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.