October 15, 2020

Hiring the Best College Leaders: Gaps, Solutions & Experts

Everyone acknowledges that hiring is one of the most important jobs we do. Great hires can make a huge positive impact. Less than great hires … well, you know.

The Hiring Gap

There is a significant gap between how we think hiring should go and our experiences. Consider here The Ideal versus A Common Hiring Experience.

The Ideal. In ideal circumstances, your search begins with strong consensus on a clearly defined picture of what you are looking for. Right from the start, the search generates a number of well-qualified applicants yet there is not too much difficulty in identifying those who appear to be the best match for your needs. Next come the interviews. The selection process is energizing for both the applicants and the selection committee. Somehow the questions and the assignments seem to provide tremendous insight into the candidates’ strengths. The committee reaches a unanimous conclusion.

Soon the hiring is complete. Orientation proceeds quickly and within the weeks and months that follow, your organization appreciates a new leader whose personal capabilities include contributions to your leadership team that you had not entirely anticipated.

A Common Experience. The hiring process seems to have come at a challenging time – everyone involved has to squeeze out the necessary hours and there is a nagging feeling that the job description reads more like a lengthy wish list than a realistic set of criteria. There are some good finalists but several questions remain. Unfortunately, the interviews don’t seem to answer them. They seem formulaic; there is a second nagging feeling, that the process has not generated great insight into candidates’ strengths and short suits. The whole experience may remind you of Tomas Chamarro-Premusic’s comment:

Just as you wouldn’t marry someone after only a first date, you should not select someone for a leadership job solely because of the person’s interview performance – which is exactly that, a performance.

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (2019)

As for the hire…


OK, we will admit that the The Ideal above is truly idealized. But you have to admit that you have had some elements of the Common Experience, including, quite possibly, that feeling that you have just witnessed an interview performance but couldn’t get past the role to get to know the person behind it. There are solutions to the Common Experience problems, though.

It all starts by avoiding the temptation to use a “blank page” approach to candidate qualifications which inevitably produces a lengthy, unprioritized wish list that provides you with little guidance. In our experience, it is much better to have a well-crafted framework and research-based focuses that guide the interview discussion. We have put considerable effort into developing a well-designed framework on college leadership with five components. Clearly there is an art and science to accomplishing this.

This well-designed framework avoids processes that flounder on the basis of rote and provides deeper insights when interviewing candidates who are very savvy and overly familiar with selection steps and standard questions. In terms of evaluating candidates, we focus on five domains. All five domains really speak to the potential of the candidate.

Skills/Capabilities – four capabilities define strong leadership in the 21st century. They are courage/resilience, relationship/connections, creativity/innovation and strategic connections/insights. This is a list of ‘must haves’ whose absence will cause failure in the role.

Experience/ Qualifications – relevant experience and qualifications are requirements, but the best candidate is not necessarily the person with the most experience or educational qualifications. Potential counts for a lot! As does using past experience in a forward-looking manner.

Character/ Values – the focus of character/values involves attitude, emotional intelligence and self-awareness  all needing to fit and challenge the organization’s culture.

Vision/ Strategic Thinking – great senior leaders understand the present while anticipating and envisioning the future. They engage themselves and their organization in strategic thinking and dedication to implementation.

Accomplishments – it is not past experience that predicts success; it is past performance. What has the candidate achieved when opportunities presented themselves and when challenges created adversity?

The Interview Process

You have a candidate profile that contains the important components and will be instrumental in helping you make the right choice. Unfortunately, that is not enough. You now need to apply a similar focus to help your selection committee complete the interview process. We are not going to discuss the choices you make for the selection committee, although that is something we do discuss with our clients. We would rather focus on some ways to make the interview process meaningful.

When thinking about the typical interview, it is worth reminding ourselves that these can be little more than a social call. We offer assistance to our clients by helping them craft stronger questions that lead to deeper insights into each candidate. Below are just a few of our key principles that we are happy to share:

Be creative. Creativity is not just for other projects. It should be part of designing a strong hiring process. Every candidate will be prepared for the commonplace, so asking the same type of questions will not get the job done. When trying to find the best candidates for the academic, finance or student experience portfolios, for example, it is important to develop creative questions that tease out the unique capabilities and vision of each candidate. We work with our clients to develop the best set of questions possible.

Be challenging. Put the candidate in situations where they are under a bit of stress and more likely to truly show who they are. Consider on-the-spot assignments and ensure that you have questions that relate to how well the candidate fits and challenges the existing organizational culture.

Allow your employees to help. There is likely already a team of employees you trust and who have different perspectives who could add value to the development of interview questions. Their opinions and ideas should matter. This also facilitates a smoother transition.

Get them away from the interview setting. You will get a much better sense of your final candidates if you get them out and about. Then watch how they behave. This could involve a tour to see if they ask questions, are curious and how they treat others, or a meal.

There are many more points to consider that will ensure you truly end up with a good understanding of who is the right choice for you. With depth and breadth, senior leadership experience and a foundation of design thinking and organizational development, we take pride in helping our clients get beyond candidate performance to who they are, what they bring and how they will provide a team with competitive advantage.


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