EAB’s Hersh Steinberg welcomes two of the top recruiters in the nation who specialize in placing higher education leaders. Jay Lemons from Academic Search, Inc. and Kenneth Kring from Korn Ferry share their thoughts on ways to improve succession planning and on the pros and cons of bringing in a change agent from the outside.
They also offer tips on ways to honor the shared governance model without sacrificing candidate confidentiality or overcomplicating the executive search process.
0:00:11.0 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, our experts talk about the process of finding, vetting and hiring senior institutional leaders. You'll hear from two of the top recruiters in the nation, both of whom specialize in the higher education sector, about why promoting or recruiting your next university president is one of the toughest tasks higher education institutions of all types are facing today. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.
0:00:46.5 Hersh Steinberg: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Hersh Steinberg, and I'm managing principal. One of the perks of my role is I get the opportunity to work with and learn from higher ed leaders from college and universities across the country, and one thing I've seen and heard from so many of you is that the job of the university president or chancellor has just grown more difficult, and more complex than ever has been. Turnover rates among university leaders are at an all time high, as we've seen in the news recently, the process of finding, recruiting, and hiring a successful leader is really one of the toughest tests higher education institutions of all types are facing today.
0:01:26.3 HS: With that in mind, and with me today are two of the top recruiters in the country. I'm excited for today's session, both of whom specialized in helping higher education institutions take all the necessary steps to develop the right list of candidates, work their way through the vetting process, and then create the conditions that set the candidate up to succeed. With that, let's start with some introductions. First up is Jay Lemons, an individual that I've gotten a chance to work with recently through EAB's future president intensive. We'll talk a little bit about that later. Jay, would you mind introducing yourself and telling our listeners a little bit more about you and your role?
0:02:05.3 Jay Lemons: Well, good afternoon. Thank you very much, Hersh. I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this program from EAB, an organization that, as it all came together, I will tell you I was proud to be the president of Susquehanna University, and we were an EAB institution, we were a royal institution, and we were a Jim Day of clients. So, all three pieces of the trying that... And appreciate all that EAB meant to me as a president. I'm a native Nebraskan. Ken, I'm gonna let you know that I too, I'm a College Track Athlete, I was a D3 guy, not a talented decathlete like you were, but a big part of my life in growing up and continues to sort of in some ways define how I think about the world. I had the privilege, as a very young man, to spend eight and a half years as the Chancellor at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, did my PhD at UVA and ended up working for President John Casteen there.
0:03:17.9 JL: And John said, someday I'm gonna ask you to go do something, and I could never have imagined it would be, spend six to nine months in Wise, Virginia, that turned into 8 1/2 incredibly wonderful years. And from there, I was invited and answered the call to serve Susquehanna University, and a wonderful liberal arts college, in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where I spent... I got to preside over 17 commencements, so a total of 25 years in the college presidency, and was not imagining another life or chapter. Sort of had a sense that I might have another chapter, but didn't have any real directionality and a very unusual, unique... I often call us the academic search, the original disruptor. So, an organization founded in 1976 at a time when no one in higher ed used search organizations and academic search was founded on a belief that former leaders in higher ed might have something to offer institutions, while they were found themselves in times of transition.
0:04:27.3 JL: And that organization approached me about the possibility of serving it. It's an organization owned by the American Academic Leadership Institute, and there's no private ownership for us, we're a mission-based organization, and our marginal revenues go to support our parent organization obviously, but also the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. And having had the pleasure and privilege of leading institutions in both of those sectors, the current board chair, a man named Scott Miller, put that together in his head and thought maybe Jay Lemons, and so I'm now finishing my fifth year at academic search, and I found it to be incredibly meaningful and important work, so more than you may have wanted there.
0:05:18.0 HS: No, Jay, it's perfect, thank you. And growing up in New Jersey, I should call out, I think in the '90s, I made my way to a basketball camp at Susquehanna, so we're gonna have to have to have a post-Podcast chat about this.
0:05:31.4 JL: You're not a Morristown guy then, are you or a Mendham?
0:05:34.4 HS: Oh, you figured me out. The podcast is over. That's pretty amazing how he just did that. Alright, so Jay, we're gonna talk more afterwards, but we're also fortunate today to have with us Mr. Ken Kring. Ken, heads up the Global Education practice at Korn Ferry, one of the large recruiting companies in the United States. Ken, you gotta tell us a little bit more about yourself, my friend?
0:05:55.8 Kenneth Kring: Well, good, no, thanks, Hersh. And I was delighted to be asked to join this conversation. EAB is a really terrific organization. The idea of a podcast to talk about issues that matter felt important and like a real invitation. It also was great to be able to join with Jay whose reputation I know well, and we are, I don't know whether I'd say competitors, but I'd say sort of live it... We live in the same... We live in the same world, and we frankly have taken different pathways to get to some very similar places, so it's with a lot of mutual respect that I think this conversation feels like it will unfold really nicely. I've been at Korn Ferry for 15 years. Korn Ferry, the higher education practice is a boutique, a relatively small boutique in a relatively large human resources, human capital, talent firm. The higher education practice has been in existence for 30 or so years. My career in executive search, which is basically my entire career, first half was on the commercial side. I stumbled into higher education 20 years ago when I was running a major office for a major firm and was sort of the last of the roving generalist, doing a little bit of one thing or another, and it was, to Jay's point, about academic search being very early pioneering search.
0:07:35.4 KK: There wasn't a lot of the use of intermediation for searches. I was hired almost at the same time to do a president search for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and a Wharton to the search for Wharton for the first time they were using a search firm to do a search. And it was a perfect combination for me because I was... I had a Master's in public and private management, sort of a business kind of degree. A lot of my career had been in finance and administration, and it launched my career. So, I was a bit of a fly in the enemy camp at first, because I was not an educator per se. I was a product of educators, my parents were educators. I had an advanced degree in public and private management that focused on groups and group dynamics, which is, Jay and I will talk, is a lot of what we do, is working with committee-oriented processes. So, it became sort of a natural launch pad when Korn Ferry came to me 15 years ago and said, "We wanna begin to jumpstart this practice. We'd love to be able to leverage some of our resources across different dimensions, but also to have a presence where you've had a presence," that was kind of an invitation, and I haven't looked back since.
0:09:05.3 HS: I love it. Ken, I also come from a family of educators. Both parents were professors, one stayed faculty, the other went more administration. You can imagine our dinner table conversations in the '80s and '90s, were entertaining, we'll put it that way. It's great to have you both with us today, and we have a lot to cover. I'm gonna... I'm actually gonna kick things off. Ken you hinted at this, and you and I were talking about this in one of our prior conversations. You mentioned that one of the reasons search committees struggle with presidential succession planning is that until very recently, they really didn't have to do it very often. How much of your job today involves educating search committees on what works and what doesn't? And keep in mind, today's tighter labor market, I guess it's just a tougher time. Can you speak a bit about this?
0:09:56.7 KK: Yeah. So, terms are getting shorter and the use of outside intermediation is getting greater, and job requirements are getting more difficult, harder, and even at the top of the organizational food chain, the pools are getting more resistant and smaller. So it is definitely more complicated. Search committees, on some level, are seen as or see themselves as risk mitigation for the institution, and are often not risk-takers as a body. And so, yes, a lot of what we do is, I won't say educate search committees. I'll say help them educate themselves, really facilitate them going through a process where they can expand their understanding and expand their imagination about what ideal looks like, what success may look like.
0:11:09.2 HS: You hinted at... And I like how... Verbiage matters, facilitation. And Jay, actually, I wanna get your take on this too. I like Ken's points. Jay, the other side of it, you had, as you mentioned, tenure as President of Susquehanna, and you have a unique perspective. You are uniquely qualified to speak to how universities grapple with change, and that's something that not all institutions are always comfortable with change. What are some of the common mistakes that you see in terms of how they go about either grooming the next generation of leaders or potentially looking outside the university to find that agent of change?
0:11:49.4 JL: Well, let me maybe tie a little... I'm gonna attack a little more closely to Ken's comments for a moment. First of all, I would say higher education does succession planning poorly. It almost does not exist. If you believe that when you have the reality of a vacancy in the president's office, that it's time to begin succession planning, you've totally missed the boat.
0:12:19.6 HS: You're too late.
0:12:20.9 JL: And it's also related to the really unusual, and I happen to believe strongly in this, unusual cultural context where shared governance is sort of a sacred dimension of the culture of the academy. So, it makes succession planning hard. Over the last five years, I've really enjoyed the opportunity to try and tilt at that, just a bit, but to try and encourage... It will never look like it looks in the corporate world, and that's okay. I don't apologize for that. It can't really look like that. And yet, I start from a perspective of, I really frankly wanna... Can't always choose, but if given my choice, I want boards and CEOs to have open and trusting enough relationships where on an annual basis, that board... Those board leaders are sitting with their president and asking, "Madam President, how are you feeling about the work you're doing? Are you still finding joy? What are you thinking about your time horizon?"
0:13:43.5 JL: Having the sort of conversations that help to be clarifying for both parties in terms of an understanding about the arc of the career, 'cause I think that's about as close as we can get to it. And I'm doing some things that probably may not make sense in Ken's world, because I'm finding they're very labor-intensive, and in an admission-based environment, I'm able to do some experimentation that you might not be able to in a commercial world. So, I've been encouraging, where possible, boards to think... And if you have a long-serving president, 'cause to Ken's point, their terms are shorter. We'll get another day to draw coming out probably early next year from AEC, and it's about every five-year study of the American college presidency. I'll be shocked if we don't see that the average tenure is shrunk yet again. It's somewhere in the neighborhood of five years and a fraction.
0:14:54.5 JL: So, I really think the more that we can do that could open up honest conversation... Now, there's some risk in that for leaders. And if you are in a politically charged environment, there may be reasons why you can't have those sorts of conversations, but where you can, I think that it provides opportunities, and I'm sure Ken has these engagements as well. It is far better for us to be talking with a board before there's an announcement of a public vacancy, 'cause we can help them to be prepared for how to begin this journey and this process, and it not be a fire drill, because there often is a great deal of public interest and frankly pressure for moving a process along. So, I'd just stop there, and say I think that's maybe one of the biggest mistakes.
0:15:54.2 HS: Jay, such a good point. And you actually you brought up a couple of topics that I might return to. It's a provocative time. Succession planning, there's probably a debate over promoting from within versus bringing folks in from the outside. Ken, I wonder if you have a reaction to Jay's comments. I have a couple more questions for the two of you, but, Ken, any other reactions there?
0:16:19.8 KK: Yeah. So, I think it's a bit of a contrarian perspective, but we really should be seeing more internal candidates. There really should be... The academic sector would be stronger if it did better internal succession planning, and frankly, contrary to sometimes popular assumption, we are both pleased to see internal candidates in searches and concerned when there aren't internal candidates, because it's indicative of something. So yeah, Jay, I really like your point sort of getting to those boards early to do that succession planning. And by the way, it is difficult, not just because of shared governance, but because the president of a college or a university reports to a board and alerting them that two years from now, I will be ready to leave is too early to let them know [chuckle] for your own well-being. So, we have, at Korn Ferry, an entire succession planning practice. Ironically, our higher ed practices had a very difficult time building up any repository of experience within that sub-practice of across the entire spectrum of other industries.
0:17:51.5 JL: No, you're exactly right, Ken. And I would say, so where do you see this space? Where do I see this space? I think about David Anderson who announced two years before he was to go from St Olaf, long-term, long-serving president. There are plenty of other opportunities for me to think about some examples of exceptions to this, but they really are the exceptions. So, the other one that pops to my mind is Lyle Roelofs at Berea gave two years of full notice. You don't see that in the highest profile, especially public flagship on campuses where the nature of the boards really dictates some of that. But yeah, I love this as a topic. Again, it's something to tilt at, and I really appreciate the contrarian view that you gave, Ken. Higher ed is incredibly susceptible to believing that the Messiah is anywhere else but here. And that contributes to the challenges, and I feel the same way that very often great talent is overlooked. I will observe in the slice of the markets that I'm working in, Ken, I have not seen a paucity of top candidates. I am working with unbelievable pools and in which dozens of people are are qualified and probably any one of them could do the job, and I'm kind of astounded at that.
0:20:02.8 JL: It's different than in a number of the line officer jobs, there aren't as many folks lining up to be CFOs, there aren't as many Chief Enrollment officers. Wow. If we could find the formula there, that would be terrific, but presidencies and Chief Academic officers, at least among the CIC and AASCU institutions, I see just incredible talent. I see robust numbers of BIPOC and diverse candidates, and it's really exciting for me to see the emergence of new generations of talent.
0:20:44.9 HS: Jay, Let me double down there... Sorry, I'm coming in because, Jay, I'm curious, on that last piece, are there qualities or competencies that university presidents need to have today that perhaps weren't as important 10 years ago, or even, I don't know, five years ago, 2 1/2 years ago, right before the pandemic? Speak about that, 'cause you hinted at the talent, any different qualities or competencies?
0:21:11.5 JL: Yeah, I maybe would say going back, I'll say 25 years closer to the beginning of my career. I would say that crisis management was not as high on the list as it is today, and yeah just to slip to your 2 1/2-year note, every leader in every industry across this country has had a crash course in crisis management with the pandemic. It's a long event rather than a short event, but that's an example of one that feels to me like it's probably got greater prominence and priority. It's also the case that the ability to be a change leader is hugely more important, and the third one that I would mention is the ability to be, in particular, a leader and advocate in a model with regard to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment. Those would be... So there have been major changes in those three areas that I have mentioned.
0:22:31.5 HS: Very helpful, Jay. Ken, I got another question for you. Search firms over the years have been accused of conducting a lot of work behind closed doors. Some would say the search firms, they will only reveal a short list of finalists, and it's only towards the end of the process. What about transparency? Invite more opinions and perspectives from across the campus on all these potential candidates. Can you give our listeners an idea... Why is that the case, and is there a perception there that's incorrect? Talk a bit about that.
0:23:14.2 KK: Yeah, I think the... Frankly, I think the perception probably was part of the earlier stages of search being introduced to higher education, and some of the challenges of transferability of business and commercial processes. I think Jay is exactly... When you say respect for shared governance, I came in from outside of higher education and shared governance kind of was a little bit of a headwind for me the first year, 18 months of searches, and I'm a convert now, in recognizing it might not be great, but it's... What is that quote, that Churchill quote? Might not be great, but it beats any alternative. I think that shared governance definitely influences the way pools of candidates are shared with search committees. We show everything. We show every correspondence we've had with candidates, and it's set up in a proprietary password-protected database and search committees are allowed to see that material.
0:24:38.6 KK: The real challenge is around confidentiality of the process and confidentiality of candidates sort of to the broader community, and this is where shared governance gets a little complicated, because the unique and I would say not always successful, aspect of shared governance is... On some level, you're asking far flung members, stakeholders in a community to select their next leader, and it's... Predicting performance is impossible anyway, to set up systems in which people from far flung parts of a community are actually weighing in on the selection of a leader... Can really get yourself into chaos, and so the challenge is creating a process that is inclusive and representative, and we've seen the increase in size of search committees, therefore prolonging, and this is to Jay's point about the... Before the search becomes... Before it becomes necessary and imminent, prolonging those early phases, including sufficient listening sessions, gathering that information, actually assimilating and synthesizing some of the listening sessions, building a position description that is bought... And candidate specification that is really bought in by the entire search committee and, frankly, indulging in some of that conversation to be sure that there's real alignment around not just the way the institution is described, but the priorities are described and the competencies are described so that you go into this with transparency around values and priorities.
0:26:57.1 KK: I think the other place, it's that's interesting and complicated, is the end decision and sort of how are candidates seen and experienced, and frankly, I think... And Jay, since we're in slightly different worlds, we both have information on this. I am seeing there being a return to more public exposure at the conclusion with a more hybrid exposure, with confidentiality insisted upon, and so we're saying candidate seen off-campus by additional stakeholders beyond the search committee with signed confidentiality statements, with no cross-chatter between one institution and another. That's the part that we defend pretty aggressively, is that we can be as open as the candidates can be, and you can be no more open than the most confidentially requiring candidate requires, but cross-chatter, having members of the community calling up their peers and other institutions to vet candidates is a degradation of process.
0:28:26.7 HS: Fair points. I think our listeners are gonna value that last section, Ken. And there are points... Our listeners can't see the two of you, but I'm fortunate to. So I'm watching Jay not along in agreement on several of these points. Jay, let's flip the equation just for a moment. What does a candidate who's considering a senior leadership position need to know about what they're getting themselves into? It's either about the nature of the job or how to put their best foot forward during the interview process? Perhaps speak to that. We have listeners who might be in that position.
0:29:01.8 JL: Well, that's a really broad topic. I will tell you that we work all over the country as would Ken and all the search organizations. Higher ed search is done differently than the rest of the practice, I am sure, at Korn Ferry. So we are... Just as Ken described, the conditions around what we do with regard to the building of candidate materials and protected portal sites and so forth, all of that, but the candidates get all... Or excuse me, the search committees get all of the candidates that we work with. You work all over the country. There are varying levels of sunshine that are acquired depending on the state that you live in, and so if you're working in a public institution search, you have to be guided first and foremost by that. But I will... I often say to search committees, we are agnostic with regard to how you will do the search. But I would feel as if I were not serving them well if I didn't talk about the impacts that that will have on the pool of candidates that they will have. And I really appreciated the comments about confidentiality. By the way, this is another major change in terms of competencies over time.
0:30:32.8 JL: Twenty-five years ago, social media did not exist, instantaneous surveillance from every single member of a campus community, it has made it harder and harder, and it is a challenge. It is a challenge to develop the strongest pool of candidates if you are required to have an open search. I personally do not think that that smacks up against shared governance. It's... You gotta... It's back to what Ken said, that's why we have larger search committees, and they're more representative of the constituencies. It's why the work you do in a pre-search assessment process is really, really critical, but in what other human endeavor of leading large organizations does everybody who is there believe that they should have a say in who it is that's gonna emerge as the leader? I have gotten to be a part of a group of... A round table of other search professionals who live in other worlds, they cannot imagine the world that I'm in. Just as I imagine Ken's colleagues at Korn Ferry can't imagine the stuff that he has to go through to work in higher ed, it's really different.
0:31:56.3 KK: Yeah.
0:32:00.1 HS: To that point, Jay, I love that you hit on that. Ken, let me pass the mic to you real quick.
0:32:00.1 KK: Yeah. And Jay, promise you won't tell my other colleagues at Korn Ferry what I go through because they won't understand, they may not appreciate it. So I just want to comment on the... Sort of what candidates look for, and I would go out on a limb and say, Jay, a part of what you're experiencing in terms of the robustness of candidates, sort of gets to my point, which is if there is one common denominator across the different enterprises within our field, it is the motivational aspect for the individual candidate, and that is, without a doubt, the achievable challenge. Most candidates are motivated by the achievable challenge... Most candidates, this is their... Might be their penultimate career move, but they think it's their last, they're ready for this as their last move. And so what attracts them, it's a challenge that they can put their own spin on, that they can actually be successful. And frankly, a lot of what we do, and this is not a sales job, this is a counseling job with candidates to help them think about whether this is the achievable challenge. So our necessity of understanding the opportunity, including the challenges and the potential pitfalls, the... Sort of what is across the threshold for a candidate is all oriented around being able to communicate with them what that achievable challenge might look like.
0:33:47.4 JL: Absolutely well said. It's... I love the way you phrased it. I always begin each engagement of what does the leader in the next... For the next five to 10 years need to do to be successful? And it is around that achievable goal and have having the affinity for mission. And then you see... You see how the variables fit together for... Across dozens of people.
0:34:17.0 HS: Gentlemen, I'm gonna pivot quickly to... Well, on Office Hours, the EAB podcast, just recently, we had the editor of Inside Higher Ed join us. And Scott said that schools in red states are finding it harder than years passed to attract top candidates for senior leadership positions. And that can be due to fears about the local political climate and how that might impact their ability to conduct general business of the university. There's also the other side of it, candidates who may be more left-leaning, and let's call it what it is, people who work in higher ed may lean at least a little to the left. They may not be comfortable with the idea of moving themselves and their families to a community where they may feel like an outsider. Jay, I wanna start with you, are you running into this issue at all? Kind of the political provocative nature of it all?
0:35:12.1 JL: This is partly why Scott is so good at what he does, but I think it over-simplifies. I think that there is far greater diversity in every zip code than we might imagine. And Will, the particularities around what is reported in the national media as the context of a region or of a state impact some people's thinking... Absolutely. Some people only... We are pretty bi-coastally focused in this country, and there are a lot of great institutions and a lot more diversity in the... In fly-over country than I think people often give credit. So the exception to that is... And a worry that I have, that I've had my entire career, especially when I served in public higher education, was how politicized the public higher education governance system can be. Some places, these can be really challenging circumstances for leaders, and we see that. And I won't name names, but you can... There's a fairly regular routine set of transitions that you can almost mark down by clockwork that reflect governance systems that are at the board level that are challenging. So I... More than you wanted there.
0:36:56.8 HS: No, it's helpful. One, Ken, what are you hearing from schools on this topic? And could the reverse also be true to some extent? Like are schools and communities too liberal to attract top talent? What are you hearing on this side of it, Ken?
0:37:13.1 KK: I don't think I can add to... Jay, to your point. I think that there are some... There are some particular situations that are extremely either volatile or potentially volatile around politics, particularly in public, particularly in either elected, but even more so in appointed governance. And those can be... Primarily at major state universities and land-grant institutions, that gets really, really complicated. And it's particular because it depends on who's on that... Who's in the governance system at any moment in time, and frankly, the separation between governance and shared governance can be a pretty scary chasm, but I don't know that I can draw the line around red or blue states, purple states, or geographies per se. I think it's more particular than that.
0:38:26.1 HS: No, it's a fair point. And this is my attempt at being provocative or spicy, I am the guy who hosted one of these podcasts where we spoke about hot sauce with the presidents. So there you have it. Guys, we could spend a whole afternoon on one of these topics and still will only scratch the surface. Jay, I think you hinted at that earlier, but I need to be respectful of your time. But before we go, maybe could each of you offer your best advice to an institution that's just forming up a search committee, they know they're gonna be looking for that talent. Ken, why don't you start us off? What advice might you bestow upon them?
0:39:10.1 KK: So I would say enter with an open mind, control your group hubris, achieve some level of humility, learn as much as you can by parking your biases and preconceived notions early, and work effectively as a group to... I think that search committees have the opportunity to put forward, without selection, unranked list of excellent candidates who are not in competition with one another, but represent different perspectives and different strategic objectives. And so for committees to sort of embrace that mission and embrace that charge early and work with it, can lead to much better outcomes.
0:40:12.1 HS: Excellent, Ken. And Jay, what would be your best piece of advice for university leaders on how to conduct a proper executive search?
0:40:24.1 JL: Well, I think I'll go back to where I started, open, honest conversation, engaging a trusted partner and advisor in a search organization earlier rather than later, and trusting the process, following it all the way through. There are plenty of shiny objects and plenty of ups and downs and detours, but if you stay true to the process, I believe if done well, a presidential search, whether it's open or closed, is an incredible learning experience for the people who are involved. It can strengthen shared governance, because it's the only place, it's the only time, it's the only location where trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, sometimes community leaders all come together. And they have the opportunity to talk to lots of really smart people and they learn a lot about their institution, they build relationships with one another, and they only get to pick one president. And so, I trust the process, would be my most important piece of advice.
0:41:40.3 HS: Gentlemen, this was is great. I wanna thank both of you so much for taking the time today. I also wanna take a second to give a quick plug, I mentioned it earlier, EAB's new executive intensive program. Think of this like a weekly virtual boot camp, if you will. It's designed to help and support incoming higher ed leaders in making a successful transition into office and quickly understanding key opportunities, challenges ahead. I'll ask our producer at EAB to include a link to that program web page in the episode description for anyone who wants to learn more. But I'm humbled that we had Jay and Ken here. And guys, thank you so much. Once again on behalf of both of you and the EAB team, I wanna thank all of our listeners for joining us today. See you next time on Office Hours with EAB. Take care, everybody.
0:42:37.6 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we take a deep dive into what's going on in the master's and graduate degree markets. Until then, thank you for your time.
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