Are headhunting firms shaping the leadership of Canada’s universities?

Executive search agencies, also known as headhunters, are now engaged in the recruitment of most senior administrators in Canadian universities. How important is their influence on the pool of academic leaders, and are they worth their cost?

The use of headhunting agencies to recruit university administrators is relatively new to Canada. Janet Wright was one of the first in the country, when she started in the late 80’s, eventually founding her own firm in 1995. Now there are at least two dozen of them. Why not? It is a lucrative business that requires essentially no “hard skills”.

Some say that executive search agencies have made a positive contribution by professionalizing the hiring process and widening the pool of applicants. Others argue that headhunters are having a detrimental effect on appointments: they know little about universities – most have never worked in them – and less about actual leadership.

How does headhunting work for postsecondary institutions? A university looking, say, for a Dean, sets up an internal search committee and engages an external headhunting firm.  The search committee proceeds to write an appropriate ad, identifies the various media outlets where it should appear, compiles a list of the required skills and attributes for the position, and –with the help of university staff – prepares a relatively extensive report on the state of the Faculty in question. The panelists also make suggestions for potential candidates.

The headhunter makes sure the ad is published, adds to the list of suggested candidates and collects information, CVs and references on the applicants that the panel wishes to consider.

At the end of the search, the headhunter gets a fee, which can be as high as 40% of the salary negotiated by the successful candidate. The faculty, staff and students who put hours and days of serious work on the panel, have to settle for “the glory” of having participated in the Dean selection.

What is wrong with this picture?

First, it is not clear whether universities (at least in Canada) are getting their money’s worth by using headhunters. Indeed, if the main purpose of headhunters is to reach a wider pool of applicants, then their usefulness is quite limited for Canadian institutions, since –unlike the US– the pool of eligible applicants for senior administration positions in Canada is limited, and easily identifiable once you poll a few people. In mathematical jargon, the Erdős numberof Canadian senior administrators may not exceed 3, regardless of which Dean/VP/President you start with as a reference point. It is a fact that very few academic Canadian searches involve US or international applicants.

As one Dean said, “universities pay search agencies twice: once when their academics give hours of free consultation to young, inexperienced headhunters, and again when we are charged a huge fee, normally a percentage of the salary of the new hire, for hiring someone one of us suggested”.

Actually, I know of a case where a headhunter was involved in recruiting someone to serve first as Department Head, then as Dean, then as Vice-President in the same university, all within a period of 3-4 years. Now how much headhunting did this warrant? The same university paid the agency 3 times to essentially recruit the same person.

It can feel like when you engage a real estate broker to sell your property and you end up selling it to your neighbor or to your first cousin.

More importantly, one can see how headhunters or executive search agencies can exert a huge influence on the process of hiring leaders.

For one, the process offers a fertile ground for cronyism. A vice-president who was successfully recruited by agency X, may be tempted to engage the same agency to recruit his/her deans, with the expectation that agency X will push his/her name forward when a president/vice-chancellor position opens up.

Independently of issues of cronyism, headhunters have their own profile of what a good candidate is, and they are well positioned to press for that profile. In the final analysis, the talent pool becomes less diverse, very probably because headhunters end up –at least subconsciously– hiring in their own image.

It may be time for Universities to reclaim the hiring process from headhunting firms. There is too much at stake.

For more see David Watson’s book,  The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life (2009)

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One Response to Are headhunting firms shaping the leadership of Canada’s universities?

  1. mvandepanne says:

    Indeed, a popular way to do this within many companies is to offer incentives to employees for referrals that lead to new hires.

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