Transitioning a Search to a Search Firm

By Melissa Fincher

It is fairly common for an institution to undertake a leadership recruitment on its own, and later in the process to seek the services of an executive search firm. It may be that the search committee wants to take a fresh approach, to reach out to a broader segment of candidates or enlist the expertise of experienced search consultants.

As a former university talent acquisition and organizational development consultant and current executive recruiter, I have experienced this transition from both sides. When an outside firm is brought in mid-search, there are important questions that arise among the institution, its leaders and search committee. The following are some of those questions, with suggestions for addressing them.

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Melissa Fincher

Will the search firm start from scratch or pick up where we left off? One aspect of hiring a search firm at this point is to assess the successes and challenges of the recruitment so far. Have top candidates shown interest? Are there issues with the compensation, title or reporting structure? Has a preferred candidate dropped out? It may also be that, as an institution is progressing through the search (even at the very end), it has an “A Ha!” moment and realizes it needs something different than what it had initially envisioned. A good search firm will gauge the status of the current search and build off what has already been done. It will meet with the committee and key stakeholders and determine the best course forward.

In some cases, it may be best to start fresh, to re-energize the process and allow the search firm to do what it does best – explore the market for, and solicit interest from, an array of exceptional candidates. This approach adds credibility to the ultimate outcome, with all constituents appreciating that a comprehensive search was undertaken. In other cases, especially when the firm has worked previously with a particular institution and
understands its culture and needs, the process can pick up mid-course and not skip a beat.

Who should meet first with the search consultants? It is critical that the search consultant(s) meet with the hiring manager, search chair and human resources leader to fully understand the history of the search. A debriefing should occur after the exploratory meetings for the consulting team to recommend a path forward and to work with the institution to determine what additional resources, if any, will be necessary to successfully execute on the search.

Does the position profile need to be reconsidered? In many cases, yes. The first consideration should be to assess whether the leadership profile that was developed at the outset of a search is still aligned with the type of person the institution seeks to hire. Sometimes the underlying conditions may have changed since the search was begun (e.g., a tweaking of the core responsibilities, further clarifying of the expectations for leadership or a strategic change in the reporting structure). In addition, it is important to consider whether the initial profile did not resonate with the right candidates and needs to be revised – perhaps focused or further fleshed out.

Whatever the reason, a search consultant will help to craft or revise the profile to cover the broad leadership priorities, expectations and qualifications for a successful, highly competitive candidate. The search firm will be skilled at developing marketing messages that are attractive to top-tier candidates while also addressing real
challenges in an honest and transparent manner. This will develop a pool of candidates who resonate with the institution’s mission and agenda.

“Is this everyone?” Can we find more candidates? Yes. Often a search will be transitioned to a firm when the institution feels that the strength of the talent pool was not equal to the challenges and expectations set for the position. Additional strong candidates are available, especially given that a search firm will have its own
database and network of contacts, and can identify leaders who are “not looking.” These passive candidates require extra stewardship but are often the most compelling.

What concerns will candidates have about a search that has been transferred to a search firm? Mainly, they will want honesty. It is always best to be transparent with candidates about the circumstances leading to a refreshed or revamped search. It helps to inform their thinking about whether this is the “right” opportunity to pursue personally and professionally, the qualities and qualifications that are most critical, and what challenges may lie ahead. Most of all, it gives them confidence that the institution values transparency and is a place where they would like to work.

What additional benefits can the search firm provide? Experienced search consultants understand the environment for a given type of search. The firm will provide ongoing feedback about how the market is positioned, how candidates are responding and whether the strategy needs to be adjusted. They expertly represent the institution in the marketplace.

Search consultants will also guide a search chair, committee and hiring official in executing a complex, multifaceted hiring process from start to finish. Many colleges and universities (even the largest) may not have the resources or expertise to provide that level of specialized support for every necessary search.

Lastly, a consulting team has the backing of a dedicated administrative and research team, conducts thorough referencing, will provide a full formal presentation of candidates and will oversee other elements that are essential to a good hire. It will expect to earn its fee and confidently guarantee its placement.

What is there to know for next time? So often, searches are disrupted toward the end of the process due to candidate issues that could have been avoided at the very beginning. In any search (whether using a search firm or not), the importance of candid, robust conversations with candidates early on about key issues cannot be overstated. These issues include: their desired compensation (base salary, bonus structure, benefits, etc.); relocation issues or geographical fit; family needs (dual-relocation career support, dependent schooling, personal resources, etc.); and institutional fit.

Institutions can and will conduct many of their leadership searches themselves, successfully. In situations in which a search needs a new approach, a search firm can step in to move it forward and support the institution in making a great hire.

About the Author

Based in Columbus, Ohio, Melissa Fincher is a member of Witt/Kieffer’s Education Practice. Prior to joining Witt/Kieffer, she served in various administrative and consulting roles for her alma mater, Rutgers University, as well as The Ohio State University and Johns Hopkins University.

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