Time is Money. And, Time is Time.

I was having dinner with a friend the other night and the topic turned to my work as an executive recruiter.  I explained the reasons I love the work – particularly the relationships I make along the way working with clients and candidates, and the opportunity to get to know different organizations and to think strategically and creatively about the opportunity a new hire presents.

He nodded his understanding, but then commented that as someone currently engaged with a search consultant to hire for a position in his organization (he has a big job at a large hospital network) it requires too much of his time because, as he explained, the search firm wants him to meet a number of candidates. It can take time, I acknowledged, and asked how significant the position is for which he’s recruiting. Oh, he responded, it’s really a critical position. So, I inquired, it’s important you get the right person for the job? And, I nudged, probably worth your investment of time meeting with candidates in order to ensure you make the best possible hire?

Now, my friend is a very smart man and it’s not that he didn’t understand immediately what I was saying about the importance of his time in the hiring process. But his time is precious at work and sometimes the process of a new hire can feel like too much added to someone’s already overburdened work schedule. And although there are website claiming they can help you hire successfully through an online service- sounds quick and easy! How appealing – the fact is that finding the right fit for most jobs requires a more nuanced process. It also requires a partnership between the search firm and the hiring manager where both sides understand their role in the process. The firm is absolutely being hired to do a considerable amount of the work, but there are some parts of the process that can only be done by the client.

As the conversation continued, I commented on the fact that a vacancy often creates a key opportunity to take stock of not only the vacant position, but also of the organization. It can be very useful to have an impartial, third party holding up a mirror to help the leadership understand areas that might need to be addressed in order to make a successful hire. You know, my friend acknowledged, through this process he did hear some things that surprised him about how his division is perceived by others in the organization. And, he continued, now he’s working to address those issues.

As our conversation turned to other topics, I couldn’t help but feel that in describing why I love my work, I had helped my friend come to understand the value of a good search consultant and the importance of investing his time in the process.

Questionnaires are no replacement for conversation

In between sessions at a conference I attended last week I struck up a conversation with a fellow attendee.   When he learned that I was a search consultant he shared that he was “on the market” and was currently being considered for a few dean positions.    Yet he was considering holding off on applying to more openings because he finds the search process exhausting.   Most tiring, he explained, is filling out the long questionnaires search firms send to him.   Completing them, he said, is a requirement to advance in the process.  On average, he went on, the typical questionnaire takes more than four hours to complete!

In my 25 years in executive search, I had never heard of this practice of asking candidates to submit written answers to questions.  I believe the value of a search consultant is to develop rapport with a candidate and through extensive and probing conversation, determine the potential fit with the client’s needs.  

Curious to learn more, I asked him to send me some samples of these questionnaires, which he did.  

I am dismayed.   First, the questionnaires are lengthy, with many multi-part questions.   One question asks the candidate to chronicle the progression of his career to date, but admonishes ‘do not respond “refer to CV.” ‘   Another reads “describe the state of your organization before you began to serve and then contrast this with how the environment has been transformed as a result of your presence, skills, abilities, activities, and overall leadership.”   A thorough written answer to this last question alone could take two hours to complete.   Other questions are similarly complex.    Finally, the questionnaire asks for detailed information about salary (asking this is now illegal in several states), perks, bonus, benefits, etc..  All this information is being solicited before the candidate is even granted an interview!

Making candidates run this exhausting gauntlet is guaranteed to reduce the quality of any candidate pool.   Why?  Because any candidate worth his or her salt does not have the time to take 10 hours out of their very busy schedule serving their institution to do a search consultant’s job for them.  Our value as search consultants is to develop relationships and broker relationships; to understand the culture and strategic leadership needs of our client institutions and then identify and cultivate a pool of candidates who have the potential to meet those needs.    I cannot imagine approaching a dean at a top ranked institution, inviting her (after much discussion) to apply for a provost position, getting her to agree to consider it, and then….sending her a lengthy questionnaire.  What a turnoff! 

Questionnaires are no replacement for conversation.  Thorough, meaningful, conversations with candidates are what lead to the best search results.      

Being Interviewed? Don’t leave any information on the table!

The interview process provides an often-overlooked opportunity to start working on relationships before your first day in the office.

Throughout the job search, you’re likely to focus on the job responsibilities and the challenges and opportunities of each position. You’ll carefully evaluate whether the role will best use your skills and advance your career. And during the interview, when being grilled by the search committee, you will undoubtedly concentrate on presenting yourself in the best possible light, possibly overlooking important signals about committee members’ personalities. While you’ll be very conscious that you’re being evaluated, the search committee will be less likely to realize that these meetings can be two-way streets, revealing as much information about themselves as they are trying to find out about you. This means they’re unwittingly providing you with important data that will help you be successful if you take the position. Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity!

Effective relationships are critical to being successful in a position, and that means learning to manage the quirks and personalities of those around you. Throughout the interview process, you’ll see personality indicators in the form of questions posed, tone of voice, body posture and even the casual chit-chat that sometimes takes place around the edges of the interview. During this time, you should be trying to gauge the personality of everyone you interact with, from the boss’s administrative assistant to the person who has a neighboring office.  Things to look for include:

o   Who is resistant to change?

o   Who is the eager beaver?

o   Which person has the best understanding of organizational history?

o   Who could see your arrival as threatening?

o   Who is likely to be your most stalwart internal champion?

o   Who sees him/herself as the smartest person in the room?

Obviously you won’t be able to develop a complete picture of your future colleagues from these interactions, but should you take the job you will have some important data to give you an early read on the various personalities you will have to navigate as you begin to build relationships across the organization.

Sage Search Partners Announces the Appointment of Kate Salop

Kate Salop has joined the executive search firm Sage Search Partners, bringing to the position nearly 20 years of senior management experience at leading higher education institutions.

Ms. Salop previously worked as Senior Administrative Dean at Brandeis International Business School where she contributed to the strategic direction of the school and was responsible for the management of the operational units. Before Brandeis, Salop served for 14 years as Chief of Staff in the Office of the President at Wellesley College. In that role, she helped to lead strategic planning, co-chaired the School’s decennial reaccreditation process, led the presidential transitional team, worked closely with the Board of Trustees, stewarded a high profile partnership between the US State Department and Sister Colleges, and played a key role on searches for many of the School’s senior positions. Salop earned her B.A. in Political Science from Wellesley College and her M.A. in Political Science from Boston University.

“I have known Kate for many years and am thrilled that she is joining Sage. Her carefully honed understanding of how colleges and universities operate and her excellent instincts for people, and her excellent project management skills will be an asset to our firm. She is a perfect match given our commitment to working in close and collaborative partnership with our clients and giving them our undivided attention.,” said Paula Fazli, Founding Partner.

Established in 1999, Sage Search Partners serves educational institutions and not-for-profit organizations nationwide. Each Partner works closely with clients to shepherd the search process and to recruit outstanding leaders who will have a far-reaching impact on the institutions they serve.

Part 2: Compelling Position Descriptions = Compelling Candidates

Over the past twenty years, I have worked with hundreds of organizations seeking to hiresenior leaders. Most of my clients are colleges and universities, and I am retained because my clients think that, on their own, they will not be able to attract the best pool of candidates: a pool that possesses the talent, experience, credentials, and personality that will advance the institution’s goals.

My clients are making a good investment in retaining me: a good search consultant is a proactive researcher who identifies the top talent in the field and aggressively networks and woos that talent, converting prospects into candidates. A search consultant understands that it is not about hiring, it is about recruiting.

A good search consultant is also a good “story teller,” who prepares and communicates a compelling narrative about the hiring institution, the position, and the opportunity.

Oftentimes when I begin work on a search I am handed the “position description,” a detailed outline of job responsibilities and qualifications the institution is seeking. These descriptions usually include phrases like:

  • Manage daily activities to ensure work flow within the office is efficient and priorities are known
  • Provide vision and direction
  • Ensure effective communication
  • Effectively balance projects using time management skills

Most of the time, the position descriptions provide very little in the way of context for the role. Sometimes the description fails to mention the reporting structure, so that candidates would not know to whom they would report or how many staff they would supervise. In my experience, institutional position descriptions fail to mention goals or projected outcomes for the position.

The descriptions very often have a laundry list of required and desired qualifications. I have seen requirements like “the candidate must be able to navigate difficult relationships and competing demands, while reducing costs and improving morale.

As a search consultant, I help a client prepare an interesting, attractive position description that tells a story: about where the institution is at this point in time; that describes why this is an important hire; that explains how this person will be both valued and supported, and to show how the position is a great opportunity to consider.

A well crafted position description is a first, and very important step in attracting a great candidate.

Part 1: Storytelling and the Candidate Interview

Last summer, while vacationing on Nantucket, I was looking around for something to do on a rainy day when I read a vague listing in the local paper for a storytelling workshop to be held that morning. Curious, I showed up at the workshop location to find out that it was being offered by The Moth. I also learned that it was an eight hour class to be held over two weeks, culminating in a story slam in front of a live audience. Over the course of the two hours, I went from being completely convinced I would not participate to being totally committed that I would do it – including the performance…..in front of a live audience……under the lights…..with a mic.

The workshop was one of the best experiences of my life. Storytelling, The Moth way, is very personal – you are the central character of your story. It is spontaneous – there is never a script and no telling is ever the same. Done well, it can move an audience to tears, or laughter, or to a deep place of reflection. An expert storyteller is his or her authentic self, sharing in vivid detail something that really happened, and the learning – the aha moment – that resulted.

As a search consultant to higher education institutions for the past twenty years, I have prepared many, many candidates for interviews with search committees. In addition to the usual advice about dressing professionally and doing their homework about the hiring organization, I also encourage candidates to have a few stories “in their back pockets.” I advise them to reflect on their professional accomplishments and workplace challenges and to think of those examples in terms of stories. At the Moth workshop, I learned that five or six minutes is a good length for a story; in an interview setting three minutes is probably about right. You need enough time to provide some context and background, then move into the meat of the example, and a minute or so for reflection – what did I learn; how did I grow; how did I help my organization to succeed? An interview story is not a time to share intimate personal details, but it is an opportunity to show your authentic professional self. A well-thought-through, clearly presented, and properly delivered story can clinch an interview. Check out storytelling tips on the Moth website, and try to adapt them to your next interview situation.

Part 2 – next installment: To get the right candidates, organizations need to tell their story the right way, too.