By Mike J.R. Wheless
Most colleges and universities have put leadership recruiting on the back burner — waiting for the retreat of Covid-19 and for a better handle on its economic repercussions. But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped thinking about recruitment.
As a search consultant, I’m getting calls from current and potential clients with the same questions: “When is a good time to start recruiting again?” and “How do you see the current situation affecting our potential candidate pool in terms of quality and quantity of applicants?” From my team's perspective, better questions for institutions to ask themselves are: "Should we recruit now, while others are fearful and the talent we are after is not being inundated with competing offers? Or should we wait for this rare opportunity to pass us by?"
No doubt some readers will point out that it’s in the financial interest of any search consultant to urge clients to restart their recruiting. However, there are actually good, logical reasons for higher education not to freeze all executive hiring for too long.
Institutions with key leadership positions unfilled will need to move forward with the hiring process at some point. Once hiring resumes, it will trend toward recruiting leaders who can meet academe’s new normal — namely, people who can develop innovative strategies so that any future disruptive events don’t set back campus operations as deeply as Covid-19 has.
Fear versus opportunity. Some lessons on this topic may be gleaned from one of the most strategic investment minds ever to walk this earth. In 1987 the Berkshire Hathaway chairman and chief executive Warren Buffett laid out his stock-market strategy in a famous way: “We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.” In recent months we have all heard phrases like “don’t waste a good crisis” or “in crisis there is opportunity.” Can that mind-set seem cold? Absolutely.
Yet we are seeing it play out in the headlines across higher education as leaders face very difficult decisions. For example, the University of Wisconsin system's president, Ray Cross, is pushing to consolidate academic programs across its campuses and ramp up online learning — something he said had to happen “if we want the system to survive on the other side of this pandemic.” A faculty leader, objecting to the plan and the likely layoffs that would follow, noted: “Regents and legislators have talked about this for several years, and now they are taking advantage of the pandemic to try to do it.”
I spoke recently with a university chancellor who took a similar approach to the fear-versus-opportunity question of our current crisis. His university, he said, much like others, has no choice but to cut. However, as we talked, the chancellor concluded that the timing also gave him the perfect opportunity to reallocate some resources and recruit new leaders who are professionally prepared for a post-Covid-19 environment. But he asked: “Should I wait until CV-19 is behind us to start recruitment?”
My answer: Now might be the best time to find such leaders.
Why? As an example of what my team is seeing and hearing, I shared with that chancellor a recent experience: A month or so after Covid-19 hit, I was conducting a reference check when I reached out to the chancellor of a large multicampus system. Typically, when I call this leader’s cellphone, he is so busy that my call goes directly to his voicemail. He might call back a few days later, or I’ll hear from his assistant to schedule a call. This time, to my surprise, the chancellor immediately picked up. We talked about the reference and a host of other topics for more than 30 minutes. He sounded relaxed and happy to speak with another human being.
The lesson: Now might be the best time to talk with potential candidates whose daily schedules — outside of Zoom calls — tend to be a lot more open and flexible than usual.
Virtually no competition. The fact that Covid-19 has caused most colleges and universities to shut down recruitment is a net positive for those institutions that buck the trend and proceed with hiring. They can take advantage of a window of time in which they will have a better chance of attracting the best-possible candidates because they will not be competing with a myriad of concurrent searches across the country.
Last winter, when the Covid-19 pandemic started, everyone was understandably in full panic mode, and it became much harder than usual to reach potential candidates in searches. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, candidates are much easier to reach. They have more time for deep conversations than they would in a normal era, when they would be running from meeting to meeting and event to event. Most are confined and at their desks. And with technology advancements, we are now conducting the entire interviewing and hiring process remotely.
When Covid-19 finally slows down, pent-up demand will open the recruiting flood gates, and everyone will be chasing the same talent at the same time.
Once I spelled all of this out for the chancellor, he said the logic made sense and asked my team to begin recruiting for a vice president’s position.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has caused us to adjust our search process, it certainly has not impeded our progress in recruiting top talent. In fact, the crisis has enhanced it. From the perspective of a seasoned recruiter who has been at this for more than 20 years, I think waiting for others to begin recruiting again for the same talent is not an optimal choice.
Mike J.R. Wheless is a search consultant and a founder of Anthem Executive, based in Houston.
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