when this crisis subsides, conducting virtual meetings and interviews will gain more general acceptance. Still, we anticipate that many institutions will resume in-person firm pitches, stakeholder listening sessions, semifinalist interviews and finalist interviews and campus tours as soon as they are safely able.

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