Blog Post

Looking for Leaders

Strategies for Effective Executive Searches
Published March 1, 2022
By Apryl Motley, CAE, SASM

Interview with Margaret (Peggy) Plympton, Principal, AGB Search

Under the headline, “Does Your Search Committee Have an Elevator Pitch?,” an item in the spring 2022 edition of Trends for Higher Education addresses how institutions have adjusted their approach to leadership searches in a highly competitive job market. To gain more insight into strategies for conducting successful leadership searches, we turned to SCUP Board of Directors Member Margaret (Peggy) Plympton, a principal at AGB Search.

Founded more than a decade ago, AGB Search is a retained executive search firm affiliated with the Association of Governing Boards, a 100-plus-year-old association that works in support of college and university governing boards. Plympton is part of a team of more than 40 consultants who have collectively completed close to 1,000 search engagements for a full range of leadership positions on campuses.

Prior to joining the firm, Plympton worked in finance and administration roles on five different campuses over 35 years. In her last two positions, she served as the vice president for finance and administration at two different research universities. During her years on campuses, she worked with all members of the campus leadership team. She brings this personal experience to her search work. Plympton addressed our questions about how institutions can launch and manage effective leadership searches.

How will the competitive job market for future leaders affect institutions?

The competitive job market is already having a material impact on institutions, both in the challenges of finding pools of qualified candidates and in the need to be clear to themselves and to candidates about what the current institutional profile is and what the opportunities are for new members of the leadership team. Institutions will have to effectively articulate what the new leaders will be called on to do and to achieve, how those achievements will be measured, and what the resources are for accomplishing those goals.

In addition, institutions will be well served to do succession planning and identify wherever possible what future leaders they might already have on campus; “growing your own” is a smart strategy to supplement the recruitment of leadership from outside the institution. And given the competitive labor market in all fields, it is reasonable to plan on increased compensation expenses and the need to think creatively about whether a hybrid model for new employees will be feasible. Now that we’ve all learned how to work remotely, that question comes up in almost every search.

What can colleges and universities do now to prepare for launching leadership searches?

  • Have a clearly articulated mission, vision, and values as well as a strategic plan that moves you forward toward your multiyear goals with those providing the overall direction.
  • Ensure that the governing bodies are aligned with the strategic direction.
  • Manage your resources (physical, financial, human, etc.) to meet your mission most effectively.
  • Make sure you are communicating clearly both within and beyond your institution about what the priorities are—and why—and how you’ll get there.
  • Ensure that justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (JDEI) initiatives are central to your mission and appropriately supported across the institution.

And as noted above, be sure you are supporting opportunities for your current staff and faculty to become more skilled and more effective, so when openings occur, internal candidates are viable alternatives or maybe even the best answer!

What relationships will campuses find beneficial as they respond to the competitive job market?

Institutions these days should focus their resources on their own mission-critical activities and needs; things that fall outside of that mission-critical category are often achieved best by partnering with other campuses or other providers of those services. Relationships with search firms experienced in higher education are very valuable to supporting a smooth process and identifying a strong pool of potential candidates. By putting institutional resources toward the mission-critical needs, hiring leaders who are best positioned to advance that mission will be slightly easier because the focus will be clear to all concerned.

In addition, the whole community of associations that support higher ed institutions is a set of partnerships that can be valuable. Those associations provide best practices information, make it easier to connect to other institutions that are confronting similar challenges, and create networks that will be valuable in finding the next great leader.
Whether that’s AGB, SCUP, or any of the many other higher ed-focused organizations, these associations are important to the success of all colleges and universities.

Want to learn more?