4 questions to ask before hiring a search firm

Know if you're getting your money's worth

Colleges and universities are increasingly seeking the help of executive search firms to find their newest administrators. 

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Judith A. Wilde and James H. Finkelstein share insights from their research to keep in mind when considering a headhunter.

Wilde and Finkelstein coauthored a study analyzing contracts between executive search firms and public universities and community colleges seeking high-level administrators. Out of 27 presidential searches at four-year universities, nearly two-thirds had a headhunter involved in the process. The researchers found that the proposals and agreements examined in the study totaled more than $2.5 million.

Clearly, hiring a headhunter is a big commitment. Here are some questions to consider before taking the leap:

How will we evaluate potential partners?

Fewer than half of the institutions searching for a president in Wilde and Finkelstein's study issued proposal requests, and of those that did, fewer than half included detailed requirements. About 60% of firms submitted a proposal of some kind, but only about 40% of submissions mentioned specific tasks, a timeline, or key personnel. Further, proposals often lacked detailed criteria for evaluation solicitation materials, leading Wilde and Finkelstein to note that "how a firm is selected remains something of a mystery." 

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What are we getting out of it?

Using a firm is a major expense, so it's crucial to ensure that you're getting your money's worth. Wilde and Finkelstein found that not many firms offered a number of important services as part of their basic fee, including:

  • Outreach to candidates (48%);
  • Screening candidates, general communication, and research (44% each);
  • Developing a position profile, communicating with candidates, and scheduling candidate interviews (41% each);
  • Copying/publishing information and developing/maintaining a web portal (30% each);
  • Developing advertising and general background checks on candidates (30% each); and
  • Training the search ­committee members (7%).

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What do we want the firm to do?

While colleges and universities understandably want to know what a firm will do for them and at what cost, the researchers argue that first, administrators should ask what they want from the firm, as well as the scope of work involved. And simply saying the goal should be "to lead a successful search" isn't enough.

"The institution should determine the detailed tasks the firm must complete, including whether it wants only advice and counsel or wants the firm to conduct only a defined portion of the search process," the authors write.

What do we want the contract to include?

Wilde and Finkelstein encourage administrators to issue formal requests for proposals that include terms and conditions. Firms need to provide answers regarding personnel responsible for each task, a timeline, and cost for each task. Finally, they recommend institution leaders create a set of evaluation criteria to help them make informed choices. In addition, they write, outside counsel may be necessary to develop the contract (Wilde/Finkelstein, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/20). 

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