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Advice from the Experts on Attracting and Retaining Top Talent

Episode 112

July 19, 2022 35 minutes


EAB’s Brooke Thayer is joined by Dr. Janet Greenwood who leads an executive search firm that works primarily with higher education institutions. The two discuss the talent management “whiplash” that higher education leaders experienced as they moved from a cost-containment mindset at the outset of the pandemic to today’s full-on battle to retain and attract employees.

Dr. Greenwood touches on everything from leadership transition planning to the unique benefits that higher education institutions can leverage as they compete for talent against private sector enterprises.



0:00:13.5 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, our guests explore the challenge of how to retain and attract talent in such a tight labor market, we explore what colleges are doing right and what many are doing wrong, we also offer suggestions on ways to leverage some of the benefits that colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to offer perspective employees, so give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:47.1 Brooke Thayer: Hello and welcome to office hours with EAB. My name is Brooke Thayer, and I’m an Associate Director in EAB’s research group. And one of the things that my team and I have been researching lately is the talent management whiplash that higher ed leaders have experienced over the past couple of years. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, at the outset of the pandemic most institutions were looking at talent management really through the lens of cost containment, and no one knew for sure how the pandemic was going to pan out, how it was going to impact things like enrollment and the revenue that comes with that.

0:01:23.9 BT: Now today, we’ve been swinging to the other end of this spectrum, colleges and universities are increasingly talking about and looking at talent as a critical strategic asset, not only for keeping the lights on and business coming along, but also for delivering on a high-quality student experience and ultimately executing on our mission. Yet they are facing many of the same challenges as other industries when it comes to trying to retain their staff and also to attract top talent to fill open roles and positions in this highly competitive environment. Now with me today is an expert on this subject of recruitment, Jan, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your professional journey and focus areas?

0:02:12.9 Jan Greenwood: Thank you, Brooke. Just a few things so that we can get right into the topic, Jan Greenwood here, co-founder of Greenwood/Asher executive search firm, which is now owned by Kelly International, and we’re quite pleased to be partners with them in this broader educational field, globally. I am a licensed psychologist, I say that still, because I have just completed my continuing ed again for the license to continue, a full professor with tenure at two universities, a president at two universities, one of them public, one of them private, and look forward to this very important topic for all of our various colleagues out in higher education.

0:03:00.9 BT: Wonderful, well, thank you so much, Jan. I am so excited for this conversation and for our listeners to get your perspective on this topic, because I think there’s a lot that university leaders can learn from your expertise and your experiences, and if my conversations with leaders recently are any indication, they are hungry for any advice tips and tricks they can get, it is certainly a tight labor market, turnover has been running rampant in a lot of schools, inflation is on the rise, and I think a lot of institutions are also still trying to find their new normal coming off of the pandemic, and especially with the rise of things like remote and hybrid work and operation. So we have got a lot to unpack here today, and there’s many different facets of talent strategy at a college or a university but we will undoubtedly only be able to scratch the surface, but to kick things off, I wanted to start by spending a few minutes discussing what’s happening at the executive level across higher ed, at the President, the Provost, the senior most leaders, and can you tell us a little bit about any trends you’re seeing at the top, Jan and what’s unique about that process and what institutions need to consider when they’re recruiting for those roles.

0:04:15.8 JG: Well, things have certainly changed over the years, and it used to be that there would be a presidential or a vice presidential search, there would be 130 applicants from a web ad that ran. That’s not the case anymore. And we’ve been through cycles in higher ed where there’s been massive turnover, like back during the 80s when long-term presidents of some almost 30 years in the job retired out and then a whole new crop came in and became Presidents and then because they tended to be very young at that age they then began doing multiple presidencies, but now the situation is very different in that you’ve got a vast number of presidents and provosts who are in their 60s and 70s and are retiring out for any number of reasons, one of them is, of course, the prompting as a result of the a very stressful period the past several years have been with the new rules of the role that have taken a major portion of time and effort and energy that have been primarily, although not exclusively COVID driven. And so as those people are leaving and we are seeing massive numbers leaving now, compared with what is typical, and they’re retiring, then we’re at that threshold in higher ed, where more people going into the presidency will have less experience in the executive suite than previously, some 10 years ago.

0:05:52.1 JG: So in other words, if the people who’ve done multiple presidencies are leaving, then the people who have been trying to maybe be a President for some 10-15 years are just becoming a president, so that doesn’t mean they’re better than or worse than, it has nothing to do with better or worse, it means they are less experienced in the executive role, and it means that there is more of a learning curve, which certainly means that universities have to be ready to really step up to making this next President successful. And that’s why we’ve seen a lot of universities move aggressively forward to having successful transition plans, so that even before the new President arrives on the job, they actually are into a transition process that is organized and strategic, it is also a reason that we’re seeing far more universities include as part of the contract for the president, executive coaching. And typically when it doesn’t include it, we see the candidate of choice asking for it, and that isn’t an approach of let’s ask for it, if I need it, it’s a I need it now, let’s ask for it going forward, and that would be part of the continuity plan and transitional plan.

0:07:12.3 BT: Yeah. Oh, this is so fascinating, and I love the comparison to how this has looked in the past and how different it truly is today, and it’s interesting to think about some of these shifts and who we’re bringing in, and then to your point, how do we as institutions need to set them up for success. And of course, we also know that the tenure of some of our senior most leadership roles has been shortening over time as well, and people aren’t staying in positions for quite as long as they used to. My colleague, Hersh Steinberg, hosted an Office Hours with EAB a few weeks back, he had Jay Lemons from Academic Search, and Ken Kring from Korn Ferry. And one of the things they talked about was succession planning, they were looking at it, particularly for presidents, and the consensus seemed to be this is something that higher ed doesn’t necessarily do overly well, or sometimes even at all, and so I wanna pick up that thread here, from your perspective, what do institutions typically get right or wrong when it comes to succession planning and thinking through, or how do we plan for that next generation of talent and folks who are coming into these positions?

0:08:27.1 JG: Well, I think in the past, so just to do the comparison to continue with that thread, in the past, it was a search committee, the board, we’ve hired the president, here’s the office, here are the keys, and that was the way that that transition occurred, which obviously was not successful. If it ended up being okay, it was probably not even really noted, it was when it was not okay, that it was in fact noted and then there were fast turnovers going on. So as you think about that, there’s a some rules of thumb, this is a little bit of a tangent of what you asked, but when a president follows a long-term successful president, typically this is observational information, I don’t know any research on it, their typical tenure is about three years and there are issues going on nationally right now of that very point, and it’s always amazing to see that play out and wonder if in those situations, there could have been something done that would have been during the transition, that would have helped out immensely.

0:09:37.2 JG: So that’s one end of it. Another thing is that I think higher ed across the board, all types of institutions need to look more seriously at issues of training and getting people ready for the next position, and this is a very broad topic. It ranges from… Let’s take a hypothetical, if all the research universities had an internal program for a succession planning, it maybe the wrong term to use, it would be enabling people to take the next step in their career, then it’s not that you need to hold them there forever, is that if a great university, then has done that and that person goes to another great university, and another person from another great university comes back to the first university, then everyone benefits. So I think that’s really important to really give consideration to that, there are some programs around the country that do a great job in terms of professional development, but the notion of the internal underground, realistic planning, how do you handle a situation like COVID?

0:10:51.3 JG: How do you basically deal with a crisis, how do you deal with an issue of a shooting on campus, these types of things which are on the spot immediately, be ready to go and do what needs to be done. Those are the types of things that also need to fill in. You have some provosts nationally had said to me, their goal was to become a president after they were provost, but then they became a provost, and many have said, now that I’ve seen the presidency up-close, I don’t wanna be one. So that’s another indication if people had more exposure to the various roles and what they really are that could help immensely in-terms of planning. Another different thread of it is thinking about their career development and is it opportunistic or is it planned or is it kind of a hybrid of both. So I think that people fare better when it’s a combination of both, and they’re prepared in terms of their own career development, so that they have the option to shift gears at any point they would want to.

0:12:06.6 BT: Yeah, I love this point Jan, and I remember when we were talking a couple of weeks ago, and you described this as a rising tide lifts all boats, if every institution here across the nation, really invested here and started providing more coaching, more professional development and started helping folks get that exposure to different types of roles, sure, some of them might not stay at the institution forever, and that’s actually okay, that might actually be a good thing in some cases, both for their career and also for the institution, but it does increase the overall capacity and skills of our talent pool, and we can benefit from that and in bringing in top talent from elsewhere across the nation and other institutions.

0:12:53.2 JG: Yeah, that’s very true. And of course, the culture in higher ed is that to continue to enrich the intellectual capital of the university in ways that things get done, is you continue to bring in people from other universities, other experience, some more diversity occurs in the school of thought and of course, some might think that succession planning would be designed only for internal promotion, as you see mostly in corporate settings, but in this kind of scenario, you can really have both. You can have the succession planning, you can have the enabling through professional growth and development, and as you said, less the rising seas lift all boats. What are you finding, Brooke? In the field.

0:13:41.8 BT: Yeah, so a couple of things that directly relate to this, one of them that my team has been really excited about, and that it is exactly to your point of the exposure, how do we help our talent, especially our mid-level talent folks who are on the bench right now, build those leadership skills and learn about what the next level of leadership looks like, and so I’ve been seeing some institutions really doubling down on internal either across training programs or formal rotation programs. And I’m really excited about these opportunities because they don’t necessarily require the person to fully, let’s say, step into a new role and try something out or without the practice first. Instead they get the exposure, they, for example, might spend some time shadowing a chief financial officer and can learn about what the role looks like and start building some of those higher order skills that otherwise they just wouldn’t have the chance to be able to develop, and so I think this fits nicely into the theme of building the internal talent pipeline, if you will, and how to get proactive in that regard.

0:14:52.8 BT: The other thing I was gonna highlight here on the note of succession planning, and what we’ve been seeing at EAB, are certainly more institutions are focused on succession planning at executive level and trying and recognizing the value, but I’ve also seen a lot of schools thinking about succession planning in an institution-wide capacity, and also at non-executive levels, I think in the past, it has tended to be very much for president, provost to a Chief Financial Officer, those senior most roles, but today, the savviest schools I’m seeing are really assessing what are the critical roles for us as an institution, regardless of level, one example comes to mind. I was talking to a university leader just a couple of weeks ago, and they were describing how they are currently in the process of an ERP implementation, and so actually right now a lot of their critical roles are not for the senior most executives you might expect, but their IT staffers, the folks who are working on the actual implementation are the most important people that they need to keep in seat and they need to be planning for. And so I like this idea of thinking about succession planning and also thinking about pushing it down further levels in the org as needed to make sure, again, we’re building that talent pipeline across all of the different levels and phases of the organization and people’s careers.

0:16:21.9 JG: I think that as we think about those dimensions, a couple of things come to mind, one is I like to use the picture of a triangle, and so a triangle pointed with a point pointed up, the traditional format is one that is highly effective for a faculty member who wishes to stay a faculty member and a researcher and become one of the most recognized academic specialists in their field, and with that, we know that their professional development moves into more and more restricted development because they’re working on that specialty period, end of story. And so that’s very comfortable in higher ed for faculty, because we know that, we know that’s how you do it, but then it’s not as easily understood for those who want to go up or have the option to go up administratively, perhaps they want to earn full professor or whatever, and then become an administrator. So for those, it is the reverse direction of the triangle, you have your specialty first, and as I would call it, the route of least resistance is to be a full professor with tenure first, and then from there, you move into administrative roles, and whether that’s Dean and then provost, I’m talking very traditionally now, it could be a much longer conversation if we went broader and then president, there are a set of skills that absolutely are a must have.

0:17:54.9 JG: And those could be the foundation for universities, providing opportunities for people to learn these skills, so for example, they’re the big three that have been there since the 80s, one area is leadership and vision, one area is management, one area is resource development, and resource development is defined broadly as basically anything that brings money into the university, so grants and contracts, money from donors, a legislative funding, a foundation funding, enrolment retention, any of those is a cross-section of similar skill sets, and then each of those areas has some individualized one. So if I were developing a program to try to make an opportunity available for professional development for those who wanted to broaden their opportunities, those would be the three foundation… The keys. Now, and there are two areas that are pretty hotly debated whether or not they are a fourth and a fifth area or whether they’re part of leadership or management, one of those areas is crisis management, big big area.

0:19:11.7 JG: Is that part of management or is it a separate area and the fifth one is DEI, is DEI a separate category? Or is it part of leadership and vision? So wherever it is, it’s gotta be there. And this gets into some pretty difficult technical questions. For example, we know nationally that it’s been much harder for people of color and women to advance in their careers. We know that oftentimes, when they are brought into a leadership position, it’s at a lower salary, and then the profile, than their colleagues. And we know that some states will not permit any longer the university or an executive recruiter to ask a candidate what is their salary. And part of the theory behind that is that you’ve got a decision to make when you hire someone, are you going to pay them based on what their current salary is, or are you gonna pay them based on what the job is worth? And there’s a pretty big split as to which approach it is. But if you pay them, especially the women and people of color, based on what their current salary is, you’re continuing to hold down the competitiveness of being ready and empowered for the job through the way the job is viewed as other people, primarily Caucasian men would if they were going into the job.

0:20:48.0 JG: So that’s a pretty difficult topic. And basically, you ask yourself the question, if this person isn’t ready for the job, why would we hire them anyway? And that, I think, may lead to some shorter tenures that we see when that’s the mindset as people come into a position. And, “Well, yes, well, this person, we were able to hire this person for $400,000. But if we had hired this person, this other person, it would have been $800,000.” So you see those gaps and you see that treatment, and you know that that’s gotta be addressed. It’s gotta be addressed in order to recruit and to retain people. And some universities are moving forward in that pretty aggressively. And others are just beginning to talk about it, if at all.

0:21:41.9 BT: Yeah. Oh, this is so fascinating. And this is a point of interest certainly in the conversations I’ve been having with university leaders. And since you took us this direction, let’s go further down this path for a moment here and talk about the priority among institutions of thinking about diversifying our workforce. This is such a big goal and initiative that institutions have been prioritizing, and frankly, we’ve been talking about for quite some time. I’d love to get your reactions. I’m recognizing you work with a lot of different universities. Is higher ed as a whole making good progress on this front? And what else could they be doing? Where could they be focusing their efforts to really do a better job of recruiting and retaining diverse talent?

0:22:28.8 JG: Well, the answer to your last… Well, there are a lot of answers. But one of the answers to your last question is providing opportunities that are competitive opportunities. So that’s really, I think what it’s all about. And that starts within the institution where they work. It’s a slow moving process. So when I was first a president, I believe… Well, I know. I can tell you the number. There were eight women nationally in the type of institution I was in. And at that point, the only woman president of a research university was Hanna Gray at Chicago. Now, I’m dating myself. So the women, the eight women who were presidents of comprehensive public universities, I’m excluding for a minute the ones that were with religiously affiliated institutions, all of us had come from major research universities. We had the qualifications to be president of a major research university. But they were not hiring women. Women were not breaking into that field.

0:23:44.3 JG: So what we were getting into is almost all of the eight were at regional public universities that were in danger of closing. So we all went in as turn-around people. And we were successful, and that was great for the universities. It was a great service. But then in higher ed, it’s where have you been lately? It’s, I guess, looked at more when you’re gonna decide where you’re going next. So you may have been head of one of the major areas for a large research university, and then you go to a regional public. And then you wanna get back in the regional… The national research universities maybe, maybe not. But if you do, it’s, “Well, but she’s not at one now.” So it’s all about the opportunity and how the opportunity is perceived and how the job is perceived and what universities are doing. Because it helps everybody to build up their workforce, so that their university benefits and others do too.

0:24:50.7 BT: Yeah, oh, thank you for sharing those examples. It’s really fascinating to think about the movement between different types of institutions too, and the trajectories that we see among leaders. I know we’ve been focusing a good amount on the senior most executives of the institute then, the president, the provost. I do wanna change gears just a little bit and talk about academic talent. I’d love to hear what trends you all are seeing around faculty hiring in recent years and how that has or has not been changing too.

0:25:28.0 JG: Well, it has been changing. I know that if we go back to when I first got my doctorate, there were two faculty positions open nationally that year in my field. And I was fortunate to get one of them. I just marvel at the fact I was able to at this point in my life, as I look back on it. ‘Cause there were plenty of people in my field who were trying to get those positions. But the thing that’s happened is for very strategically important faculty positions in universities, search firms are doing that kind of search now. And what it is, first of all, many of the universities will not even permit us to name their names. So it’s a behind the scenes kind of thing. But let’s say a university wants to build up its profile and research. What they will do is they will hire us to go in and develop potential candidates who can bring their institutes, their money, and their centers with them to another university. So for example, one of those types of opportunities ended up with 17 hires from it, one that I had done.

0:26:49.2 JG: Another one ended up with 11. So typically, it’s a cluster hire, but it’s for strategic reason. And most people wanna start with prospects who are national academy members. A lot of those people, very hard to get to move. And so they’ll look at those that maybe get $10 million, $20 million in funding over a very short period of time. So there’s some strategies as to how you go about recruiting those individuals. But as you think about it, that’s an emphasis. I think particularly in the research universities, there’s the understanding that that level of talent enriches everybody. The junior faculty can have mentorship from them. So it just builds the whole intellectual capital of the university when you’ve got great talent that’s internationally recognized there at your university. It also attracts donors. So it’s a win-win. And students have the benefit of having worked with some of the great minds that exist in their specialty. So that’s one way to approach your question.

0:28:02.5 BT: Yeah, that’s really interesting. You know, at EAB, we work with a lot of institutions that have big ambitions to become thriving research universities. I imagine though there are cases where when you do these types of cluster hires, you’re bringing in 11, 17 new faculty members. That’s a lot of change. How does that impact dynamics in terms of the campus culture? And have you seen any institutions navigate that particularly well in terms of thinking about not just who can we get, but how do we integrate them into the campus once they’re here?

0:28:40.5 JG: Well, it becomes a strategic question for the university and the president that’s doing that recruitment. If you think back through the years, one of the most well-known examples of that was at George Mason University, when George Mason University had become its own university, separate from the University of Virginia, which was previously the institution it was part of. And in that case, the president, President George Johnson at the time, he was going to build the university with Pulitzer Prize winners, etcetera. And of course, being located right in the Metropolitan DC area, there were plenty of opportunities for that. So it took some figuring out how to bring them in. And as you… If you’ve watched that over the years, what has happened, it has attracted that many more outstanding faculty to the university as well as enrich those who were already at the university. So it’s a win-win for everybody. But it’s… There are other examples I could give you where presidents have tried to do it from a top-down approach, and the faculty that have to do the interviewing perhaps are not supportive. So it is something that everyone has to feel is important to make it work.

0:30:13.8 BT: Yeah.

0:30:14.4 JG: And I don’t mean everyone literally, but I mean almost everyone. So if you think about that, that takes a lot of planning and effort on the part of the university as a whole, just to help lay the case, spell out what it is, why everyone benefits, in order to work together and go down the same path together to enrich everyone’s opportunities.

0:30:37.9 BT: I love that example. And I guess it’s kind of the work EAB has done too about the process of needing to educate your search committees or working with them and making sure you’re on the same page about priorities and equipping them to be able to conduct the search in a way that’s pulling to yield that good candidate pool and candidates who are really well aligned with what you’re hoping to accomplish.

0:30:58.7 JG: And universities are very accustomed to faculty, let’s say you’re on track to be a full professor. Let’s say the university raises the requirements for being a full professor. And let’s say they start bringing in people who meet the higher-level requirements, then those who thought they were on track, then all of a sudden looks like they may not make it, because the rules changed, then there can be bitterness that develops or other problems. So the universities have that as their experience for many decades. And how all of that gets managed becomes very important to being supportive of your workforce.

0:31:44.0 BT: Sure. Well, Jan, I know we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface here. We’ve covered a lot of ground though talking about the most executive levels of the institution, talking about the academic side of things. Oh, we didn’t even begin to start talking about the thousands, hundreds of other staff that we have in critical roles across the institution, which of course also is a big strategic consideration for universities. We probably need a whole separate podcast episode to cover that content, but I wanna be respectful of your time. And maybe you can wrap us up here by recapping or sharing your top two or three pieces of advice for institutional leaders who are tasked with talent management in today’s tight labor market and very competitive environment. What would you recommend for them?

0:32:37.6 JG: Work very hard on making it the type of culture that people wanna be in. They wanna work there. They want to grow there. Create the opportunities for them to work there and grow there on a field that is equal, so that people have the opportunities and can move ahead. Find out what people want. And the whole thing about, “Do they want more money?” Well, sometimes, yes. But there are other things too. So with your workforce, what are the other things in addition to the money? In looking at compensation, this is gonna be another huge area as to how rules have changed again about compensation. And looking at that. Looking at remote work. For example, if a university has as a policy, there is no one who can work remotely, and some do have that policy, and you wanna hire someone who’s in a specialty area where they’re accustomed to working remotely now, you’ve got a market disconnect. Though, I think I would also so stay in touch with the realities of the market and know that you can stay competitive. And if you’ve got a rule that says you can’t, then you need to look at the reality of that and fix whatever you can do in order to be competitive in the market. So those are some basic things.

0:34:07.2 BT: Excellent. Well, thank you again so much for your time today, Jan. And thank you everyone for listening to Office Hours with EAB. Until next time.

0:34:17.6 JG: Thank you, Brooke. Thanks, everyone.


0:34:26.7 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we explore an interesting project currently underway at the University of Montana that may serve as a proof of concept that can be applied to other schools on how to leverage data to support underserved student segments more effectively. Until then, thank you for your time.

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