Kerry Shepherd is a Partner at Minerva, the executive recruitment agency.
Universities are competing in a global marketplace and are keen to cast the net wide when looking to fill important senior roles. But seeking global talent comes at a price. It takes a lot of effort on the part of all those involved – institutions, headhunters, potential candidates and their families – to make it work. And there is a risk that the lure of the ‘exotic’ can backfire.
An international search can uncover interesting talent from geographical spots an advertisement would not reach, and can encourage candidates to consider a life-changing relocation they might never have contemplated without a carefully targeted approach and some hand-holding through the process.
For some posts, international experience is critical. When we helped to recruit the Executive Director of the Cambridge Commonwealth and Overseas Trust, for example, it was considered essential that the successful candidate have lived and worked overseas.
In other searches, the field would be unnecessarily limited by restricting the field to the UK. When we helped King’s College London with the appointment of a Dean of the Dental Institute, for example, the field was deepened significantly by looking overseas.
When international candidates come through a recruitment process, panels are often wowed by them, and the anticipated splash of the press announcement. This can mask weaknesses in the candidate’s profile.
In addition, there tends to be less general understanding about candidates and their home institutions and so international candidates can be spared much of the detailed scrutiny given to home contenders.
They are also less tainted by potential negative gossip – not because there isn’t any but because it is not as well known. There are sadly plenty of examples of individuals moving overseas to get away from a less than successful tenure in a previous role.
All of this requires careful and discreet investigation by headhunters and panel members.
It may sound obvious, but its consequences are broad: typical university recruitment processes have to be adapted to work for overseas candidates. It is not practical or economically sensible to have candidates fly over for two or possibly three rounds of informal visits and formal panel interviews.
In practice, all of the earlier stages take place by videoconference, with a candidate usually coming over once at the end of the process for an extended visit. This means: a) there is unequal information about candidates at key decision-making stages; and b) candidates don’t need to engage in a way that really puts them out – and therefore tests commitment – until the very end of the process.
If international candidates do end up on the shortlist, the logistics of the final interview stage become much more complicated and expensive, with international flights often being booked at short notice.
However much headhunters describe an institution and candidates do their own due diligence, it can be a real surprise when candidates actually arrive and see the place with their own eyes.
This is especially so for candidates from wealthy overseas institutions who may find space more lacking and facilities less state-of-the-art than they are used to. There can be a relatively high dropout rate from international candidates post-visit.
It is generally at this stage that it all becomes more real for spouses and children. It is one thing talking about a role with a headhunter, and an entirely different prospect when the candidate is suddenly one of three on a short-list.
One institution, which made a number of successful hires from overseas in preparation for the REF, flew out to interview candidates on their own turf. They felt that the extra information gleaned about a candidate’s professional environment and domestic setup – not to mention the benefit of seeing how serious a candidate was – was more than worth the cost of a return flight.
Even if an overseas contender becomes the preferred candidate, there remains the huge hurdle of the negotiation. Salary differentials can be problematic, especially where institutions are operating within rigid bands.
Overseas candidates often command higher salaries, especially in Australia, New Zealand and the US. The differences are greater in some academic disciplines, such as clinical subjects, where different salary expectations can more or less rule out candidates from certain parts of the world.
Where institutions can make exceptions in salary for the right overseas candidate, there are still the sensitivities to be dealt with if relativities are broken internally.
Navigating differences between pension schemes and calculating a reasonable equivalence is a minefield. And then there is the relocation to handle; institutions generally end up helping candidates with the transition, including finding accommodation, identifying schools, etc. This all adds to the investment in a hiring campaign, and lengthens the process.
Candidates will often want family members to visit before they sign on the dotted line. And, if the candidate is not eligible to work in the UK, the hiring institution will need to complete the visa process.
When it works well, overseas recruits bring a different perspective, an arsenal of best practice from elsewhere, and a breath of fresh air. They can positively challenge how things are done. As universities attract higher numbers of international students, it makes sense that the workforce should be more international too.
Some international candidates are less risky and cheaper to come by. For example, expats wanting to return home – who know the system and the culture, and may even have a house still in the UK; and international candidates already in the UK. And then there are candidates, who – for whatever reason – are keen to move to the UK.
On the other side, international recruits can take longer to get up to speed in their new environment and can face greater distractions having physically moved themselves, their possessions and their families around the world. They also bring the disadvantage of being less familiar with local politics, structures and bureaucracies.
There are some steps headhunters can take to ease the process:
And there is a greater chance of a better outcome if hiring institutions understand the commitment involved in looking internationally and are willing to shoulder the additional cost and investment of resource required.
Institutions that have run well-organised international search exercises in the past often conclude that it is only worth doing if there is a lack of availability of high-quality, suitable, local candidates.
If institutions can find a candidate locally, it is by far the preferred option. Which begs the question: how global is the marketplace really? It seems the dice are heavily loaded in favour of local candidates, unless universities are forced to go international for a sufficiently strong field.
And if institutions do decide to look internationally, it is important that they do it for the right reasons and handle the process correctly. The stakes are always high – not just for individual institutions, but for all of UK higher education, which needs good leadership no matter what the timezone.