Recurrent National Searches Suggest Management Problems

Organizations that regularly announce “national searches” to replace CEOs tend to have internal management problems. High performing organizations tend to promote from within.

Consider our universities. The IHL Board has long been the king of national searches, with mixed results. Community colleges, on the other hand, are noted for promotion from within, with generally good results.

The major factor that influences CEO hiring is the management approach of the board of directors/trustees. In high performing organizations, boards tend to focus on both long and short term objectives and continuity of leadership. In organizations experiencing CEO turnover, boards tend to be influenced by subjective issues and allow new CEOs to establish their own agendas.

As an IHL trustee I participated in many searches where the first question asked of some national search candidate was “What is your vision/plan for the university?” In other words, “tell us the agenda you will implement if we give you the reins?” Some of the national search prospects we and future boards hired did well, too many did not.

It’s extremely hard to make good hiring decisions in searches where your interaction with prospects is limited and your opportunity to gain understanding of their character and management style is restricted to a couple of interviews, input from the recruiter, and feedback from interest groups. It’s like judging a book by its cover.

That’s why boards of high performing organizations deliberately grow their own future leaders. They get to train, nurture, and observe performance over time. They get to instill the organization’s culture and objectives. They get a good look beneath the cover.

In recent times among our universities, only the University of Mississippi has successfully prepared future CEOs, e.g. Dr. Robert Khayat and his successor as Chancellor, Dr. Dan Jones. These selections occurred despite the IHL Board’s insistence that national searches be held. The IHL Board has spent millions on national searches, a practice with questionable benefits.

Now, it appears the IHL Board could be changing course. This follows the selection of two presidents from the IHL central office staff. First, Dr. Jim Borsig, who served as IHL Associate Commissioner for External Relations and Public Policy, was named president of Mississippi University for Women, but as part of a national search. More recently, Dr. Alfred Rankins, Jr., who served as IHL Deputy Commissioner for Academic and Student Affairs, was named president of Alcorn State University, but without a national search.

Still, as this is written a national search has begun to replace Dr. James Keeton as CEO of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He and his two predecessors were promoted from within and the center experienced a time of tremendous improvement and growth.

Boards should invest in growing future leaders, not expensive national searches.

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