Why I ...

May 6, 2005

Are headhunters good for higher education or are they helping to destabilise it? As a consultant working for a range of university clients, I've been asked this question a few times in recent months.

Executive search firms are recruiting at new and exciting levels within universities - as well as vice-chancellors, we search for pro vice-chancellors, directors, deans and even professors. We are helping to move talent around within the system while bringing in people from outside, both from industry and from abroad.

Newton's third law of physics states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; and it is true that the increased use of headhunting to fill a wider range of jobs has produced a degree of uncertainty and change.

But I would argue that in the medium term this will not destabilise our universities but help to make them more competitive and successful.

Because we seek out the best talent available (and at the salary a client can afford) our methods and attitude might make some uncomfortable. Those academics, managers and administrators who seek greater responsibility and personal development will benefit; those who prefer to hide behind a veil of mediocrity and "that's the way it has always been done" will not.

The best headhunters work in partnership with their clients. We must work closely with vice-chancellors and their top teams to help effect positive change.

Universities have much to do to improve the way in which they operate as they become more competitive and open to external influences. Headhunters help with this by introducing new people with fresh ideas and approaches, and by focusing on success and rewarding it.

We are paid to ask questions, to measure performance and to pursue excellence. For every successful candidate there are perhaps five or more who have come close but must deal with rejection.

We must be mindful not to squander the huge amount of goodwill that exists in our universities. A useful by-product of our work should be to counsel and guide, to help those genuinely seeking to improve.

A good headhunter does not enjoy working in isolation. We are trusted advisers who can offer insights into organisational structure, job description, salary levels and recruitment process. We must work within the system and need to temper our desire to be bombastic, but we should challenge our clients to consider their plans, ambitions and practices.

Someone said you are what you eat. Well, an organisation is not just what it recruits, but also how it recruits. There is no point stating that you are the best thing since sliced bread if you do not act as if you are.

Universities should embrace what search firms have to offer; they should demand the very best in service, quality of ideas, speed of delivery and successful results. You pay for what you get.

Universities have been charging themselves out at low prices for too long; full economic costing is redressing that imbalance. In turn, they must expect to pay market rates for professional services. The price of making a bad appointment at the level we are talking about is too great.

Headhunters have much to offer - to institutions and to individuals within higher education. Mistakes are made; we must be prepared to take our share of the criticism, but by working with our clients in proper partnership, risk and reward is shared more equitably.

The general view is that headhunting activity will grow in the sector. I would argue that we have added excellent value already by making the system more fluid, more accepting of new ideas and more competitive.

Alexander Acland Consultant specialising in education at Odgers, Ray and Berndston

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