Selecting a Search Firm: Key Questions

When choosing a search firm, there are several key questions that will be helpful in determining whether a firm will be a good fit for your needs. We recommend that you consider the following questions.

  • How immersed is the consultant or firm in higher education search?
    • The senior leaders of an educational institution have a deep impact on the strength and future of the institution. When choosing a search firm, consider how much time the firm and its employees devote to higher education search. Choosing a consultant and firm devoted to higher education search, with decades of experience in this specialized arena, will be a great advantage to your institution. Higher education search specialists spend all of their time speaking with and getting to know high-potential leaders in this sector and are not distracted by search work in unrelated areas. Their contact list is more extensive and their ability to reach desirable candidates is often much greater than those of consultants who do not devote their time fully to this arena.
  • How will the search firm get to know you and your institution in order to understand your unique needs?
    • Your institution needs a consultant and firm willing to spend time to get to know your search committee and institution and to pay attention to what the various search constituencies wish to see in your new leader. This takes time – at your institution, in person.
  • How many similar searches has the firm successfully completed? How many searches has the consultant assigned to your search successfully completed?
    • In both instances, more is better. Since the most desirable administrators or other potential leaders are not likely to be actively seeking a new opportunity, your institution will benefit from hiring a consultant who has led similar searches in the recent past. She or he will have many more contacts and better access to excellent candidates based on personal and firm-wide experience than will a consultant who has completed fewer searches.
  • How many searches is your consultant working on currently?
    • While it might seem that having your consultant fully devoted to your search is the best scenario for a successful outcome, in reality this should be avoided. Executive search is a "contact sport." A very good consultant is constantly in contact with potential candidates, ideally via multiple searches. Choose a consultant who is busy and connected in order to take full advantage of his or her recent and current contacts.
  • How often and how well does the team devoted to your search work together?
    • You will be spending a lot of time with your search team over the next few months. You need to trust them, and, almost as importantly, you need to like them. In our experience, the possibility of this happening is much higher if the members of the team have good rapport and work together often and well.
  • How flexible and adaptable will the firm be to your needs? How customized will their process be for you?
    • It's very difficult, from a client perspective, to assess how flexible and customized a search firm or individual consultant will be. This is one of many reasons why we strongly recommend that you check the references of all firms you are considering for your search. The only way to get a 360-degree view of a consultant's and firm's performance is to check references. Be sure not to omit this important step, and ideally you should also contact references NOT on the consultant's list of provided references.
  • Does the firm have access to a varied and diverse candidate pool? How does it identify diverse candidates?
    • In the 21st century, increasing diversity of leadership is a high priority for most institutions of higher education: diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender but also diversity of experience and viewpoint. Ideally, the search firm you hire will have a track record of successfully identifying and placing varied candidates from different backgrounds. A firm does not have to be minority- or woman-owned to successfully cultivate a diverse candidate pool, but such a firm can be helpful in ensuring a successful hire. In addition, the more time a firm spends on higher education searches and actively scouting for diverse leaders of the present and future, the more likely it is that the firm will bring forward a well-rounded slate of candidates for your search.
  • How will you be able to access candidate information?
    • Due to the nature and length of academic curriculum vitae (CVs), higher education searches involve more paper (or digital pages) than conventional business searches do. It is extremely helpful to access these and all relevant search files via a confidential client portal already in place and managed by the search firm. Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates and other recruitment firms offer this service, but not all firms do. If a firm expects the client to shoulder the administrative and technological burden, it is important to know this up front.
  • Will the firm involve the search committee in client referencing?
    • In our experience, it is very important for the search committee to be involved in contacting the strongest potential candidates' references. Contacting references does two things for the committee: first, it personalizes the candidates and helps committee members form a much deeper understanding of them than can be gained from reading materials alone; and second, getting to know the strongest candidates earlier in the process enables better advocacy and the ability to report back to committee members' constituencies outside the process. For example, faculty representatives on the committee can report back to the faculty as a whole from a fully informed and engaged vantage point.
  • Will you get a complete picture of each potential candidate?
    • Search committees need full information – positive and negative – about each candidate in order to make an informed decision. When checking references for the search firms you are considering hiring, ask, how thorough was the information provided by the search firm for each qualified candidate? A stellar search firm will provide unbiased yet thorough information on each candidate.

© Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates 2013. All rights reserved.