Much like the matchmaker from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, who is hired to find a suitable husband for one of Tevye’s three daughters, search firms are hired with the expectation of identifying appropriate job candidates to match the client’s needs.
Academia has embraced search firms especially when looking to fill high-level positions. But how does the process really work? What’s it really like to be a candidate?
At the National Association of College Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA) conference held in October 2012 in Kansas City MO, Daniel Parker, principal in Parker Executive Search, discussed the search process.
He was joined by Dr. Lisa Campos, VP of intercollegiate athletics at Northern Arizona University, and Heather Weems, athletic director at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, both of whom described recent experiences as candidates with Parker’s firm.
As principal of Parker Executive Search, Daniel Parker is continuing the tradition his father began in 1984. The Atlanta based firm conducts searches in four core areas, including higher education and sports.
More women needed
Parker’s firm helped both Campos and Weems to navigate the search process and get their present positions. “They took my call, competed hard and got their jobs through us,” he said. Campos came to NAU from the University of Texas-El Paso; Weems relocated to St. Cloud from Iowa’s Drake University.
Because the firm filled 20 athletic director slots last year, Parker gets requests from coaches and other athletic administrators interested in furthering their careers. The firm is happy to discuss potential candidates’ qualifications and is interested in having more women apply.
“We believe in an open and well-rounded pool of candidates,” he said, noting that many requests come from clients seeking candidates who know about conference realignments and can raise funds as well as hire coaches and staff.
The search process begins when Parker and his staff visit the client to meet with the president, deans, provost and coaches to assess the school’s culture and determine what type of candidate would be a good match.
Each school is unique. Some want a fund-raiser; others want a person who can get a facility built. There are those who are looking for someone who is good in the community. All clients expect diversity in gender, race and experience.
Following the client meetings, the firm beings actively recruiting a diverse set of candidates, a process that takes about a month. “I sell the school,” said Parker.
The net is cast far and wide. “I didn’t know Heather so I reached out to her boss,” he said. “I had known Lisa through NACWAA and other organizations. Parker reached out to both women as experienced professionals who were ready for the leadership positions he was filling. During t
e phone call he asks potential candidates if the position is something they’d be interested in pursuing. In general, searches winnow a group of 50 or 60 candidates to six to eight semifinalists, and then to two or three finalists.
The process is conducted with the best interests of both the client school and the potential candidates in mind. “I hope to be trusted and a source of good information,” he said. “I can be a sounding board for candidates even if it isn’t our search.”
When he calls potential candidates, Parker is able to tell them the dates of the interviews and of the final press conference. He shares the names of the search committee members and what the school is looking for—before asking if they’d be interested in pursuing the job.
When a candidate agrees to interview, his firm helps her to prepare so she does well and knows what she’s getting into. “The worst thing that can happen is to recruit someone who three months later wants to leave,” he said.
A quick and lonely process
“This was the first athletic director position I had applied for,” said Campos, who had been at UTEP for nine years. The decision to apply at Northern Arizona didn’t come easily. As one of 26 females heading up Division I programs, Campos is the youngest at age 35. Because her husband was a UTEP executive, he had to be happy with the move.
Campos researched the school and the president and reflected on the questions Parker’s firm gave her. The entire process took two weeks, “the blink of an eye,” she said. Going into the interviews Campos knew that she—and her partner—had better be 100% on board with it.
The interview process was “quick and lonely.” Flying in on a Sunday, Campos interviewed on Monday and got a call on Tuesday telling her she was a finalist. The second interview was scheduled for Wednesday. On Thursday, on the way back to Texas, she was offered the job. The entire experience, said Campos, was “exciting, quick but very lonely.”
Weems, who has four boys ages two to nine, had been considering her career path when she got a cold call from Parker. “I asked him, ‘How do you know when you’re ready?’”
“He asked me, ‘What will you have added if you stay at Drake for two more years?’” she said.
As a semifinalist, Weems met with a 17-member search committee in the Minneapolis airport, a practice that gets potential candidates in and out quickly. Phone interviews are not usually used, but some schools have resorted to Skyping to reduce costs. For example, semifinalists interviewed by Skype during a recent search for the University of Hawaii’s athletic director.
Weems spent an hour with the committee and an hour with the president, who was also there. Her prep work included searching the Web and reading blogs about the athletics department.
The president had no questions but invited her to ask the ones she had prepared. Two weeks later, she was invited to campus for a 12-hour interview where she met with staff, students and administrators starting at 7 a.m. The process included an open forum.
Despite having no fund-raising experience, Weems got the job. “I told them I knew that coaches and relationships were what were important,” she said. Weems also told them that based on her research, the campus was hurting and there seemed to be a lot of infighting and mistrust in the culture. Should she get the job, she intended to build trust, camaraderie and a shared vision.
Weems was up front with her boss at Drake, letting her know she was interviewing at St. Cloud.
Key criteria: fit and style
“Regardless of how you got into the pool, it’s your responsibility to be prepared,” said Campos. For both Campos and Weems, interview preparation included conducting their own research, plus asking questions of the search firm.
When a call comes out of the blue and you have a short time to prepare for the interview and if lucky, a new job, the process can seem like whirlwind. “I was surprised that the search process wasn’t that bad,” said Campos. “I thought that if I don’t get this job, I can do other applications.”
When Weems did her campus interview, it was conducted in a fitness room full of mirrors. During the interview she leaned against a table, a position that she felt comfortable with that seemed appropriate.
It’s important to own your own space. Know how you feel best, whether it’s sitting, walking or leaning.
What if you don’t meet all the criteria posted for the job? Neither woman had coaching experience.
Campos admitted having a huge learning curve, not having been a coach. Weems, who calls herself a “coaches’ administrator,” knows that it’s the coaches who make the biggest difference in students’ lives.
“Nobody meets all of the 12 position requirements,” said Parker. It all comes down to fit and style. Don’t be deferred. Do the research on the job and learn what’s really going on and what the school needs.
There is no one right path to the top. For those who want to move up to Division I, it’s important to have a varied skill set. Often you can acquire those skills by heading up Division II programs first.
More Division II and Division III schools are outsourcing their searches to firms like Parker’s. “As budgets increase, a president can’t just post a job and see who applies,” he said. “We can do a lot more to find candidates.”
No matter what your level, an athletic director must be able to hire, fire, budget and fund-raise. All administrators manage people, budgets and crises.
Parker: firstname.lastname@example.org or 770.804.1996, X 116
Campos: Lisa.Campos@nau.edu or 928.523.5353
Weems: email@example.com or 320.308.3102
Santovec, Mary Lou. (2013, February). Search Process Emphasizes Preparation, Fit. Women in Higher Education, 22(2), 8-9.