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How immersed is the consultant or firm in the education and nonprofit sectors?

The senior leaders of a college, university, independent school, or nonprofit have a deep impact on the strength and future of the institution. When choosing a search firm, consider how much time the firm and its employees devote to the education and nonprofit sectors. Choosing a consultant and firm with decades of experience in these specialized arenas will be a great advantage to your institution. For example, higher education search specialists spend time speaking with and getting to know high-potential leaders in this sector and are not distracted by search work in unrelated areas. They have more extensive contacts – and a greater ability to reach desirable candidates – than search consultants who spend less time in this sector.

How will the search firm get to know you and your institution in order to understand your unique needs?

Your institution needs a consultant and firm willing to spend time to get to know your search committee and institution and to pay attention to what the various search constituencies wish to see in your new leader. This takes time – at your institution, in person.

How many similar searches has the firm successfully completed? How many searches has the consultant assigned to your search successfully completed?

In both instances, more is better. Since the most desirable administrators or other potential leaders are not likely to be actively seeking a new opportunity, your institution will benefit from hiring a consultant who has led similar searches in the recent past. She or he will have many more contacts and better access to excellent candidates based on personal and firm-wide experience than will a consultant who has completed fewer searches.

How many searches is your consultant working on currently?

While it might seem that having your consultant fully devoted to your search is the best scenario for a successful outcome, in reality this should be avoided. Executive search is a "contact sport." A good consultant is constantly in contact with potential candidates, ideally via multiple searches. Choose a consultant who is busy and connected in order to take full advantage of his or her recent and current contacts.

How often and how well does the team devoted to your search work together?

You will be spending a lot of time with your search team over the next few months. You need to trust them, and, almost as important, you need to like them. In our experience, the possibility of this happening is much higher if the members of the team have good rapport and work together often and well.

How flexible and adaptable will the firm be to your needs? How customized will the process be for you?

It's very difficult, from a client perspective, to assess how flexible and customized a search firm or individual consultant will be. This is one of many reasons why we strongly recommend that you check the references of all firms you are considering for your search. The only way to get a 360-degree view of a consultant's and firm's performance is to check references. Be sure not to omit this important step, and ideally you should also contact references NOT on the consultant's list of provided references.

Does the firm have access to a varied and diverse candidate pool? How does it identify diverse candidates? 

In the 21st century, increasing diversity and inclusion at the highest levels of leadership is a high priority for most institutions, especially in the education and nonprofit sectors. Ideally, the search firm you hire will have a track record of successfully identifying and placing varied candidates from different backgrounds. A firm does not have to be minority- or woman-owned to successfully cultivate a diverse candidate pool, but such a firm can be helpful in ensuring a successful hire. In addition, the more time a firm spends in a particular sector, actively scouting for the leaders of the present and future, the more likely it is that the firm will bring forward a well-rounded slate of candidates in that sector.

How will you be able to access candidate information?

Due to the nature and length of the academic curriculum vitae (CV), higher education searches involve more paper (or digital pages) than conventional business searches do. It is extremely helpful to access these and all relevant search files via a confidential client portal already in place and managed by the search firm. Storbeck Search and other recruitment firms offer this service, but not all firms do. If a firm expects the client to shoulder the administrative and technological burden, it is important to know this up front.

Will the firm involve the search committee in client referencing?

In our experience, it is very important for the search committee to be involved in contacting the strongest potential candidates' references. Contacting references does two things for the committee: first, it personalizes the candidates and helps committee members form a much deeper understanding of them than can be gained from reading materials alone; and second, getting to know the strongest candidates earlier in the process enables better advocacy and the ability to report back to committee members' constituencies outside the process. For example, faculty representatives on the committee can report back to the faculty as a whole from a fully informed and engaged vantage point.

Will you get a complete picture of each potential candidate?

Search committees need full information – positive and negative – about each candidate in order to make an informed decision. When checking references for the search firms you are considering, ask: How thorough was the information provided by the search firm for each qualified candidate? A stellar search firm will provide unbiased yet thorough information on each candidate.