Innovation in Academic Search

Summer 2013 Chic MV 202I thought I would share a response to a recent question I received from a top thought leader in the field of human capital and recruiting with deep ties to a highly ranked university.



Your question I think was—is KULPER & COMPANY doing anything innovative in the area of academic search—-because you haven’t seen much in the way of innovation as it applies to academic search—I think that was the gist of your comment….right?

The search process for academic search is stuck in the paradigm of each university client—not so dissimilar for corporations by the way.  For some, that means they have great search processes that produce excellent results—and for others, it may mean that they keep hiring the wrong people and can’t understand why this happens!

For academic search we typically are called in when the client has found that their effort to attract the right candidates for key positions like Provost, Dean, VP Research, etc. are simply not producing the results needed by the university. As you know, the provost and president must abide by certain guidelines found in the faculty handbook pertaining to outside hiring and use of search firms. They typically “charge the search” after a committee has been formed—comprising faculty, administration and sometimes also: alums, board trustees or students too. I have found that the tone of the search is set by the chair and his or her committee members—-by tone, I mean sense of urgency, genuine desire to attract top candidates, professional record keeping, etc. HR surprisingly is not very involved—once the search is off and running…..I have always found that curious, but I appreciate their confidence in our efforts in behalf of their institution.

OK—what about innovation in academic search? What is innovation? Does it mean the use of new search processes….technology, modes of opportunity presentation, marketing, etc.? Yes, of course…..

As the outside search consultant we are constantly looking for new and better ways to make the search process more effective and we are eager to share our ideas with our clients….the people who hire our firm to complete the search as well as the search committee members who often have a voice in the selection decision, too.

Academic search —-left to its own devices…..can produce good results provided the search committee chair knows what to do and gets help from a motivated committee and experienced provost—-the university HR dept. is usually not that involved except to provide some basic guidelines to the search chair or post online advertisements.

When we get asked to come in to help guide the search process and produce a slate of  candidates, I try to show the client decision makers how we do what we do….and stress that we are competing for the best candidates so we must put our very best foot forward. I often get resistance to key aspects of our process because it represents a change for the search chair and committee—so, because I know this I take a gentle approach. I say that I am their guide—and that we have a mountain to climb together.  I try to maintain a friendly consultative approach throughout the process because this not only makes things easier for everyone but also helps to get the project completed successfully and on-time.

Some of our innovations in academic search are simply common sense….

For example: instead of having the so-called “airport interview” for semifinalist candidates —I suggest to the search chair that we bring semifinalists to campus for a low key half or two thirds day visit with the search committee members as well as the provost ( informal 20- 30 minute meeting/maybe dinner too)…no presentations by the candidates—instead a mutual collegial “get to know you”. Most of our clients find this very different and “innovative”. When the finalists come back to campus they are really ready to make presentations to the faculty, meet with the president etc., because they are much more sure that they really want the opportunity and have a much clearer understanding of what they must do to be judged a real success by the provost or president, too.

Another common sense innovation is the inclusion of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in the position spec.  By KPIs I mean—-a concise list of things the client/provost and search committee need to have the hired candidate actually accomplish/ by when—not simply a recitation of “job responsibilities”. Is this innovative for academic search? I think it is, yes…..Every client we have suggested do this, has told us that they have never included KPIs in a position description, before….Our results speak for themselves: we attract a very robust candidate pool motivated to learn more who are anxious to move forward in the hiring process.

As you know, many academic search firms are heavily populated with, and led by former academics…..this, it turns out can be helpful and comforting to the people who make the decision to retain the firm. After all, wouldn’t a former university president be good at leading a search and really know how to assess well qualified candidates? Maybe—-but maybe not!

Executive search is a professional service not unlike any professional service including accounting, law and others that takes years of training and practice to achieve real proficiency.  Interestingly, though, there are few barriers to entry for individuals to practice executive search consulting. Pretty much anyone can claim to be a search professional…that is a fact. So, when academic search firms are out there trying to win new assignments they often employ the services of former presidents and provosts to help them—and then turn over their search to these same people. I think that is where problems can occur….along with perpetuation of tired search practices that leave candidates wondering what the heck is going on!

From our perspective we just want to help our clients attract the very best candidates for their critical hiring needs—-and we have a very solid track record producing the results our clients need. Cultural barriers, preconceptions and fear of change are always an obstacle to our winning new search assignments. Once our clients get to experience how an effective search can work, they become our biggest supporters and advocates—and that goes more so for academic searches since the search committee members and hiring decision makers really notice the difference.

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About Keith Kulper

Keith D. Kulper is the president and founder of KULPER & COMPANY, LLC an executive search consulting firm working in the area of senior level leadership for academia and corporate innovation. We are strong advocates of nurturing the linkage between academic investigation/research and corporate innovation/full commercialization of new product solutions. We specialize in attracting proven leaders who can effectively drive transformational change. The firm operates an Advisory Board that meets annually to bring together leaders from academia and corporate innovation to help drive continuous improvement of our professional practice. We are also an investor in early stage companies. We take pride in supporting the growth and development of business and engineering schools at leading universities throughout the United States.

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