A Mistake to Avoid in Leadership Searches

Headshot of Annmarie Caño, professor of Psychology at Gonzaga
Annmarie Caño, Ph.D.

November 09, 2023
Annmarie Caño, Professor of Psychology

Another academic year means new searches for department chairs, deans, provosts and presidents at higher education institutions across the country. Search committees and search firms work hard to craft leadership profiles that capture the essential functions of the job as well as the ideal skills and experiences successful candidates will have. I have served on many leadership searches, often as the only BIPOC representative, and have observed a curious phenomenon. Someone, sometimes the hiring manager, will inevitably state, “We need someone who has done this job before.”

Unfortunately, the pervasive view in searches for top higher education administrators is that the best candidate is someone who has held the same title at another institution. As a Latina who has had objective success serving in four different leadership positions that I never held prior to each role, I challenge search committees to oppose that exclusionary narrative.

A Problematic Viewpoint

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this statement during searches. On its face, it might seem reasonable enough. The person making it typically wants to ensure that someone with experience is hired to lead under challenging circumstances. Perhaps difficult budget, personnel or programmatic decisions must be made.

Yet this sentiment is problematic for the following reasons:

  • Just because someone has held the same title somewhere else doesn’t mean they know how to do the job at your institution. Academic leadership roles are heavily context dependent. In my time as dean, my colleagues and I often shared our very different experiences across our colleges and universities. We learned different skills and had different experiences based on our local challenges and the people with whom we worked. For instance, a colleague at an urban, private university honed collaboration and negotiation skills through her work during tense collective bargaining negotiations. Another colleague described high turnover in the senior leadership ranks that caused him to learn leadership skills typically found one or two rungs higher on the organizational ladder. Still another was engaged in intensive fundraising efforts that coincided with the launch of a capital campaign. We all shared the same title, but our skill sets varied because of our local contexts.
"Just because someone has held the same title somewhere else doesn’t mean they know how to do the job at your institution."
  • Relying too much on formal titles may obscure the skills you believe are necessary to do the job, resulting in the selection of a less-than-ideal candidate. Consider a situation in which a university is seeking a leader who can craft and launch a strategic plan. A search committee may assume that candidates with the same title must surely have had this experience, and in fact, candidates will call it out in their cover letters because the leadership profile emphasizes this skill. Now, imagine that faculty and staff members at this institution have experienced over a decade of top-down, authoritarian leadership and a lack of transparency in decision-making. A candidate with strategic planning experience who does not also have good interpersonal and culture-building skills might be able to produce a strategic plan document, but at a cost: low morale, disengagement and attrition—which, in turn, will affect the confidence of students, families and the public in the specific institution and in higher education more generally.
  • The higher you go in the organizational chart, the more academic leadership skews toward white men. So, by requiring that candidates have held a particular title before, you are probably limiting the diversity of your finalist pool to people who are white and male. This requirement becomes a proxy for (white) race and (male) gender, rather than skills.
"When we narrow the field based on a title, we may miss out on hiring exceptional people who have the capabilities that our institutions need."
  • Many highly qualified colleagues, including women across races and people of color across genders, are denied entry into the leadership pipeline, in part, because of hiring and promotion practices that are biased and discriminatory. Yet we have acquired many useful skills that not only serve us well but serve our institutions, too, such as putting people first in word and in deed. We show up with empathy to listen and advocate for our people, our unit and the university, which is especially important when higher education is under threat.

 Those skills also include:

  • Diplomacy and the ability to accurately read people and situations so that wise strategies regarding fundraising and strategic direction can be developed and executed;
  • Collaboration and consensus-building skills to engage diverse groups of people, including centering the experiences of those who have been historically excluded, to solve shared challenges;
  • Humility in adapting to change by being open to learning as opposed to believing we have everything already figured out; and
  • Inclusive and justice-oriented skills that can be put to work to identify and rectify exclusionary policies and practices, which can ultimately improve morale and retention in personnel and students.

All that is not to say that everyone who has been denied access to formal leadership positions demonstrates these skills or that everyone who has had a formal title does not have these skills. Yet when we narrow the field based on a title, we may miss out on hiring exceptional people who have the capabilities that our institutions need but who do not have the accompanying title.

What to Do About It

You can use the following strategies to counter presumptions about the skill levels of candidates based on whether or not they have held the same role elsewhere.

  • Remind others that new leaders need to learn on the job, even if they have held the title before. What worked at one institution at one point in time may or may not work at your institution now. Provide examples if you have them.
  • Ask your colleagues to clearly define the skills and experiences needed for the job that they believe someone with the title possesses. Then list them so they can be compared across candidates, regardless of title, using rubrics to ensure consistency and prevent against falling back on proxy measures.
  • Explain that certain skills have not been expected of people with this title in the past that are now needed in the current context. Thus, someone who held the same role even two or three years ago may not be well equipped to be successful now if they have not learned from their experiences or sought out training. Some of these skills might include: having political acumen in the face of increasing protests, including from within; fostering wellness and empathy in words and deeds to enhance retention; and building trust with people from marginalized communities—including an increasingly diverse student body that demands more from their leaders than ever before.
"Your advocacy can help others question and reflect on academic leadership at your institution."
  • Share resources about the demographic makeup of the higher education workforce. The rank of full professor is a common entry point to a variety of leadership positions, including department chair and associate dean. In Condition of Education 2023, a report of the National Center for Education Statistics, we learn that 76 percent of full professors identify as white, and almost two-thirds of them are men. At the other end of the spectrum, the American Council on Education issued a study on the college presidency that found that approximately 72 percent surveyed identified as white, and almost two-thirds of them were men. It is hard not to see how requiring the same title for certain roles may replicate inequitable dynamics across the leadership pipeline.
  • If you are working with a search firm, ask questions about how they recruit candidates for the initial pool. A common practice is for search consultants to send recruitment emails to people who currently hold the same title or are one step below in the organizational chart—such as associate deans for a dean search. Inquire about the search firm’s methods for reaching potential candidates who have the skills but not the titles. Explain why you are asking and request that they broaden their recruiting methods. (Or choose a different firm.)

In some cases, people can be adamant about the necessity of candidates having held the title for which you are advertising. You may not be able to change their mind. They may even be the hiring manager who has the final say. At the very least, however, your advocacy can help others question and reflect on academic leadership at your institution. You may even change the course of future searches as more people begin to question their assumptions of who makes a great academic leader. 

About the Author

Annmarie Caño is a professor of psychology at Gonzaga University and a board-certified coach. She previously served in a variety of university leadership positions including dean of a college of arts and sciences, associate provost for faculty development and success, associate dean of a graduate school, and associate department chair. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

This article was originally published on InsideHigherEd.com on Nov. 7, 2023.

Learn more about the Psychology Department and its incredible faculty!