Untapped talent? 95% of higher ed leaders open to new roles

Job searches for executive positions are exploding, according to WittKieffer, which offers strategies for colleges and universities to help land the right candidates for key positions.
By: | January 11, 2021
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Looking for the right candidate to fill an executive position at your higher education institution? They are out there and they are exploring their options, says Zach Smith, Managing Partner and Education Practice Leader at global executive job search firm WittKieffer.

In a recent candidate survey of nearly 400 higher education leaders done by WittKieffer, an astounding 95% said they were open to some degree to changing roles and moving into a new position. Nearly a third said they are “actively looking” and even more said they’d be open to select opportunities if approached by a college or university.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have cooled the jets on overall mobility and travel, executive candidates haven’t been afraid to search beyond their current locations. Their receptiveness and willingness to move – or accept that remote position, at least for now – makes for a prime moment for institutions to seize top talent.

WittKieffer, which serves hundreds of higher education clients across the U.S. and the world, noted in its survey that the disruption caused by the pandemic has changed the mindset of many executives. Some 90% of candidates are open to relocation, while 12% are open to relocation internationally.

“We’ve seen candidate pools that are as strong as they were pre-pandemic,” Smith says. “It makes you wonder, are people actually growing weary of the crisis at their own institution? Do they feel like they’ve done all they can do and now they’re ready to move on?”

Smith offers another potential theory about why candidates are open to exploring new challenges.

“These types of situations [the pandemic] cause people to reevaluate. Maybe part of it is people deciding that, now is as good a time as any. What am I waiting for?” he says. “Look at the world. There’s so much uncertainty. If I have an interest in advancing my career, why should I wait two more years? Let’s get into the market now and see what’s out there.”

What’s driving the surge?

Beyond the upheaval brought on by the pandemic, there are reasons why job searching in higher education could be on the rise.

For one, 50% of candidates said their jobs had changed because of the pandemic. He also says the mindset of an executive is one in which they “always have their eye out. They may not move. But if something pops up, they generally don’t close the door to opportunity.”

Smith also says pent-up demand – many called off searches for months – could be driving some who delayed looking to seek new opportunities. He notes that searches for senior leadership positions, particularly presidents, are very high and points to recent and pending retirements as possible drivers.

“In some cases, people delayed retirement initially, but those are the people who were already going to retire,” Smith says. “It’s the other groups who were thinking about retiring in maybe two years who are moving up their dates because of what’s going on. People want to get back to their hometowns. They want to go see their grandkids. They want to take maybe a couple more years than they had planned to spend with family in retirement.”

That, in turn, has forced institutions to have to react quickly.

“They’ve got to move forward and hire somebody if they want to survive,” he says. “So they’re not holding off on those searches. People are moving up their retirement dates. We’re seeing a lot of vacancies. And there are people interested in taking other positions. COVID has caused a lot of movement at the senior levels. Some institutions are putting interim leadership in place for longer periods because maybe they have a hiring freeze, but those who are a little bit better off financially are continuing to move forward in filling those roles.”

Smith said executives who are contemplating career changes might not be looking to ride out the next few years in their current positions or stay in a position they don’t see as long term. Instead, they might be seeking a little more permanence in a more familiar place.

“There’s fatigue,” Smith says. “I think a big part of that is getting back closer to regions where they want to be. There’s a new sort of reflection happening. A lot of the candidates I’ve been talking to are people who tell me they want to be closer to their hometown, because that’s where they wanted to finish their career, or that’s where they want to retire. Maybe somebody would have taken an extra move before getting back to that place where they want to be. But now they’re saying, I just want to be back closer to the West Coast, where my family is.”

One other potential caveat to all the searches is the potential to work remotely, at least through the pandemic. For some execs, the opportunity to not have to be uprooted is enticing, especially if the prospective institution is willing. Just over 50% of WittKieffer’s higher ed client base said they are “somewhat open” to hiring candidates who will not relocate and work remotely.

“Institutions have definitely been more receptive,” he says. “We’ve had candidates who have stayed in their current city and they’re working via Zoom for now. A president who took a role in New York did not start on site initially. He started remotely from San Francisco. I think there’s a much bigger willingness to allow people to work remotely from home.”

Still, not all universities are open to taking the chance. More than a third say they are not open to hiring candidates who won’t relocate.

Finding the right candidates

Researchers at WittKieffer note that some of the traditional elements a college or university have to offer still pull at the heart strings of candidates seeking high-level positions. Mission and values, they say, “matter in a time when leaders are looking to find meaning in their work.” They also want to be surrounded by leaders (55%) and they want that one important driver that Smith mentioned above: location (54%).

“A lot of the same things apply today, articulating the values of the institution and making sure that they have a plan for the future of their institutions,” he said. “If there’s not a strategic plan in place, or there’s one that needs to be revised, that should happen.”

Who are they looking for? Smith says more than ever institutions are seeking those who can react well during crisis moments, who can demonstrate they have performed under pressure. WittKieffer is advising clients to think differently now than they did six months ago. That includes how strong those candidates are in embracing technology.

“Online education czars, vice provosts of online education, those positions are popping up a little bit more, as are public health positions.”

The way a college or university recruits and hosts interviews during a pandemic can spark candidates to continue the process or give them pause.

“Some places have been adamant about bringing people to campus,” Smith says. “Well, what is that communicating to candidates about how you feel about their health and safety, if you want them to come to campus in this environment? I would say it’s rare but it’s happening. We’ve had clients bring candidates to campus, only to sit in a room and do Zoom interviews all day. What was the purpose of having them to campus? How they conduct the search speaks to the values of the organization. It does send a message about what you value.”

So why not conduct the search, at least the early rounds via videoconferencing? If your institution isn’t already, take a look at these stats from the survey on peer colleges and universities: 81% prefer to use Zoom or other means for all initial candidate interviews, and 79% prefer to conduct virtual sharing of advance presentation materials. More than two-thirds like to use survey tools to gain feedback from search committee members.

“Universities have been successful recruiting senior level leaders by doing searches completely remotely,” Smith says. “If they’re doing finalists visits remotely, maybe they bring one preferred top candidate to campus so that they can see the campus and the university can meet them in a safe, face-to-face environment. There are ways to do it successfully. We’ve had multiple successful placements in the virtual world. We’re upending assumptions around the importance of being face to face with candidates. There are ways to find some really great people in this environment.”

As for how these trends will pan out long-term, Smith says there is some uncertainty.

“This was the busiest December we’ve ever had in education, which is remarkable,” he says. “But it’s hard to know if that’s going to be sustained. I would imagine there’s going to still be a healthy need in the market for competent senior leadership. I don’t see any reason it will slow down unless budgets become so strained that significant cuts happen.”