Headhunters Advise How to Be the Cream of the Crop

Reframe the negotiation process from

Call them headhunters or search firms. No matter what term you use, their objective is to fill open positions with the best and brightest of candidates.

At the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC) conference held in British Columbia in May, a trio of principals from leading Canadian search firms offered advice on recruiting and being recruited. Dr. Libby Dybikowski is the president of Provence Consulting. Craig Hemer is a partner with Ray & Berndtson/Tanton Mitchell. Dr. Janet Wright is the president of Janet Wright & Associates.

Dybikowski formed Provence Consulting eight years ago after serving as vice provost at the University of British Columbia. Hemer is a former client of Ray & Berndston and now a partner, having worked on searches there for 11 years. Wright, whose PhD from the University of Toronto is in English literature, has been a recruiter for 26 years, leading more than 400 searches including nearly 40 for presidents.

Controlling for chance

Careers are no longer like ladders, Hemer said. Whether they are paths or circle-and-spiral routes, it’s important to look ahead strategically. Realize that you can set a direction and shape it.

All senior women administrators have held previous jobs, establishing a pattern. In planning for the future, identify your passions, weaknesses and strengths. What are your goals? Where do you want to be professionally, personally and with your family? Research them, define them and move forward toward your goal.

The best indicator of future success is what you’ve done in the past. If you excel at what you do today, doors will open for you to advance your career.

It’s likely that future demographic changes will affect your success. With fewer people coming through the pipeline, there will be less competition for top jobs.

Charting your course

To start charting your course, Wright suggested:

  • Get started early. Serve on department committees and university-wide committees, and attend faculty senate and trustee meetings. Become aware of “the arcane and incomprehensible workings” of the school. While working your way up, get to be known as a participant.
  • Think bigger, wider and further than your department. Be aware of key issues and read what the local media say about your school.
  • Identify a mentor. Female or male, your mentor should be a senior administrator. Watch for potential potholes in the journey and find a way to make yourself known—without stooping to RRSP: “really relentless self-promotion.” Let those in power know of your interest in administration.
  • Act the part, regardless of your age or rank. You need to present yourself and dress in a way so that people automatically assume you’re already an administrator. You must be elegant, sincere and dignified and be seen as dedicated to the good of the academy. The old adage about dressing a level above your current one still holds true.

Dybikowski added four more tips:

  1. Look for roles that present themselves in terms of your skills and abilities. They don’t need to be step-by-step. “Men have no problems skipping steps, so why should women?” she asked.
  2. Reframe the belief that women with earned PhDs must use them in the classroom. Although being in the classroom is rewarding, the role of an administrator is also very important. You’ll have the ability to do things as a VP or president that impact more people and can be permanent.
  3. Get yourself in shape emotionally and physically for the new job. Ask yourself, “How will life be different if I get that new job? What will I have to give up?” Be prepared for sea changes in your life.
  4. Vision the new role and imagine how you can achieve it. Extend your visualization to see the big picture. Imagine how you’ll help advance others’ careers in the new position. Let people know you’re into doing more.

Effective strategies

What do search committees look for in a candidate? The number one characteristic is a credible academic record. Candidates must be excellent teachers, scholars and leaders in their departments.

Time commitment to the academy is also in demand. A viable candidate is a progressive thinker, aware of trends. She has strong organization and human leadership skills.

The “human” part is critical. Prospective administrators should have strong values and a sense of self-confidence, without being arrogant. They must be positive, enthusiastic and engaging and be able to stand up and stand out.

Get involved in the community. This means cultivating relationships with donors, alumni and corporate allies. Raise your profile and your self-confidence at the same time. “Fundraising engages the broader community,” said Hemer. “It’s a value component that you can bring to the job.”

To get known within the university community, embrace what others are doing. Commit, be strategic and bring significant value to the organization. One way of raising your stature internally is to serve on a search committee. “You’re intelligent, you can analyze and you have a stake in the outcome,” he said. “It’s a huge growing experience and it helps broaden your network.”

Hemer also recommended potential candidates network among the search firm community. Reach out and get on their radar screens. Put yourself forward and don’t be afraid to fail. Remember that your values are your “true north.” Cultivate your true self and always do extra well at what you do today.

Regarding references

References are a touchy matter. You’re asked to provide a list of people who can talk about your skills and abilities in a credible fashion. How and when the members of that list are contacted depends upon each school’s culture.

“Reference investigation depends upon the seniority of the job,” said Wright. “With a head or a director, we sometimes solicit written references.” At the head or director level most of the names come from the candidates themselves. Each of the four or five short-listed candidates provide five or six names. A few will have written letters of reference; the rest are contacted by the firm either in person or over the phone. The results of the phone interviews are then written up for the search committee.

With deans, VPs and presidents, all references come via phone or in person. Half of the names come from the candidates; the rest come from the search firm’s suggestions and usually include some of the candidates’ peers and colleagues. “We need to get candidate approval,” Wright explained. The firm may contact additional references for a top candidate who has not yet received a formal offer.

Of the 35 to 40 presidential searches by Wright’s firm, they’ve contacted 10 to 12 references for each of the short-listed candidates and twice as many for finalists. What should you tell your references about your search? “It’s best to tell your contacts they may or may not be called,” said Wright. Some candidates may withdraw if they’re not comfortable with the firm contacting others not on their original list.

Congratulations. You’re the finalist.

If you’re the preferred candidate, your first conversation with your new boss is critical. “It’s the platform for a new relationship with that person,” said Dybikowski. “It’s the last second when either party can pull out.”

She offers two words for the top candidates: “unconditionally constructive.” You want to walk away from the conversation feeling positive. Unconditionally constructive means reframing the negotiation process from “them vs. us” to “it’s what’s good for all of us.” In the new position, you want a relationship with good outcomes in the form of salary, benefits, security and time off. You want your new boss and colleagues to feel content, calm, with an inner peace and especially secure about their choosing you.

During the first conversation, balance logic and emotion. You need emotion to drive your feelings, but don’t come across as uncontrollable. Think of others’ ideas or differences. And remember that coercion never works. If you threaten to pull out simply because you’re not getting the package you feel you deserve, you’ll get stung.

Do only the things that are good for both the relationship and for you. “You don’t need shared values,” said Dybikowski. “You just need to know and respect theirs.”


 Dybikowski at libby@provenceconsulting.co m or 604.913.7768

Hemer at craig.hemer@rayberndtson.ca< /A> or 604.685.0261

Wright at admin@jwasearch.com or 416.923-3008

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