Five Ways to Innovate the Academic Search Process

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareEducation
min Case Study
June 26, 2020
7 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareEducation
Executive Summary
Academic organizations typically fail to create a clear definition of the leadership role they want to fill.


Academic medicine searches are inefficient and ripe for innovation

Despite the ever-transforming academic health landscape, the leadership recruitment within the field of academic medicine has not evolved significantly over the last few decades. Although the traditional approach to recruitment has undoubtedly led to many effective hires, an opportunity exists to be more efficient, without compromising the quality of results.

In a survey conducted in 2011, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) highlighted that academic leadership searches at major teaching hospitals take on average seven months to complete, while Department Chair and Center Director searches take almost a year1. Among clinical department chair searches, the use of a search firm shortened the length of the search. The average search duration for clinical chairs at medical schools that did not use a search firm was 12.5 months, but those that used search firms completed their task, on average, in 9.5 months2. Our proprietary data from the last two years continue telling this story as well; the process of recruiting academic medicine leaders has not shortened over the past 10 years, and the academic search process is significantly longer than searches we conduct in other industry sectors.

As academic medicine institutions expand and broaden their core missions to include social determinants of health, population health, personalized medicine, emerging technology, and innovation, the search process needs to efficiently identify and select leaders with the right mix of out-of-the-box thinking and traditional physician leadership qualities to execute on these new initiatives. In addition, the academic search process must proactively address and embed diversity and inclusion strategies within senior recruitment processes. Despite 26 new LCME accredited medical schools opening between 2002 and 20183, the percentage of female Deans, Department Chairs, and full Professors has increased only minimally.

Despite an Increase in Pipeline, There Remains a Shortage of Women in Leadership Positions in Academic Medicine


Percentage of women in position


Department chairs

Full professors










Addressing People, Process, Strategy, And Culture

In our firm’s experience of recruiting more than 100 physician executives and functional leaders to academic medical centers and Schools of Medicine in the past five years, we have observed common pain points that institutions face, as well innovative solutions to help address those challenges. We find it useful to think about these priorities using the framework below, which breaks the search process into four main components: people, process, strategy, and culture.

Culture Of Diversity, Equity And Inclusion

Venn Diagram describing the relationship between people, processes and structures, and strategies.

  • How can the institution retain a holistic understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion?
  • Where and how can the search process better incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations?
  • How is the search process impacted from the lack of overall strategy from the institution?

To better understand these challenges and solutions, Russell Reynolds Associates interviewed 14 senior executives from leading academic medical centers. Our conversations brought to light five common challenges that routinely impede the efficiency and efficacy of the academic search process:

  • Launching the search in the market without stakeholder alignment or a clear definition of the role
  • Failing to outline a clear search process, in which stakeholders understand expectations and responsibilities
  • Prioritizing the triple threat of academic medicine, versus leadership competencies
  • Succumbing to tunnel vision and focusing recruitment efforts on one candidate too early in the process, without evaluating a diverse group of candidates against the prioritized competencies
  • Addressing diversity and inclusion as an afterthought, and only through piecemeal, “band-aid” workarounds

Solutions To Optimize The Search Process

Say What You Need, Early And Often


Eager to identify the next leader, many institutions launch the search process without alignment on the job specification. This approach often leads to a Search Committee realizing halfway through the search that it is seeking a candidate that can help solve the problems of the past, rather than meet the challenges of the future. In some instances, stakeholders are misaligned around experiential criteria for the ideal candidate. In other instances, a Committee realizes it did not clarify what type of candidate it was searching for in the first place.


Take time upfront to reflect on key competencies of successful, comparable leaders from both inside and outside of the organization. Discuss the pros and cons of specific skills and what has proven to be successful; be targeted and specific. Upon completion, the Committee should be able to articulate the future priorities of the institution and relevant department, in addition to the skills and competencies required in the next leader.

Question to ask

  • What is the strategic vision for the organization or Department? What are the short and long-term goals the next leader should seek to achieve?
  • Will the next leader guide a team through a period of growth, stabilization, or turnaround?
  • Has the hiring manager clearly communicated the most important skills and attributes of the ideal candidate to the Search Committee in a group setting, with time for probing questions?
  • What key priorities and selling points should be emphasized to a potential candidate?

Control What you Can: Define The Process


Searches are inevitably delayed when stakeholders do not understand the process, hold differing ideas of expectations and responsibilities, or are ultimately uncoordinated in how to progress candidates from one stage to the next.


The most successful searches start with a clearly defined process, with a rigorous process for establishing the Search Committee, identifying and selecting candidates, conducting multiple rounds of interviews, referencing, and exploring relocation services. The Dean, leadership, Search Committee, and key stakeholders should each understand role and responsibilities across the entirety of the process. A defined process also allows for proactive interview scheduling, which is important, as interview scheduling is one of the most common reasons a search takes longer than anticipated. In addition, it facilitates a positive candidate experience, particularly for senior executive candidates with pressing commitments at their current institutions.

Question to ask

  • What is the right method to communicate clear expectations and to encourage engagement from the Search Committee, search firm, and interviewers?
  • Is communication with the Search Committee and key stakeholders maintained across the entirety of the search?
  • Are key Search Committee meetings and interview dates proactively scheduled and communicated?
  • Do the candidates have a clear understanding of what will be expected, and when?

The Emergence of Virtual Interviews

While the search process is a guide, do not be afraid to pivot. In light of COVID-19, we have observed new comfort and positive reception to leveraging video-conference technology for candidate interviews, which has expedited the interview process significantly. The new norm may be to utilize video interviews for Round 1 panel interviews and throughout the process, until the finalist candidates are determined. Video technology has become increasingly sophisticated, allowing the candidate to clearly see each interviewer on a panel, while also showing the interviewer’s name. Video interviews also facilitate a positive candidate experience, recognizing there is a lower risk of comprising the candidates’ confidentiality, and no risk of disruption due to travel delays.

There is also less of an opportunity for informal debrief meetings in between interviews, allowing a more centralized and structured debrief process, which guards against “group think.” Furthermore, virtual interviews provide scheduling flexibility, while also significantly reducing costs.

To be successful in this new reality, modern academic leaders will need to be more conscious about how they project themselves in virtual meetings, finessing how to share their visions and unique voice through video for townhall gatherings or meetings with employees based at outpatient sites or other locations.