When Recruiting Demands Insight into People and Process

May 13, 2016 – There’s much to be said for the impact of technology on the executive search industry over the last 15 to 20 years. Starting with the Internet, new tools have transformed the field, rewriting many aspects of the hiring script – from how candidates are found, to quickly connecting with them, to interviewing them through innovations like video conferencing.

As technology continues to evolve, more revisions no doubt lie ahead. Yet one part of the work has remained virtually the same as ever, especially for firms that specialize in searches for higher education institutions: building relationships. In a sector that prides itself on inclusion in the search process and an openness to candidates with attributes that go beyond the exact details of the job description, search consultants must never lose sight of the human factor. Understanding a candidate, and how that individual might mesh within an organization, is critical. And that’s a big reason that Myers McRae Executive Search and Consulting, and its president and CEO, Emily Parker Myers, is such a respected partner to colleges and universities all over the country.

“Technology has changed our business paradigm except in one area: the personal interaction,” Emily told me in a recent interview. “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 come 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 their mission.” Developing a relationship with the search committee to understand that fit, she says, will continue to be vital to being successful in the placement business.

Firsthand Knowledge

Founded 32 years ago, Myers McRae has conducted hundreds of searches for leaders of academic institutions. While most of its efforts have been to recruit chancellors, provosts, vice presidents, deans, and other senior academic and administrative leaders, the Macon, Georgia-based firm has extensive experience searching for university presidents as well. Since 2009, it has shepherded more than 30 searches for such top leaders.

A hallmark of Myers McRae is the personalized service provided by a consultant team with extensive careers in the academic world. Emily herself brings firsthand knowledge and experience in higher education administration and recruitment as well as an impressive record in fundraising. And while her assignments for the firm are wide-ranging, she specializes in presidential, provost, academic affairs, and advancement position searches.

Before her career in executive search, Emily served as senior vice president of university advancement and external affairs at Mercer University in Macon. Under her guidance, Mercer received more than $1 billion in private gifts, grants, and state allocations. The school’s board of trustees, in fact, would later name its new admissions and welcome center in her honor.

Finding candidates for academic institutions differs from conducting searches for the for-profit or corporate arena, Emily says. In both cases, recruiters seek prospects who will meet their clients’ specific needs to fill a position. But the academic hiring process calls for the recruiters to take into account the opinions and perspectives of more people. “Corporate search consultants work mostly with the company’s human resources office,” Emily explains. “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.”

Candidates, meanwhile, tend to get more leeway in regard to their background and experience than prospects receive in the business world. “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,” says Emily. “Colleges and universities are more open to reviewing candidates who may not have every qualification but bring important strengths to the opportunity.

An Insider’s Understanding

“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 is usually three months longer, depending on the type of position. The length of a presidential search could be between four months and a year.”

One differentiator that Emily and her team bring to their work is experience not just as search consultants but in the academic arena itself. Emily, for her part, held senior roles for many years at Mercer University, in addition to work at Jacksonville University and Stetson University School of Law. During her career in higher education, she chaired and served on numerous search committees, which gives her an insider’s understanding of the search process that many of her competitors lack.

“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,” she says. “This has extended me a huge advantage as I consult with search committees today, because 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 with 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 of the mission of their institutions.”

Like the search industry as a whole, recruitment for the academic sector has evolved and broadened over the years. Emily’s firm, too, has seen significant change. “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,” she says. Myers McRae was 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,” she says. Today, there are scores of search firms that serve the academic sector.

Higher education is a sector that tends to recruit from within its own ranks. Some college and university presidents have been brought in from corporate America, but that’s an exception, not the norm. “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,” Emily says. “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.”

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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