From Hitchcock to headhunters

University turns to executive search firm in hunt for new principal

Incoming Chancellor David Dodge will lead the University’s search for a new principal.
Incoming Chancellor David Dodge will lead the University’s search for a new principal.

The search is on.

When former Principal Karen Hitchcock resigned April 16—more than a year before the end of her term—the University’s hunt for a stand-in didn’t take long. Principal Tom Williams took on the role on May 1. By May 26, Williams was installed as Queen’s 19th principal, giving him more authority for the months to come than he would have had as an interim.

As Queen’s begins a more extensive search for its next leader, though, the general consensus is that this one won’t be quite as quick.

As always, the University’s sticking to tradition when it comes to filling the principal’s shoes. The search committee that will be meeting throughout the process looks much the same as it did in 1968—it includes nine members from the Board of Trustees and nine from the Senate.

Also sitting on the Joint Board/Senate Advisory Committee—which met for the first time last Friday afternoo —are Human Rights and Equity Director Irène Bujara and the committee’s chair, incoming Chancellor David Dodge.

Principal Williams’s term ends June 30, 2009, the same day Hitchcock’s term was set to expire. Dodge, who succeeds Charles Baillie as Chancellor on July 1, said ideally the new principal will be in place by July 1, 200 —but at this point, it’s impossible to say for sure whether that date will stick.

“It’s an awkward time period for us,” he said, adding that it’s difficult to organize a search of this scale during the summer months.

“It wasn’t the greatest spring in the world for the University, but I think everybody is pretty optimistic.”

The search committee is calling for input from the community and hopes to use their findings to begin the actual search in mid-August. By October, Dodge said, they’ll hopefully have a long list of potential candidates. After additional research and preliminary interviews, they should have a shorter list of candidates in the New Year and a final recommendation to make to the Board by March.

The last time the University embarked on a search of this scale, it found its leader in Albany, New York. So where is Queen’s looking this time? And with such a large search committee, who’s actually doing the looking?

As it did in 2004, the University has hired an executive search firm—often known in the business world as “headhunters”—to select a list of potential candidates for the spot.

Dodge said that, of the consultants at four different firms, the University chose Shawn Cooper, a Queen’s School of Business alumnus from Russell Reynolds Associates in Toronto, to lead the search.

“I think our key objective was to engage a group that had a) a broad reach and b) some understanding of what it was that we were all about here at Queen’s,” Dodge said.

He said Cooper’s connection to the University put Russell Reynolds ahead of the others.

University Secretary Georgina Moore said universities commonly use search firms when hiring in senior leadership positions.

“They’re used for deans and vice-principals and principals—or presidents, depending on the university,” Moore said.

There are a number of Canadian headhunting firms, and even more internationally-based firms, so choosing one was a considerable task.

“It’s very similar to any other service that you’re going to purchase from a consultant,” Moore said. “You would look for their reputation, and their interest in higher education—in Queen’s, in particular—and their ability … to engage with the committee members.”

In 2004, Queen’s used two search firms when it hired former Principal Hitchcock, Moore said: Landmark Consulting and Korn/Ferry International, both based out of the United States.

She said the University is using a different firm this time because hiring an executive search consultant is like hiring any sort of consultant—different organizations are prominent at different times.

“As in any kind of service that you’re looking for, you don’t necessarily keep hiring the same person. … You want to take a fresh look.”

Moore wouldn’t reveal how much money typically goes into hiring a search firm, but she said it’s a considerable sum.

“It’s not an insignificant expense, but it’s deemed to be a very worthwhile investment to ensure that the University will identify a good pool of candidates,” she said.

“We would actually make them work for their fee,” she said with a laugh. “The committee is very demanding, so I don’t think any of these consultants enter into these jobs lightly.”

Sylvia MacArthur, President of Madison MacArthur Executive Search Specialists in Toronto, said most headhunting firms have a pretty consistent fee model.

“Generally it represents about one third of the candidate’s first year’s remuneration,”
MacArthur said.

Principal Hitchcock made $306,425 in 2007, which means the search consultants could make about $100,000 for their work.

MacArthur said the firm puts rigorous preparation into a search like this one.

“Ultimately you’re not just looking for a skill set; you’re looking for people that will work well for an organization.”

Once information about the University is assembled, most search firms brainstorm to establish where they’re going to find candidates. When a target list is developed, the firm begins recruiting. One challenge they face during the recruitment stage is preparing potential candidates for what they’re getting into.

“If an organization got a bad reputation or they’ve just been in the news a lot, you’ll get candidates making comments on that,” she said.

Queen’s has made national news more than once in the past year, but MacArthur said chances are slim that many prospective candidates will be turned off.

“I’m sure they’re lining up for that one,” she said, adding that it’s rarely difficult to convince people to consider an offer.

“Most savvy businesspeople are open to hearing about opportunities,” MacArthur said. Additionally, being approached for such a position can pull on the ego strings.

“With the type of approach … it’s flattering to them as well,” she said.

If a candidate’s interested in the opportunity, they’ll be invited to have a more in-depth interview with the firm. MacArthur said firms try to meet with as many candidates as possible, but ultimately that number’s governed by the complexity of the search.

These days, most search firms have global reach, meaning potential candidates for Queen’s next principal will almost surely be sought for outside of the 613 area code.

“It’s become more and more necessary in this day and age,” MacArthur said, adding that many universities try to seek out “ex-pats” who have gone to work internationally.

The search for Principal Williams’s successor is going to be a bit more challenging than most, she said, because of the committee approach the University’s taking, which means the consultant has to work with a large group of people.

MacArthur also said most universities tend to hire search firms that have had experience searching in the education sector, but there’s a downside to that approach.

“If somebody’s got a lot of critical mass in a particular industry… they cannot recruit from any of the clients they’ve placed there,” she said. “You don’t steal from your own clients!”


Although Principal Williams doesn’t want to be considered for reappointment, Queen’s is open to considering other candidates from within the University.

Roderick Morrison, vice-principal (Human Resources) said internal candidates typically go through the same process as external candidates when they’re being considered by search firms.

Dodge said once the search firm has identified candidates for the University their identities will remain confidential—whether they’re from Queen’s or elsewhere.

“It’s very important if we’re to find the best candidate that [the search] operates in full confidentiality so that people are not discouraged from putting their name forward,” Dodge said.

Although communication will play a significant role in the search process, there’s a fine line between keeping the community informed and maintaining privacy, he said.

Just as it did in 2004, the University is using a website to provide information to and get feedback from the community. This week the search committee also sent an e-mail to students, staff and faculty asking for input, which they will review on August 4.

“We hope we’ll hear from a broad cross-section of the University,” Dodge said.

He said because the Principal has three roles—as an academic leader, as the person who represents the University to potential donors and as the Chief Executive Officer of “this rather large enterprise”—it can be difficult to pin down a character description.

“We wanted to go out right away, to the community at large, to articulate [the job description] in a way that really does represent what the community wants.”

The search committee is asking the Queen’s community to e-mail them by Aug. 4 with suggestions for traits they should seek in candidates. Visit for a link to the website.

The Search Committee

Members of the Joint Senate Board Advisory Committee:
• David Dodge, Queen’s chancellor
• Irène Bujara, Human Rights and Equity director

Nine members from the University Senate:• Brooks Barnett, student senator
• Talia Radcliffe, AMS president
• Jeff Welsh, SGPS president
• Peter Dacin, QUFA president
• Adnan Husain, faculty senator
• Linda Horton, staff senator
• Alistair MacLean, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science
• Kathleen Norman, faculty senator
• Patrick Oosthuizen, faculty senator

Nine members from the Board of Trustees:
• Leora Jackson, Queen’s rector
• William Young, chair of the Board of Trustees
• Robert Burge, JDUC director
• Toby Abramsky
• George Anderson
• Donald Bayne
• Kim Black
• Kathleen Macmillan
• David Pattenden

—Source: University Secretary Georgina Moore

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