A Virtual Panel Discussion on Organizing Presidential Searches
Moderator: Randy Helm, President Emeritus, Muhlenberg College and Torrey Helm Principal
Shelly Storbeck, Founder Storbeck Search
Bill Torrey, Former CAO Bowdoin College & Bentley University, Torrey Helm Principal
RH: So this summer has seen a number of college and university presidencies end abruptly. Higher education pundits have tried to discern some sort of trend. Do either of you see a trend at work, or is this just normal ebb and flow?
SS: I think this has been a particularly hard year on campuses, with more student activism and political unrest than in recent years. Most presidents are at the center of this activity, and so besides running the college, they are managing much more than usual, particularly problems that cannot be solved (e.g. what the White House tweeted last night).
BT: I think that as institutions face more and more pressure financially, Boards are becoming more impatient to find solutions to those challenges. Inevitably, that leads to pressure on presidents and in many cases shorter tenures and sometimes abrupt changes.
RH: One writer in Inside Higher Educationsuggested that search firms and their increasing insistence on “secrecy” are to blame for faculty anger and distrust. My view is that confidentiality differs from secrecy and has been a common feature of most presidential searches for a very long time. Do either of you see any significant shifts in search practices that would increase the likelihood of faculty anger or failed presidencies?
SS: I think there is more blame being laid at the feet of consultants, as if we are central decision makers for these searches, which we are not. That is why committees are used for making these recommendations and not allowing one person decide the result of a search. What is not apparent is that we clearly have very strong incentives to have candidates succeed: we want to see the strongest candidates get to the end; that’s how we get more work, based on our successes not our failures!
BT: Shelly can answer the question better than I, but process matters, and the more faculty are told in advance as to how and whysearches are conducted as they are today, the better the process will be.
RH: Obviously an abrupt transition is not the ideal. I’m guessing that regular conversations between the incumbent CEO and the Board leadership about term of office could avoid some of the unpleasant surprises that presidents and institutions have experienced recently.
TH: What’s a realistic time to announce an outgoing president’s decision to leave and the search process. What’s a realistic timetable for the search?
SS: Most places now announce about 1.5 years in advance in order to allow the consultant and committee to do work in the spring and then work during the summer. Ideal time to start a search is about March, with a conclusion around Thanksgiving (about 6 months, with time off in August for kayaking in Maine!)
RH: So, how should an institution organize its search if it wants to optimize the chances for a successful presidency?
BT: Determining how a presidential search gets organized is important. Who/how is going to be involved in making the selection of a search firm? What are the criteria for selecting a firm and how are they identified? By a board committee? What board committee? Who is going to lead the process? If it’s the search committee itself, the selection of that committee needs to be carefully thought through. How big is it? Which constituencies need to be involved and who will provide information to the board about those constituencies? Everyone will want a seat at the table in the selection of a new president. Controlling the size of the committee is important. Who selects the search chair? If it’s the board chair, will the board chair serve on the committee? What is his/her role in the process?
SS: Lots here to unpack. The board has to control this process from the beginning and must choose the search chair (hopefully the next board chair) and create a committee that has more board members (who can actually devote the time) than other constituencies. Usually the board/search chair chooses the consultant, perhaps with a few others, but this should not be the whole search committee (when that happens, you realize no one trusts anyone!). The list of consultants is pretty straight forward; we’re easy to find and the board chair should consult with other board chairs on who to ask for proposals (6-8) from and then who to see in person (not more than 3, one hopes). The ideal committee is about 13-15 (odd number; remember the board should outweigh the numbers of others). Most board chairs do serve on the committee, sometimes as ex officio, but they need to be present to attract a strong candidate.
RH: How does the search firm ensure it understands the client’s institutional culture and leadership needs?
BT: Yes, How does the search consultant get to know the institution? Interview with cabinet members? Board chairs? Organization of faculty forums? I’m sure search consultants have their own checklists of things that need to happen to reassure campus community they have input, while not giving the impression that they are going to select the candidates.
SS: We typically spend 1-2 days on campus and also have an executive session with the board. We also create on-line surveys for anyone to respond to, who may not be available to talk with on campus. It’s in our best interest to have as many voices as possible at the table.
BT: Is the Search Chair the future Board Chair? Sometimes that can work well in a transition to a new president. Who has a bigger stake in their success?
SS: Absolutely, the next board chair needs to chair the committee. They bond with the candidate and this is their time in the minor league to see if they can make it to the majors!
RH: What are the other essential tasks that must be completed beforethe actual search gets underway?
BT: You’re going to need a formal job description, but who writes it? The board chair? The search chair? The search firm in consultation with the search committee/chair? Who will staff the committee? Why?
SS: This is a joint venture. Someone from the communications staff writes the factual front end, and we [the search firm] craft the back end (challenges and opportunities and qualifications). To staff the committee the institution needs someone highly organized, who does not find him/herself in a conflict role with the outgoing president.
BT: Obviously before the search committee starts its work it needs to know what it’s expected to do. What is the charge to the search committee from the board? Present us with one candidate? Two? Three?
SS: These days, the committee presents only one candidate. You cannot give a board multiple choice; they always screw it up! Why have them replicate the work of the committee?
RH: Shelly, you’re pretty emphatic about this “one candidate” committee charge. What kind of "screw-ups" are likely to happen when this advice is ignored? How do you sell this “one candidate” approach to the board and the campus? Bill, do you have any thoughts on this?
SS: Most candidates do not want to be one of many in a final campus visit, where they have less than 20-25% chance of getting the job. The committee has to do extensive referencing, to make sure that all information is known before an announcement. If your campus has a big public process and candidates can choose a more discreet process, the candidate will choose the campus where they have less exposure. What’s most important is candidate success! It is always desirable to have people who meet with final candidate(s) sign a non-disclosure, in order to eliminate the free-for-all that can ensue in a fully public process. Most campuses forget that they are also recruiting candidates at the end, as well as inspecting their worthiness.
BT: I completely agree with Shelly’s one candidate charge. The screw-ups happen when the board ignores the recommendation of their own search committee – who presumably know the candidate pool, know the candidates, and were carefully chosen to represent the institution. Again, process matters. I can’t think of anything worse in a search than for a board to insist on interviewing finalists themselves and be given a choice – after the candidates and the committee have gone through the process already. Good communication between the search chair and the board throughout the process helps to reassure the board that the process was thorough and that the recommendation is sound.
RH: Let’s talk about the candidate pool. Presumably it’s important to have a strong consensus among search committee members as to what kind of credentials are important. What are some of the predictable challenges?
SS: Diversity! Most committees want a strong diverse pool, but have exercised no real energy to create a diverse senior staff. Most candidates we recruit “count heads,” and if there is no strong diversity in the senior staff or board, then there will be very little in the presidential pool. We are often asked to produce miracles; that we cannot do!
Another issue that must be addressed is the question of “non-traditional” candidates. Is the place truly open to a John Fry (Franklin & Marshall, Drexel), Barry Mills (Bowdoin, UMass Boston), David Greene (Colby) kind of profile? If not, don’t waste the consultant’s time chasing those candidates only to have the faculty throw them out. Most highly ranked places really want an academic, but some will tolerate someone who has not held tenure but who has taught as a good model.
RH: So, when the search is in the home stretch, how “secretive” does it really need to be?
SS: Will the search be open, closed or a hybrid at the end? Most committees must grapple with past history, institutional culture. Whatever you read, I will tell you that the quality of the pool is directly affected by how public the search is at the end. Good candidates cannot take the chance, and simply will pass and head to other searches and places.
BT: Should the new president be charged with creating a strategic plan? Leading a campaign? Or is he/she inheriting one?
SS: There should be some plan on the books, but with someone to tweak once the new person is named. No one wants to inherit the 10 commandments, but they also don’t want to be the savior for a place that has no idea where it is going.
RH: Ideally, the institution should be in the final phase of a strategic plan so that the new CEO has a breathing space in which to learn about the place and its culture, refine his/her vision, and organize the process of developing a new plan. The timing has to have some flex in it. As for fundraising campaigns, the ideal is for the outgoing CEO to celebrate the completion of a successful campaign shortly before the new leader’s arrival. Fundraising should have strong momentum at that point, giving the new person time to develop donor relationships and development priorities.
RH: Shelly and Bill – thanks for these thoughts. It seems pretty clear that laying the groundwork for the search is at least as important as the search itself.