Developing a Personal Connection with Clients and Candidates

May 6, 2016 – It used to be that only major companies turned to executive search firms to fill their most senior posts. But, over time, search firms have come to fill positions up and down the corporate ladder for a host of other organizations, from associations and non-profits to sports teams, small businesses and academia. They all have one thing in common – a need for rock solid leadership – and search firms have branched out to accommodate them.

Today, some 150 specialist search firms exist to serve just the academia sector. Macon, GA-based Myers McRae Executive Search is one of them, and its sole focus is finding talent for organizations of higher learning. The firm has conducted hundreds of searches for leaders in public and private universities and colleges across the U.S. While the majority of its searches have been for chancellors, provosts, vice presidents, deans, and other senior academic and administrative leaders, Myers McRae has extensive presidential search experience, having conducted more than 30 at this level since 2009.

A hallmark of Myers McRae is the personalized service provided by a consultant team with extensive careers in higher education. Emily Parker Myers, the firm’s CEO, brings firsthand knowledge and experience in higher education administration and recruitment as well as an exceptional record in fundraising. While she conducts a wide range of assignments, her specialty areas include presidential, provost, academic affairs, and advancement position searches.

For the majority of her career, Emily served as senior vice president of university advancement and external affairs at Mercer University. Under her leadership, Mercer received more than $1 billion in private gifts, grants, and state allocations. In recognition of her enduring influence on the university, Mercer’s board of trustees voted to name the university’s new admissions and welcome center in her honor.

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Emily, earlier in your career you worked for Mercer University. What were the circumstances that led you to a career in executive search?

Prior to entering executive search I had enjoyed a 30-year career in higher education as a senior vice president of a comprehensive institution, Mercer University. While there, I chaired and served on numerous search committees, so I understood the academic search process from the perspective of the institution. When I was extended an offer to become president of this academic search firm, the transition was quite comfortable as a result of my many years in academia. This has extended me a huge advantage as I consult with search committees today, because based on my earlier career at Mercer, I am better able to understand their concerns from their viewpoint, including providing them counsel on search procedures that they have not considered. My years of serving with academic and administrative leaders, faculty, and staff have provided me a high level of comfort in identifying and assessing professionals to serve in colleges and universities. I am also quite confident in placing leaders in not-for-profit organizations. Assisting colleges and universities and not-for-profit organizations with the recruitment of their leaders is a high privilege because these are the leaders who will have an impact on the mission of their institutions.

At what point in time did academic institutions start to retain executive search firms on a regular basis and for what positions? 

The history of executive search dates back to the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that search firms became prevalent in corporate recruitment. Myers McRae was first founded in 1968 as an executive search firm specializing in the banking, manufacturing, and health professions. By 1984, it had transitioned to serving only colleges, universities, and not-for-profit organizations. From the limited information I have seen on academic executive search, it was primarily used to recruit presidents or senior administrators. However, as colleges and universities began expanding their academic programs, executive searches became more prevalent. Today, there are scores of search firms that serve the academic sector which, given the direction higher education has taken with its leadership and human capital, does not surprise me.

What are the key differences between searching for leaders in corporate or for-profit missions versus what Myers McRae does for academia? How does the process differ between the two? 

To be clear, Myers McRae does not conduct searches in the for-profit or corporate arena, but I can give you my view. Higher education search is similar to corporate search in that we both seek candidates that meet our clients’ specific requirements for a position. Corporate search consultants work mostly with the company’s human resources office. They only bring a prospect to the company who meets the position’s requirements exactly. They may bring only two or three candidates. Inclusion and participation are important elements in higher education searches. Colleges and universities want an active role in evaluating the qualified candidates and selecting the ones who will be interviewed. In higher education search, we work primarily with an appointed search committee. The members usually represent different areas of the institution, trustees, students, alumni, and sometimes even the community. While meeting the job requirements is important, academic searches are more flexible because the qualifications are only part of the ‘fit’ at an institution and its mission. Colleges and universities are more open to reviewing candidates who may not have every qualification, but bring important strengths to the opportunity. Our goal is to recruit as many excellent, qualified candidates for a specific search as possible for the search committee to consider. Our extensive background and knowledge in higher education helps us see how an outstanding candidate who may not have all the qualifications has great potential for the institution. Also, because of the active role of a search committee and the institution throughout the process, the timeframe for academic searches usually takes three months or longer, depending on the type of position. The length of a presidential search could be between four months and a year.  

In terms of where you look for talent, how often do you look outside academia and does the position you are recruiting for dictate whether you look internally in academia or outside to another discipline, such as taking someone from the corporate sector?

There are some examples of college and university presidents who were recruited outside the academic community. Most searches that involve recruiting beyond higher education are for senior administrators involved in the business areas of the institution, such as advancement, finance, admissions, and marketing. These positions have similar backgrounds and responsibilities. We have not found it to be as successful for recruiting provosts, deans, and other academic leaders. While we may recruit prospects from corporations, not-for-profit organizations and agencies, and the military for these positions, the candidates still need to have an academic background to meet the requirements of the institution.

What challenges do you see for how leadership and talent will be identified and assessed for academia in the next 10 to 15 years? 

Technology has transformed parts of executive search over the last 15 years, and it will continue to impact how we recruit and assess candidates as technology evolves. Technology allows us to identify more prospects, connect with them more quickly, and interview them from the privacy of their homes or offices via video conferencing. Technology has changed our business paradigm except in one area: the personal interaction. The foundational key to a successful placement is the interaction you have with a prospect and your client. You can enhance that communication with technology – in fact, you can totally transform it, but success always comes back to the knowledge you gain from developing a personal connection with candidates and your clients. In higher education searches, our clients seek candidates who are a ‘fit’ for their institutions and its mission. Developing a relationship with the search committee to understand that fit will continue to be vital to being successful in the placement business.

Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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