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Best Practices: Picking the Right President


Andrea Warren Hamos, Ellen Heffernan, Elizabeth A. Neumann, and Shelly Weiss Storbeck

apples on a branch


Finding the right person for an institution’s presidency isn’t just important, it’s critical. Every college and university goes through this process, and the consequences of a selection that doesn’t pan out are far-reaching, so The Presidency asked four top search professionals how they help institutions pick the right candidate.

Andrea Warren Hamos is vice president and senior consultant at Academic Search, Inc.

Given the high stakes of a leadership search, an institution can maximize its chances for success by engaging a search firm that understands and is responsive to the particular needs and culture of the institution. Achievement will come from all parties being informed about the process and invested in the success of the individual, which is fundamental to the institution’s success.

A well-structured process engages campus constituencies broadly to help the institution not only identify its next leader, but also learn about the needs and aspirations that diverse constituencies have for the position, build buy-in for the search and for the successful candidate, and facilitate the transition process for him or her. Periodic communications within appropriate constraints of confidentiality, such as the development of a search-related website with key dates and information, can keep the college or university community informed about the progress of the search, and also creates transparency that enhances the credibility of the process.

These same considerations that contribute to an institution’s successful search also help candidates— and eventually the successful incumbent—to get to know the institution, its diverse constituencies, and the challenges and opportunities that the position affords. A well-informed candidate and a welcoming, engaged community can facilitate a good fit between the successful candidate and the college or university. Though there are many qualified potential and sitting presidents one might seek, the goal is to find someone who embraces fully the particular mission, culture, and values of the institution, and who will fit with the campus, the various stakeholders, and even the location. This analysis of institutional fit between the campus community and candidates helps ensure a successful search—one that yields not only a new president, but also a leader who will stay for a sufficient number of years and make meaningful progress toward the campus’ aspirations.

Shelly Weiss Storbeck is a managing partner of Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates.

A presidential search is a chance for colleges and universities to carefully assess their current and future needs. A trusted search consultant is an important partner in this effort, and he or she can help a client find alignment between the institution’s strategic plan and the larger higher education landscape.

The first practical task of a presidential search committee is finding the right search partner. Institutions thrive when they partner with firms that have deep knowledge about the industry, provide expert judgment, and bring unparalleled integrity to every search.

Next, the committee must identify a process for engaging all stakeholders. Too often, search committees proceed hastily, relying on precedent, or leave out key constituencies (often students or staff) from the committee. In our experience, a well-planned and broadly inclusive start to a search sets the stage for a successful conclusion.

Once there is a pool of strong, diverse candidates, a committee needs to strike the right balance between scrutinizing candidates and recruiting them. The committee must engage in serious vetting: Look at candidates’ records, talk with trustworthy references, and find ways to ascertain whether there is a strong cultural fit. At the same time, be aware that the strongest candidates have the most options—the vetting process must be balanced by an equally strong courting process. If the right person surfaces early in the process, find a way to keep that conversation moving forward, while keeping the other viable candidates engaged.

Celebrate the conclusion of the search in a public, fully accessible manner, so that everyone connected to the institution can engage in that moment. Use social media and other online tools to spread the word.

And finally, help the new placement thrive. Instead of criticizing from the sidelines, find ways to advise a new president on how to be successful. If it “takes a village to raise a child,” it will take an entire institution to help a president successfully lead through all of the challenges facing higher education.

Elizabeth A. Neumann is a principal and cofounder of Brill Neumann Associates.

The recipe for a successful search has a few important ingredients—use them well and in the right proportions, and your institution is likely to achieve the outcome you want.

At the outset, the leader making the hiring decision should clearly articulate the outcomes/ successes that the new hire will need to achieve in his/ her first three to five years on the job. The specific goals may come from a formal strategic plan. The skills needed to be successful will be identified through discussions with the hiring executive, with the search committee, with the peers of the position, and perhaps with the people who would report to this position. Absence of such specificity will hamper in-depth conversations with candidates about performance expectations, and may even lead the process astray because the absence of clearly delineated outcomes challenges development of the desired experiences, capabilities, and personal attributes for the best candidates.

Clearly stated experiences, capabilities, and attributes create the scorecard that a search committee needs to fairly and thoroughly evaluate candidates. Clarity provides the committee with the roadmap for assessing candidates and avoiding challenges arising from biases, conscious and unconscious, or prior personal connections between committee members and candidates.

The hiring authority for any search needs to pick his/ her leadership team from a broad range of possibilities in an era where meeting established goals is paramount. Increasingly, deans hiring chairs, provosts hiring deans and institute directors, and presidents hiring CFOs are deeply involved in a search long before the committee arrives at the point of recommending three or four finalists. This “parallel review” of strong candidates reduces the chances of a failed or extended search.

The final ingredient for a successful search is open and robust communication between the hiring authority and committee, within the search committee, across the community, and between the search advisor (if one is retained) and the committee and hiring authority throughout the process. These basic precepts—clear goals for the new leader; established metrics of experience, capabilities, and attributes; “parallel review” of candidates; and full and transparent communication—are the underpinnings of a successful search.

Ellen Heffernan is a partner at SJG—The Spelman & Johnson Group.

A successful search is defined as one in which the recruited candidate is an exceptional fit for the institution and has the resources and support to be successful. The concept of “fit” may be difficult for an institution to articulate, yet it is ultimately critical to define exactly what that means for the search process. Hiring authorities and search committees can be very parochial in their view of who will be successful—large, public land-grant institutions often want to see applicants from large, public, land-grant institutions. This narrow focus tends to push committees into a constricted perception of success, and limits who they will consider from the larger pool of candidates. In filling leadership positions, there are both practitioner skills and leadership skills to consider. Focusing too strongly on one set of skills or experiences, instead of exploring both sides of a candidate’s potential, limits the search committee’s pool of potentially successful candidates.

Stakeholders also have a tendency to set their criteria for success based on the person who previously held the position. For example, if the former vice president was visionary and spent too much time on external issues, the institution may over-correct to focus on professionals who are strong administrators and have demonstrated experience tackling internal tactical issues. Committees can become so focused on some of these singular issues that they overlook strong, viable candidates. Judicious search committees avoid thinking that they know exactly what they want at the start of the process and instead focus more broadly on the required set of skills and experiences, while also distinguishing which skills and experiences are negotiable. Successful committees tend to take an inclusive approach in the recruitment and selection of candidates, not wanting to exclude potentially excellent leaders too early in the search process. Having a broader and more diverse view of who may be a successful candidate creates a richer pool of applicants and ultimately affords a greater chance of success.

Getting It Done: ACE’s Executive Search Roundtable

Since 1985, the American Council on Education (ACE) has worked with a select number of executive search firms to ensure that our nation’s colleges and universities have the talented leaders they need. The firms’ membership supports the professional development of future higher education leaders, including better preparing them to address today’s challenges and diversifying the pipeline in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. Each year, the roundtable members listed below participate in a variety of ACE leadership programs, providing expertise about the search and selection process for presidents and other academic leaders. 

Academic Keys

Academic Search, Inc.

Alden & Associates, Inc.

Archer ~ Martin Associates

Ayers & Associates, Inc.

Brill Neumann

EFL Associates, Inc.

R. William Funk & Associates

Gold Hill Associates

Greenwood/Asher & Associates, Inc.

Harris Search Associates

Isaacson, Miller

KeyStone Search

Myers McRae Executive Search and Consulting

C. V. O’Boyle, LLC

Park Square Executive Search

Registry for College and University


Rent Consulting Group, LLC

RPA Inc.

Russell Reynolds Associates

SJG—The Spelman & Johnson Group

William Spelman Executive Search

Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates

Summit Search Solutions, Inc.