Hiring college leaders during the ongoing pandemic

Five questions for search committees to ask when hiring—in an era where having to hire is not ideal, but where gaps in leadership can not be left unfilled.

Like it or not, decisions that colleges and universities make during the COVID-19 pandemic will be scrutinized for years to come—plus the impact of those decisions magnified. This includes the hiring of new leaders. Though instinctually institutions may want to postpone hiring until the pandemic passes, realistically they must forge ahead and hire if they are to keep their leadership teams strong and capable in the face of an uncertain future.

In my work as an executive search consultant, I’ve observed institutions and the search committees who represent them facing five key questions as they look to hire new administrators.

1. How do we launch a search in this environment?

Zachary A. Smith, WittKieffer
Zachary A. Smith, WittKieffer

Most institutions are moving forward with key recruitments, especially if a role is truly essential. Searches for presidents, provosts, vice presidents and deans can be launched by leveraging video technology and other means of communication to complete the early stages of interviewing. Oftentimes, there are efficiencies that can be gained by launching a search virtually since scheduling does not require that all participants be in the same room or same geographic location. Other tools, such as online surveys and file-sharing applications, can be used to gather feedback from campus representatives regarding the role and search process. In other words, institutional officials are finding creative ways of making the search process more efficient without sacrificing quality, transparency and campus engagement.

2. In light of the pandemic, do we hire with different skills in mind?

The novel coronavirus has shined a spotlight on the leadership characteristics needed to weather a crisis. I have worked with several institutions that have modified job descriptions to incorporate verbiage reflecting skills in; for example, crisis management, risk management, online education and distance learning, adaptability, resilience, composure and more. Committees are sizing up a candidate’s ability to lead during disruption, fearing that the current period of crisis in higher education may be just beginning. Leaders who can effectively demonstrate an innovative mindset, courage under pressure and an ability to adapt in the face of incomplete information have never been in more demand. Institutions are putting a premium on softer, behavioral skills and have begun to recognize that an extensive research and publication record may not be as important as an ability to manage through a crisis.

3. Are strong candidates available during such uncertain times?

Will the most qualified, experienced and high-performing candidates be willing to leave the security of their current positions to take on new roles? My colleagues and I have found the answer to be yes, even amidst crisis. I’ve encountered many academic leaders who see the current uncertainty as an opportunity to consider new challenges, especially if a career move gets them closer to their professional goals—or to their extended families. Therefore, while some candidates are understandably nervous to consider transitioning into a new position, building strong candidate pools is still possible.

4. Do we want to hire someone who “jumps ship” from their current institution in the midst of a crisis?

Strong leaders see their organizations through tough times. What does it say about a candidate who is willing to leave their employer during the current crisis? This is a fair question that search committees are asking. I encourage them to address this with candidates head-on. For example, a committee might ask, “Would you be putting your institution in a predicament by leaving at the present time?” A thoughtful candidate will have considered this possibility and have a solid response. In some cases, they may request more time to see their current institution through crisis before beginning a new role. I’m aware of a few instances when institutions have allowed a new, incoming leader to push their start date back to January 1, 2021 so that they could ensure their current institution is on solid ground prior to exiting.

5. Should we complete a search if we cannot get the chosen candidate on campus?

As lockdowns ease, colleges and universities are considering to what degree they’ll open their campuses this fall. Institutions face the prospect that a finalist candidate will not be able to make a traditional finalist visit to campus. In many cases, hiring managers are making offers to candidates who they have not met in person. They reason that it is best to secure a good leader when that person is available rather than risk a long-term vacancy in a mission-critical position. In the current environment, the reward of hiring a strong leader outweighs the risk of a long-term vacancy.

One upside to conducting finalist visits virtually is that in many cases more campus constituents are showing up to virtual open forums and other aspects of a candidate’s interview than is typically observed for face-to-face interviews. Scheduling time to log on to a computer for an hour is often more efficient than walking across campus to a faraway location. As more faculty, staff and students participate in finalist presentations and other elements of the virtual interview, more feedback is provided to the hiring manager in the decision-making process, ultimately reducing some of the risk associated with hiring a candidate without a face-to-face visit.

Colleges and universities have a myriad of questions as they look to recruit for key administrative roles. The conditions for hiring new leaders are not ideal, but the alternative is leaving gaps in the leadership team at a time when strong leadership is needed most.

Zachary A. Smith, PhD, is managing partner of the Education Practice at WittKieffer, a global executive search firm dedicated exclusively to organizations that improve quality of life in healthcare, education, the life sciences and the not-for-profit sector.


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