This past semester I had the privilege of leading the search to find Susquehanna University’s Athletic Director. When the process started, it seemed so normal. Spelman Johnson was working with us during our search, and we had our initial phone call with them in early January followed up by an in-person meeting in mid-January. The search committee then had two in-person planning meetings, in advance of the early March application deadline.
We all know what happened next. In March 2020 COVID-19 hit and world went virtual. Our university was faced with a choice – we could delay the search, or we could move forward with our search but do it virtually. Given the importance of the athletic director role, we felt we needed to move forward and land a good candidate. The virtual search went well, and we were thrilled to land Shareif Hashim as our athletic director from a pool of talented applicants.
During this search, we learned a few lessons that might help you if you are considering a virtual search.
For the preliminary interviews, make sure everybody knows their role
Many major searches have airport interviews – shorter introductory interview where the search committee gets to meet the candidate at an off campus site (usually an airport). In general, it is important that during these meetings, you have a script of questions to ask and that each person knows their role. When running a virtual meeting however, this is much more important because you won’t be able to rely on non-verbal cues as easily. In our search, we had six questions that were split among the committee members and we also allowed time for the candidate to ask us questions. Each committee member knew what question to ask and the order of the questions, and that helped the process run smoothly.
Keep the search committee engaged
During “normal times,” I often see people around campus. So when conducting a normal search, I’d see other search committee members. We would have conversations and small talk about how things were going in general. These little conversations have value in keeping everyone engaged – even when the conversations are not usually about the search. When COVID-19 hit, everything went remote and it was tougher to get a sense of how people felt about the process. I’m not certain the best way to counteract this issue – but being aware that you won’t be able to walk down the hall and see your search committee team is useful.
During the final interview stage, don’t feel confined to the traditional schedule
During most on-campus (final) interviews, a person might come to campus for one or two days, and complete all the interview meetings during those days. Naturally, it must be this way when somebody visits, because a person traveling has a tight schedule and you don’t want to waste somebody’s time when they are traveling. When conducting a final interview virtually however, there is no reason for all interview meetings to be scheduled in a short period of time. We conducted our interviews over two weeks and felt no need to try to jam a nine-hour day together for the candidate. This gave us more flexibility in scheduling interviews and, for the candidate, meant that they didn’t have to spend nine hours in a day on Zoom.
Expect a technology snafu (and roll with it)
We scheduled multiple candidates for final interviews, and each had over a dozen separate meetings. Each meeting, of course, had its own link emailed to participants. This meant there were a lot of opportunities for technology to fail. Understanding that the technology could fail ahead of time, and asking candidates and interviewers to be patient, was helpful. In our case, the only time we had an issue was when a two people conducting an interview – who hadn’t seen each other in over a month – stayed on the “Zoom line” after the call to catch up, preventing the next session from starting until we figured out the issue. In the end, it only delayed things by a few minutes, and once we figured out the problem both the search committee and candidate laughed at the cause of the issues.
Running a search for an important position can seem daunting in normal times. When running a virtual search, it can feel overwhelming at first. But our experiences with a virtual search were smooth and we were pleased with the results. We had a strong pool and were excited that Sharief Hashim joined as Susquehanna University’s director of athletics. Hopefully these tips can help you if you are about to start your own virtual search.