Higher Education Choosing More Internal Candidates

Guest blog by Lucy Apthorp Leske

Today’s challenged economy places extraordinary demands on campus leadership—and it is equally demanding of search processes. More academic institutions are announcing leadership hires without national searches. Is the calculus on internal candidates and length of searches changing, or is this simply a product of the times?

The costs of an external search include not just direct expenses but also the costs of delays in making key decisions and the risk of a poor fit between an external candidate and the hiring institution.

Then there are the add-on costs of distant candidates to factor in. Geographic mobility is at its lowest since World War II. Adding a trailing partner or spouse to a new job market, maintaining a home that may not sell immediately and exchanging the known for the unknown can de-motivate potential candidates from accepting an offer—or even entering the pool—for a job that requires relocation.

On the other hand, an internal candidate knows the issues and can anticipate how to go about addressing them. He or she will ride a much shallower, swifter cultural learning curve. And if he or she has already demonstrated significant leadership within the institution, an internal appointment can represent continuity and stability.

Hiding in plain sight

Internal succession is a new concept for higher education, but one that is gaining ground. Boards and presidents have recognized that successfully working within governance cultures to shorten the search process by appointing internal candidates is a viable model for leadership transition if key conditions are met. Avoiding any appearance of an inside track can compromise a new leader’s effectiveness, so communication and transparency are essential.

Of course, it helps to have highly competent individuals in the organization who are prepared for broader leadership roles and who are interested in greater responsibilities. Boards and presidents are wise to have leadership transition plans in place across the institution that include criteria and processes for preparing, evaluating and considering internal candidates. The goal: to increase the likelihood that they will see the solution hiding in plain sight.

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