It’s late fall 2019 and I’m nervously pacing Terminal H at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Crosswinds delayed my connecting flight to an airport interview for a first round in a college presidency two states away. Although my 50-minute face-to-face meeting with the search committee isn’t scheduled until the next morning, a canceled flight could mean I miss my time slot and not only lose another day of work on my origin, but also my best opportunity to impress a potential new employer.
Fast forward through 26 months of Covid. Airport interviews? Who does them anymore? The question now is: should we already back to travel times, hotel nights, and multiple meal expenses – all for a 50-minute in-person interview?
I started the pandemic as a university president and am now a consultant seeking leadership positions in academia. As a candidate, client, and consultant, I’ve seen all the effort and resources it takes to put together a series of first-round in-person interviews for an executive search:
- Rent conference space at a hotel for two full days in a city with a central airport, often hours from a rural campus.
- Find out how to coordinate the schedules of a handful of busy admins (and volunteers) arriving (more than likely on their own), so they can spend the night at a top-notch past hotel with a group of professors and of staff representatives forced to work two full days away from their main professional responsibilities.
- Bring in first-round candidates (up to about 12) at great expense and pay them to spend the night in the same hotel. They are prisoners of their room, avoiding uncomfortable encounters in hotel hallways or elevators with competing candidates. They, too, are spending two days away from work and home — all so the hiring committee can see a candidate’s body language for an hour or less in person. While there’s some benefit to the camaraderie that takes place in the restaurant lounge over the hotel’s chicken Caesar salads, most members of the search committee will head to their rooms to catch up on their emails. and say goodnight to their kids so they can get up at dawn to grab a loaded parfait of granola before they start meeting candidates at back-to-back pitches.
- Pay a research firm to guide the agenda and keep the committee on track. (The consultants also take notes and escort candidates to and from their appointments. These two days at the airport hotel focus entirely on a single client requiring the full attention of the consultants. is not the case.)
As higher education continues to adapt to this new hybrid world of “in person when we can, but online if it’s more convenient and efficient”, it’s clear that the time-consuming and often mentally exhausting for leadership positions has been permanently transformed for candidates, search committee members and consultants.
The first-round interview at an airport hotel is a victim of the pandemic, and it seems unlikely to ever return for most executive searches. Members of the search committee can meet candidates via Zoom and other video conferencing technologies which were, of course, available before March 2020 but which almost everyone now knows how to use. Search consultants can recoup valuable hours wasted on travel, candidate logistics, and worries about undelivered meal trays.
The result is also recovered hours for applicants and search committee members. But the benefits of virtual first-round interviews aren’t just about efficiency gains.
Search committees now have an obligation to see how applicants present themselves online. During virtual interviews, committees can assess whether or not a potential new dean, provost or president appears on screen as genuine and competent. And on a technical level, search committees can see whether or not applicants can get their own lighting, background, and camera setting. This may be a factor in which candidates move on to the next round as, in 2022, future academic administrators whose job it is to communicate with alumni, faculty and staff, students, and parents had better be skilled and self-sufficient on the small screen as well as in person.
Of course, this shift to virtual first-round interviews is not good news:
- Since candidates now only need to commit to a short video call, some are less invested in completing a research process to completion. I hear at least anecdotal evidence that more applicants drop out on their own after the first round of Zoom interviews.
- At least some of the long-term creative benefits of bringing together diverse campus stakeholders around a shared common goal – finding the best candidate – are lost within the confines of Zoom collaboration. Search committee members get less of the knowledge benefits that come from in-person crosstalk. Sitting together around a conference table at the start of a search can lead to future collaborations and benefits that go beyond finding a new president, provost or dean.
- Many of the personal connections — between research consultants, new academic leaders and long-term board members — used to happen during breaks in the action of first-round in-person interviews. This connection does not occur as much or as naturally in Zoom interviews.
The airport interview can still be used on occasion – perhaps by institutions that want to be wary of someone on the candidate list. Or maybe an in-person interview can be helpful if there are a lot of high-quality candidates and the search committee wants to get a better idea of them early in the hiring process. And there are still some traditionalist resisters who find value in being in the same room as the candidates from the start.
Beyond the initial interviews, it’s unclear how much of the rest of the research process will remain online. In recent months, colleges and universities looking to hire staffing firms to hire executives have started meeting in person again. Likewise, freed from Covid restrictions, search committees are meeting (cautiously) in person for second-round interviews and later stages of the hiring process.
But the days when it was routine to hold a multi-day, in-person parade of initial candidates – chosen directly from their CVs and cover letters – are over. Those who care about finding the best candidates to lead our academic institutions can be grateful for the streamlined and improved process, and grateful for the days, hours and minutes given back to them to focus on their students and the future of their establishments.