The Evolution of Higher Education Search in the U.S.

Lucy Apthorp Leske is managing partner of the higher education practice at WittKieffer. In this interview, she discusses the sector’s attitude to executive search, the need for leadership assessment services, and the pressures on higher education leaders today.

What has changed in the industry over the past five years?

Higher education was one of the last sectors to move to search. The trend in executive search is that we’re seeing growth in demand because the institutions we work for are getting more sophisticated and open to having a search partner. The culture here isn’t “find me five candidates and I’ll pick one”. It’s find me the best candidate. Institutions see a search firm as a helpful partner that manages process, risk, time, and communication. The competences and the change management processes are like nothing they’ve experienced before. Ten years ago there were maybe a handful of firms competing for presidential searches. Last year, we counted at least 20 other firms who competed for presidential searches.

Has increase in demand also led to an increase in leadership consulting? Do clients see the value executive search provides?

Now a president will stay for seven to ten years, compared to 20 years ago when they would stay for longer. We’ve got pipeline issues in higher education, particularly related to diversity and gender. How do we develop succession planning inside these organizations? Consulting around leadership assessment is very common. Ten years ago you couldn’t get them to give you five minutes of their time to discuss leadership assessment, now institutions are coming around to see the value it adds. It still is a relationship based business and some of the people with whom I work with were candidates of mine 20 years ago and now they’re clients. However there is still a lot of scrutiny about how they’re using their money so a lot of consulting that occurs is subtle.

How is the education sector changing?

I would say what worries presidents the most are questions related to risk management, communications, immediacy and lack of control over messaging, and economics.

In terms of risk management, human behavior hasn’t changed much, but the amount of scrutiny on higher education institutions has increased—everything from how you manage sexual assault, Title IX, and prevent weapons on campus. Related to search, there are concerns around how administration, leaders and boards approach risk management and who is in charge of it. Risk management was distributed in past. Now they’re looking at risk management overall and having a single leader who is willing to think about it all the time.