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    7 Fresh Ideas to Help Searches for Academic Leaders Succeed

    Why are academic recruitment searches such a source of complaint and consternation? This isn’t a new question. Recent articles in Academic Medicine have asserted that “the current system is in major disarray” (1); that search committees don’t really search (2); and in the new business environment of academic medical centers, “most search committees are ill equipped or unwilling to undertake the labor-intensive process required to truly search” for new leaders (3).

    The Problems

    So what’s not working? Based on my recent research with executive search consultants and medical school deans and administrators, the criticism of the process can be distilled in several overarching themes.

    1. Pre-Work: The traditional academic search process does not sufficiently address in advance of the search getting underway what characteristics, skill sets, and competencies the new leader is expected to have. Often, institutions don’t think in outcome terms: in one or two years, what evidence would demonstrate whether you’ve hired the right person? What would be different? Then, what competencies or expertise are you looking for to achieve those outcomes?
    2. Committees: committee approach to the search process honors academic traditions but can also impede outcomes. Some schools are saddled with arcane requirements about who has to be on the committee—policies that may not reflect the complex health care enterprise in which academic medical centers operate. In other cases, committees simply can be too large or not populated with people committed to the search process.
    3. The Dean's Charge: The dean’s charge to the committee—that is, the specific skills and requirements for the position—can be a source of friction. The committee hears the charge but might not listen to it, thinking of itself as a selection committee, not just a search committee.
    4. Casting the Net: Committees can be under the delusion of “advertise it and they will come.” Several ads in prominent journals or newsletters plus a handful of letters to peers around the country might only work in the most prestigious of positions, and maybe not even then. Far too often, the search process is passive.
    5. Scheduling: Scheduling committee meetings and candidate interviews can take forever. Instead of maintaining momentum, an extended search can get bogged down and candidates can lose interest.
    6. Confidentiality: In some searches, confidentiality is not respected. Committee members might conduct a parallel search process—contacting colleagues at a candidate’s current institution and gathering information (or worse, gossip) on the side. Such behavior is damaging to everyone—candidates, search committee, and institution.
    7. Professionalism: Overall, the search process isn’t conducted with the same high degree of professionalism that is routinely afforded to and expected from other arenas in the academic medical center.

    These missteps affect the outcomes of the search process in all cases, but can be detrimental especially when the institution wishes to increase the diversity of its leadership team by recruiting a women or minority member: for example, the position isn’t evaluated with an eye toward attracting diverse candidates; the committee doesn’t include diverse perspectives; there is a disconnect between the charge and the eventual outcome, or the casting-of-the-net doesn’t identify a sufficient pool of women and minority candidates.

    Fresh Ideas

    While each of these criticisms may be valid for the academic search process when we think about it overall, medical schools around the country are attempting to break the mold, using innovative approaches in how they go about searching for new leaders. Those institutions that are pushing the envelope in developing search innovations implicitly or explicitly embrace the view that process is everything—that you need to pay attention to the details of how you search in order to improve the outcomes for the institution.

    Here are seven fresh ideas that are in place and working at a medical school near you:

    1. Lots of prep work: Some schools spend a significant amount of time defining the position in outcome terms, and what characteristics a candidate needs to achieve those outcomes. For your most recent search, could you have answered the question, “What problem is this person being hired to solve, and how will we know when they’ve solved it?”
    2. Search “ambassadors”: Several schools have identified one point person to coordinate all senior-level searches, with the goal of making the process more systematic, professional, coordinated, and strategic. At some schools, this role is filled by an administrative assistant who aids every search committee chair to bring consistency to the administration of the search. As important as that role can be, a more strategic approach is a senior level associate dean who advises every committee on cutting-edge practices, including how to search for diverse candidates.
    3. Inclusive search committees: A number of medical schools have taken a broad view about who to include on search committees. Invited community representatives, members from local minority medical societies, faculty from other schools and colleges in the university, and even faculty from other universities deepens and widens the perspectives of the committee, and enables committees to be more diverse in terms of backgrounds, perspectives, and assumptions.
    4. Actively Engaged deans: In a few cases, deans have taken a very active role in tapping networks to find candidates: attending specialty meetings, making calls, and actively inviting people in. Some candidates may be reluctant to put their name in the hat unless they know the search is credible and legitimately open, and a personal call from the dean can indicate just that.
    5. Reverse site visits are not a new idea, but many institutions do not use them. Visiting finalists on their home turf, and speaking with people below, beside, and above the candidate can crystallize whether the individual would be a good fit for the institution and its culture.
    6. Streamlining: This idea compresses what otherwise can be a drawn-out process. One simple solution is when the search ambassador (see #2 above) at the beginning of the process reserves time on committee members’ calendars for candidate interviews, so scheduling doesn’t cause delays months later. In another example, the search committee replaces the traditional two rounds of candidate visits (semi-finalist and finalist) with just one. The goal is to get just enough information for the committee to make its recommendations to the dean.
    7. “High touch” service: Many institutions strive to provide concierge-level service to all candidates— those who become finalists, to be sure, but also to those who don’t. The goal is to treat everyone who is considered for the position with dignity and respect. This goes from escorting candidates to interviews, considering the needs of spouses and significant others, to calling candidates who don’t make the cut. One dean personally called every woman applicant, even those not on the shortlist, and thanked them for their interest. Small acts go a long way in creating goodwill, which only improves the institution’s reputation as a great place to work. An important part of conducting a professional-quality search is paying attention to details. Module I of The Successful Medical School Department Chair (4) includes a list of recommended steps that good searches tend to take.

    New Directions

    Despite some fresh ideas and innovations in the search process around the country, a few discrete changes may not be enough. Medical schools and teaching hospitals should be aware of three trends in the leadership search process gaining traction in the industry.

    1. Talent Management: First, the discrete “search process” is evolving into a strategic system of “talent management.” The idea is that the search process shouldn’t start just when there’s an opening, but rather that searching is a continual process of identifying potential leaders wherever they may be—at your institution and others. Think of this as a process of continual networking, where the job of the dean or CEO is akin to a sports recruiter—knowing where the talent is and cultivating those relationships.
    2. Centralization of Search: The second trend is the centralization of the search process at an institution-wide level—including the use of a search coordinator, standardized search protocols, visit guidelines, etc. Some schools use these tools now; many don’t. A centralized search strategy is the only way to integrate the leadership selection process with institutional culture.
    3. Succession Management: And finally, there is a trend toward succession management. I intentionally use this term rather than “succession planning,” because succession planning conjures up articles from the business pages describing some corporate CEO hand-picking a successor, a modern-day version of primogeniture. That model isn’t on easily grafted onto the culture of academic medicine. Rather, succession management is an organization-wide process to identify and develop future leaders, using strategies such as pipelines for developing junior leaders, on-the-job experiences like “stretch” assignments, participation in cross-organizational initiatives, and the use of coaches. Succession management also is a key strategy in monitoring the composition of potential leaders from a diversity perspective.


    1. Creasman WT. Is This Any Way to Choose a Chair? Academic Medicine 2001; 76:1032-1034.
    2. Hoffmeir PA. Are Search Committees Really Searching? Academic Medicine 2003; 78: 125-128.
    3. Grigsby RK, Hefner DS, Souba WW, Kirch DG. The Future-oriented Department Chair. Academic Medicine 2004; 79: 571-577.
    4. Biebuyck JF, Mallon WT. The Successful Medical School Department Chair. Module I: Search, Selection, Appointment, Transition. Washington, DC: AAMC, 2003.
    5. Searching for Diversity—A Discussion of Effective Academic Medical Search Committees, Faculty Vitae Winter 2007