The Search is On

The University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce completed a dean search in just 16 weeks. How?
The Search is On

Business schools take 18 months, on average, to hire a new dean-a long time to be left without a permanent leader. But by committing to a plan and a few key principles, the University of Alabama shortened the process to just 16 weeks. 

The median length of tenure for a business school dean is just more than three years, according to data from AACSB International. That figure is frightening in itself, but even more frightening is that after a dean steps down, it takes 18 months on average for a business school to hire a new one. That means that business schools are led by lame duck or interim leaders about 33 percent of the time, which interrupts a business school’s momentum, decreases the productivity of its faculty and staff, and disrupts its organizational culture.

AACSB and other organizations are implementing initiatives to make a dean’s tenure more effective and longer lasting. But until those initiatives lead to a permanent solution to the rotating leadership at many business schools, why don’t we turn to a more immediate solution to the problem? Why don’t we simply shorten the length of time it takes to find a new dean? We know that’s possible because the selection committee at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce in Tuscaloosa chose our new dean in just 16 weeks.

In late November 2010, our dean of 23 years announced his intention to step down. Before the end of the calendar year, the provost had met with faculty to clarify the search procedure, and our faculty had elected six members to serve on the selection committee. In January, the provost appointed five additional committee members, allowed within our guidelines; named a chair; and gave the committee permission to conduct the search without her office’s intervention. And by the end of January, the committee had outlined a 16-week plan to appoint a new dean, including two weeks to prepare for interviews, seven weeks to field candidates, two weeks to screen candidates, two weeks to interview candidates, and one week to make a final choice.

On February 1, the clock started ticking. With such a tight schedule, we had little room for error. However, we realized that if we followed the key principles that we had set, we could skirt political pitfalls and meet our deadline. We think that if other schools adopt a similar approach, most can streamline their dean searches significantly—and avoid languishing in a leadership lurch.

Stage One: Preparation

For the first two weeks, our committee completed four preparatory steps. First, we arranged permission for our search with the human resources department, so that we could proceed with the other three steps while awaiting HR’s final approval. This may seem simple, but doing this first was crucial to keeping us on schedule. Even if HR had required additional tweaks to our plan, it was unlikely that the office would refuse the committee permission to move forward.

Second, we debated whether or not to use a search firm. In the end, we decided to conduct the search on our own. However, we reserved the right to ask the provost to hire a search firm in the future, if we were unable to find a qualified pool of candidates within six weeks. The provost supported that decision.

Third, we compiled an initial list of characteristics that we wanted the new dean to have and created a plan to solicit input from our alumni base, donors, central administration, and faculty. Finally, we prepared the advertisement copy and announcement letters for the position. Two weeks later, we had met our first deadline.

Stage Two: Candidate Collection

We distributed job announcements throughout the seven-week period of our candidate collection phase. We completed the other four steps simultaneously, rather than sequentially, to save time. These steps included contacting AACSB and other organizations, distributing announcement letters to stakeholders and other schools, placing job announcements, and narrowing down the selection criteria.

To narrow down our criteria, we held meetings with faculty, alumni, and donors to ask them what they thought were the most desirable characteristics for the new dean. With donors, we conducted an exercise called “The Dean’s First Day,” in which we asked them to imagine what priorities they would emphasize if they were meeting the dean on his or her first day in office. It turned out that donors wanted a dean who would emphasize the importance of international business, relevant curricula, and job placement. Faculty, on the other hand, wanted a dean who was a strong fundraiser, comfortable with outreach, and supportive of their work and research.

Although these discussions were time-consuming, they laid the foundation for our screening of candidates. We were able to pinpoint our selection criteria more effectively with the needs of our community in mind.

Stage Three: Candidate Screening

As we began to screen candidates, we balanced inclusivity with efficiency. We invited any candidate who was supported by at least 20 percent of the committee to schedule a preliminary interview with us over Skype. Over the next two weeks, we conducted 30-minute Skype interviews with 26 candidates. To stay on schedule, our chair sent each candidate an assigned interview time via email, rather than provide a choice of times—only one person could not meet at the first slot offered.

That’s not to say that such alacrity did not lead to a few lighthearted mistakes. In one interview invitation, the chair mistyped the proposed interview time as “0:00,” which required the candidate, whose name was Bob, to ask for clarification. Embarrassed, the chair replied instantly, but in haste began the message, “Dear Boob”—which required yet another apologetic email. Fortunately, the gracious candidate sent the following diplomatic reply: “Good catch.”

Such moments were rare. The chair’s organization of interviews, the assignment of interview times, and the use of Skype streamlined our efforts and allowed us to complete our interviews by the middle of the second week. Because we had spent so much time determining selection criteria, we were able to narrow down the pool of 26 to four candidates rapidly, with no major differences of opinion.

Stage Four: Interviews

Nine weeks in, we finally could make the names of our four candidates public. We learned two surprising but valuable lessons at this point. The first was that everyone wants to be included in the interviewing process! From support staff to administrators, from freshmen to alums 50 years out, from ten-dollar donors to million-dollar benefactors—everyone wanted to meet the candidates. When our first candidate came to campus for interviews, we did not recognize the extent of these requests. We scheduled far too many one-on-one meetings. We quickly realized that approach wasn’t practical. For the remaining candidates, we scheduled group meetings with stakeholders, in addition to interviews with the committee members, which proved highly effective.

The second lesson was that a school’s community will conduct its own informal vetting of candidates, beyond the selection committee’s formal vetting efforts. Once the finalists’ names were announced, faculty and other supporters called their friends and acquaintances to find out more about them.

We considered asking them to stop their efforts, but upon further reflection we decided it was a healthy, positive part of the search. In the end, their inquiries helped clear the air about each of our candidates and hurt no one’s chances to be chosen for the job.

Stage Five: Discussion

In the week after the interviews, we held final meetings with departments and key support groups to ask them to voice what they viewed as positives and negatives about each candidate. We then gathered data electronically from these groups and others; we also sent ballots to select constituents and asked them to vote. It was a challenge to do so much in just one week, but these meetings gave constituents one last opportunity to voice their opinions in open discussions.

We held faculty and committee yes-or-no votes. For their names to be submitted to the provost and president—who would make the final decision—the candidates had to receive at least 66 percent approval. Amazingly, three of our candidates cleared that hurdle. The provost and president chose our new dean from among those three.

On Schedule, Under Budget

We were able to complete the task by our deadline and, metaphorically, under budget—even though a tornado struck our area during our search! We did so by operating according to four principles that kept us focused:

Principle No. 1: Stay on the High Road

Committee members sought to communicate with each other continuously and follow the “high road” at all times. That meant no political intrigue, gossip, inaccuracies, or hurtful comments. We strove, as Don Miguel Ruiz advises in The Four Agreements, “to be impeccable with our words.” Even when members did not agree with another’s perspective, they ardently defended that committee member’s right to hold that point of view. Consequently, the committee grew quite close and operated effectively.

Principle No. 2: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

The committee vowed to be strategically transparent with stakeholders at every stage of the search. Some parts of the search demanded secrecy—for instance, we were not at liberty to reveal the names of the candidates until the interview stage—but we acknowledged the need for confidentiality to the community at the beginning. We were open in all other respects. We released bimonthly reports that outlined how many candidates had applied, where we were in the process, and when we hoped to complete each step. We even kept our applicants in the loop. It’s almost impossible to communicate too much when handling a sensitive topic such as a dean’s search.

Principle No. 3: Listen, Listen, Listen

The committee made concerted efforts to gather feedback via regular meetings with external constituents, upper-level administration, faculty, and staff. Communication can easily—and dangerously— become a one-way street, especially when the situation is sensitive. By inviting feedback, the committee was able to gain additional insights from our community and clarify misunderstandings along the way.

Principle No. 4: Get by with a Little Help from Your Friends

Like most schools with a dean position to fill, we flooded the nation, if not the world, with announcements about the position. Yet, to our surprise, the final four candidates all came to us via recommendations by faculty, staff, and supporters at our own institution. These groups also helped us persuade these candidates to put their names forward for consideration. We are by no means saying that schools should not use every avenue to get the best collection of candidates, but they should not limit themselves to external advertising. It’s important also to take advantage of help that’s closer to home.

Even though there were some difficult moments, committee members unanimously agreed that the process was significantly less painful than they expected it to be. In fact, to a person, committee members labeled the experience enlightening and enjoyable.

By implementing the principles above, schools could shorten their dean searches by six months—or even a year or more. More important, they’ll hopefully be fortunate enough to hire an excellent dean who stays with their school for a decade and beyond.

Ron Dulek is the John R. Miller Professor at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce in Tuscaloosa. He served as a member of the school’s dean selection committee.