Recruitment Firms Land Big West Conference Commissioner Using Virtual Technology

The future is now. In recruiting the new college sports commissioner, College Sports Solutions (CCS), Buffkin / Baker and their client conducted all of their interviews, including the final selection, on Zoom. Not only did the process go well, but the savings was more than $30,000. Let’s go inside the search!

May 11, 2020 – As the coronavirus pandemic alters the way executive recruiters conduct business, collegiate athletics consultants College Sports Solutions (CSS) and Buffkin / Baker have teamed up to place Dan Butterly as commissioner of the Big West Conference. He will start on June 1 to transition alongside Dennis Farrell, who will officially step down one month later. Mr. Farrell is retiring after a 40-year career with the conference, including 28 years as commissioner.

Jeff Schemmel, president of CSS, was lead consultant for the assignment, with assistance from Dan Walters of Buffkin / Baker. “We had to be innovative, thorough and detailed in our approach to all interviews,” said Mr. Schemmel. “We knew we were blazing a new trail in Division I athletics while facing the circumstances brought about by COVID-19. The willingness of the search committee members and the CEOs to adapt to the Zoom format and participate in the same fashion as in person speaks highly of them.”

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“The entire search was completed virtually,” said Mr. Walters. “Our original plan was to begin to meet candidates for in-person airport interviews in late March, early April.” COVID-19 changed that and all interaction turned virtual. The search committee engaged an initial large pool of candidates, 12 in all, virtually for the first round of interviews. That pool was then narrowed to semi-finalists who were engaged further. “The committee then sent on multiple finalists to the CEOs (presidents and chancellors). Those CEOs interviewed the finalists the last week of April, and ultimately landed on their new commissioner last week.”

Conducting the search in this manner, Mr. Baker said, gave the firm and its client the “ability to engage a large group of candidates. Virtual meetings are relatively easy to set up.” It also provided cost savings; with no airport interviews and no finalist interviews on-site, there was a savings north of $30,000.

“We were very fortunate to work alongside Jane Conoley and her chief of staff Neal Schnoor throughout this search,” said Mr. Baker. “They showed tremendous leadership with every unexpected turn and curveball. Overall, we can persevere through this uncertain time with collaboration and patience, find great leaders and empower those leaders to lead.”

“The presidents and chancellors of the Big West universities look forward to working with Dan Butterly,” said Ms. Conoley, president of California State University Long Beach and chair of both the search committee and board of presidents and chancellors. “He is visionary, highly respected and experienced, and his strong commitment to academic and athletic success makes him a great match with our conference’s values.”

Mr. Butterly is the senior associate commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, where he has worked for the last 21 years. He serves as the primary sport and championship administrator for Mountain West men’s basketball, acting as liaison between coaches and institutional administrators, athletic directors, joint council and board of directors on all men’s basketball-related issues.

The Big West Conference is comprised of four members of the University of California system (UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara), four members of the California State University system (Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, CSUN and Long Beach State), and Hawai‘i. On July 1, CSU Bakersfield and UC San Diego will join the Big West, boosting conference membership to 11 schools. Currently, the Big West sponsors championships in 18 sports (eight men’s and 10 women’s).

Strategic Partners

Last year, CSS and Buffkin / Baker formed a partnership, combining their executive search services to better serve universities and colleges, intercollegiate conferences and collegiate athletic organizations. The two organizations collaborate in all areas of the executive search business at many of the nation’s leading institutions. “The newly formed partnership with College Sports Solutions will further enhance our higher education practice,” said Martin Baker, managing partner and head of the higher education practice at Buffkin / Baker. “Exemplary search relies on the ability to adapt to the changing collegiate landscape and we are thrilled to be collaborating with CSS to ensure continued success in this area.”

Related: The COVID-19 Impact on Executive Search

Buffkin / Baker has completed more than 550 searches for universities and colleges across the country. The firm recently conducted searches for a number of institutions in the Power Five conferences, as well as leading liberal arts colleges, AAU institutions and regional universities. The firm’s office locations include Nashville, New York, Washington, D.C. and Winston-Salem, NC, with affiliate offices in London. Buffkin/ Baker is a member of Panorama Search, an international federation of retained firms with 18 firms and over 30 offices globally. Mr. Walters works in Buffkin / Baker’s higher education and sports practices and is based out of the Winston-Salem office.

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CSS is a full-service and integrated provider of collegiate athletic consulting, strategies and solutions to universities, intercollegiate conferences and collegiate organizations. The firm provides executive search services for coach and administrator searches. CSS clients run the gamut of collegiate sports institutions, including Auburn University, Alabama State University, Alabama A & M University, Boise State University, Brigham Young University, University of Colorado, Colorado State University, Grand Canyon University, Montana State University, New Mexico State University, Oregon State University, Presbyterian College, Tulane University, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Central Missouri, University of Houston, University of Minnesota, University of New Mexico, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), University of North Carolina (Charlotte), University of Northern Iowa, University of South Dakota, University of South Florida and University of Utah.

Related: Conducting Executive Searches During a Pandemic

With over 25 years of intercollegiate athletics management experience, Mr. Schemmel is a former athletic director who has served in key leadership positions within the NCAA, the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA, and at schools in the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences.

Mr. Schemmel recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss using virtual technologies to conduct an executive search assignment. Following are excerpts from that discussion.

Jeff Schemmel

Jeff, at what point in this search did the assignment shift to using virtual technologies? 

This happened at the same time that most states were instituting stay-at-home requirements for all their residents, about the second week in March. The committee had already selected the initial pool of interviewees, and we had scheduled those in-person interviews in Los Angeles the first week in April. Shortly thereafter, however, the CEOs in the conference, led by chair Jane Conoley, president at Long Beach State, decided that those initial interviews should be conducted virtually. Our search committee was large, with at least one representative from each Big West member institution. It was composed of a cross-section of athletics directors, senior woman administrators and faculty athletic reps from those schools. All members of the search committee were on board with the decision to conduct those initial interviews via Zoom.

Explain how the search proceeded from that point?  

The initial decision was made to simply do the first round of interviews via Zoom, with no decision on how or when we might do finalist interviews. There was consideration at that time of simply delaying any further interviews until restrictions on in-person social interactions were eased around the country. Discussion went so far as to consider asking commissioner Farrell to stay on past his retirement date of July 1 in order to wait for that day. Quite soon thereafter, however, all realized that the pandemic, and the nationwide stay-at-home response to it, were here for a long and indefinite period of time. It was then that the decision was made to continue the search to its conclusion via Zoom.

How did that go?

Part of the decision to use Zoom was to add an additional round of interviews with the search committee. The new charge to the committee was to choose a group of semifinalists from the initial group of interviewees, and then interview those semifinalists a second time. The semifinalist interviews were planned with more interview time and a different protocol on how and by whom the questions would be asked. After interviews with that group of semifinalists, the committee was then to forward a group of finalists to the presidents and chancellors for interviews and selection. This new process worked exceedingly well, and allowed the search committee another strong look at the candidates before recommending the finalists.

“All of us are learning new ways of conducting business, becoming more efficient, and getting things done in ways that are much different than before the coronavirus . . . maybe most importantly much different than how we thought we had to do them.”

How did everyone handle the new platform?

Much credit must go to president Conoley, who led and managed every interview, from the very first search committee interview to the very last finalist interview. Her strong, calm leadership and the ease with which she adapted the interviews to the Zoom format made everyone feel confident of the interview protocols and their results. Planning and organization of the interviews was key, with the goal of making them virtually the same. To their great credit, all presidents and chancellors, led again by Dr. Conoley, participated in the Zoom interviews of the finalists. Organization and protocols that were followed made for efficient questions and answers, with plenty of ability for follow-up and spontaneity.

What are the advantages/disadvantages to conducting a search in this manner?

First of all, I think we as search consultants have to be at our very best. Our vetting of candidates was relied on even more by both the search committee and the presidents/chancellors. We relish that role because we know the college athletics landscape well. We work entirely in that world all day, every day. We were able to pass our decades of experience in, and knowledge of, the college athletics world and the people in it. Some advantages are it saves time and money. For this search participation of the committee and the CEOs was nearly 100 percent, as they all were working from home, and we could plan the Zoom interviews to fit all schedules. One disadvantages is that it is never quite as good as face-to-face interviews, especially in the area of connection, eye contact, etc. However, if you watched the candidate closely on the screen, you could certainly pick up things about how they handle themselves.

What would you like to say to your clients and colleagues during this time?

We have been able to take our Big West Zoom experiences into other work that we do. We have hosted groups of Division I athletics directors from across the country on Zoom calls to discuss and share among each other the financial strategies they are employing on their own campuses and in their own departments. This has been well received by all, and we are now planning, at their request, additional follow-up calls so they can update each other on how they are doing. I think all of us are learning new ways of conducting business, becoming more efficient, and getting things done in ways that are much different than before the coronavirus, maybe most importantly much different than how we thought we had to do them. The successful Big West commissioner search is a good example of that.

Related: The Future of Work and the Workforce in the Post-Pandemic Era

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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