Recruiting Academic Leaders Across Borders

With the issue of Brexit still unfolding and higher education institutions further expanding globally, leadership recruiting continues to shift. In the following Q&A, Natalie Derry, General Manager of Witt/Kieffer International’s London office, sizes up the current landscape for recruiting academic leaders across borders in the UK, Europe and beyond.

What significant trends are you seeing in recruiting academic leaders worldwide? Is there more mobility and fluidity across borders than even a few years ago?

Natalie Derry: We are still seeing quite a lot of mobility and fluidity among academic leaders. This has become increasingly true for Vice Chancellors and other top administrators, and many niche professorial and department chair roles require that searches be international and even global in order to find the best person in the area of study or research, regardless of nationality. In the higher education sector, it is rare for us not to conduct an international search for a given role.

From the candidate’s perspective, it is an increasingly global market, and academic leaders want the best position for them regardless of where they come from or where it is. They want to see that their research or leadership is having a global impact, to learn who they might collaborate with or engage with on an international scale, and to consider what sources they might get funding and support from, in selecting where they work. And, of course, there are personal reasons to look abroad—academic leaders are keen to see where they might move to that would give themselves or their families new experience and a different perspective on life.

How are candidates from other European countries and globally feeling about taking positions in the UK? Has Brexit changed anything?

Natalie Derry: Positions in UK institutions will always be desirable and highly sought after, but Brexit is having an effect. For one thing, the countries from which candidates are applying for UK positions have shifted due to Brexit. There is a lot more hesitation from European candidates for UK leadership roles, but an increase in interest from North American candidates (and, to a lesser degree, those from other parts of the world) who may sense opportunity.

Brexit has affected the thought process of many Europeans about potentially relocating to the UK. Candidates from other EU nations would like clarity around issues like work visas – will they be able to get them if they are hired? – pensions, and other basic employment matters. Many candidates are also concerned about the stability of the British currency given that the pound has suffered since the Brexit vote — it impacts decisions such as whether to sell one’s house or accept a given salary. Unfortunately, this clarity is not available now and is unlikely to be for some time. Of course, Brexit could also provide opportunities in the UK, so time will tell. Academic candidates will need to pay close attention as the situation plays out.

What skills or qualities are your clients in academia looking for in leaders today?

Natalie Derry: Just as search has become more globally oriented, leaders are expected to have a greater cross-cultural and global awareness, to see how their leadership can influence their own institution but also make a mark across academia internationally. Another trend is that academic administrators are expected to have a full range of leadership qualities beyond their academic qualifications or what academic posts in the past required. Clients want to know about leadership candidates: Can they be strategic in guiding their institution or department? Can they build teams and mentor those around them, foster relationships with partners and funding bodies, collaborate with colleagues across disciplines? The expectations today are for academic administrators to be strong, multifaceted leaders in addition to being respected researchers and scholars in their fields.

Finally, how is the pace of recruiting for top academic positions these days? What expectations do colleges and universities have regarding how long a comprehensive global search will take?

Natalie Derry: Because the pace of everything is faster today, there is often a desire to hire new leaders quickly. Fortunately, in academia, institutions understand it takes time to identify and recruit the best field of candidates, and to undergo a comprehensive process to interview and select the right person. The pace of a top academic search will still typically be around four to six months. It takes several months to undertake sourcing, briefing, client interviews, and vetting, before ultimately making an offer and a candidate accepting the role. It can then be six to 12 months before a candidate actually starts their new position. As recruiters, we are ready to “hit the ground running,” so to speak, but we always want to recruit the right way— by understanding exactly what type of person would thrive in a given role in order to find the right fit for our client.

Natalie Derry is General Manager of Witt/Kieffer International’s London office, with oversight of operations in the UK and mainland Europe. Based in Edinburgh and London, she previously served in the same role for Witt/Kieffer Ccentric, the precursor to Witt/Kieffer International.

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