September 11, 2016

Athletic Director U. is a weekly series from D1.ticker designed to land in your inbox every Sunday evening. Articles will delve into pertinent topics from around the industry, providing unique perspective into many critical issues facing collegiate administrators. Today's ADU is a sit down with Parker Executive Search Vice President & Managing Director, Daniel Parker, as part of a Q&A series with top industry experts. Feedback, as always, is welcome to

Executive Search with Daniel Parker

As athletics performance continues to play an ever increasing role in the national perception of universities, and the financial investment in sports programs grows at an equally rapid rate, finding effective leadership in college athletics has never been more critical. University athletic leaders must now possess not only a strong financial acumen, but an aggressive and strategic approach to organizational leadership. Identifying and attracting such talent requires a rigorous methodology that includes an assessment of candidates’ skills, experiences and personal qualities that are simply not attainable through a traditional interview process. This is precisely why executive search firms in the field of college athletics have now become the norm; universities who pursue administrative and coaching candidates without the help of executive recruiters can put themselves at a distinct disadvantage because of the newly evolved complexities of such processes.

Over the last decade, no executive search firm has recruited more commissioners, athletic directors and coaches throughout all divisions of college athletics than Parker Executive Search in Atlanta. With one of the strongest higher-education practices in the industry, PES has evolved its sports division to become the go to source for conferences and universities looking to fill key athletics leadership positions. I sat down with Daniel Parker, Vice President and Managing Director of Parker Executive Search’s sports practice to discuss PES and their overall role in Sports recruiting.

How can Athletic Directors better prepare for coaching searches?

A coach search is not easy. Making any change where there is a high public interest is complicated. I have seen even the most accomplished athletics director stumble because they simply underestimated the amount of research they needed to do in order to better understand what they need, who they might be able to recruit, what it will cost, and the marketplace in general. An AD must not only know what is happening in their conference or region, it is now vital that he or she knows what it is happening nationally.

Often when athletic directors who are set on making a coaching change take the time to do a deeper assessment of that particular program and then consider the national scene, they may come to the realization that their current coach is actually performing at an above average rate given various constraints they might be facing. What’s more, they may realize that based on the current coaching market, there may not be a better candidate out there and that the best thing for the program would be to maintain continuity rather than create change only for the sake of change.

My role, and the role of everyone on the PES team, is to recruit, advise, and facilitate the process. We give our clients a dedicated, confidential process that helps them get to closure. We don’t have a stable of candidates, and work hard to give our clients a diverse pool of candidates to review and interview.

Occasionally, I might get a call from an athletic director in the weeks ahead of the end of the season, and I urge them to do their homework and be absolutely sure of the path they want to pursue. I counsel them not to speak to other potential candidates or third-parties before they have made a final decision on their current coach. Then, and only then, will PES enter into an agreement to manage the search process. We do not engage with a university until they have a reasonable understanding of what level of success their program is capable of attaining based on their current resource situation, and why they feel as though their current coach is not capable of meeting those expectations.

Should university presidents follow the same principles when they look for their next athletics director?

While university presidents should be following similar research and benchmarking practices when hiring an athletics director, the search process brings inherently different complexities than the hiring of a football or basketball coach. Successful athletics director searches require presidents to seek considerable third-party input as well as to engage constituents from across the university. For instance, it is rare for an institution to use a broad based search committee including all constituency groups on campus to hire a head coach, but very common when looking for an athletics director. The reason being is that the athletics director is expected to be a member of the institution’s leadership team and must work closely with campus deans, senior academic leadership, faculty, staff, students, and external university constituency groups.

Also, it is important to understand that the timeline for hiring an athletics director versus a coach is very different. Coaching searches almost always occur during a condensed period of time in which peer institutions are competing for the same candidates. Athletics director searches, on the other hand, usually take a few weeks or months, and there is not nearly the same competitive pressures factoring into the process. That being said, we encourage all of our clients regardless of the speed of the search to take the appropriate time to do the proper due diligence.

What are the common mistakes athletics directors make during the search process?

Athletics directors must have realistic expectations about the coach they need and what type of coach they can attract to their institution. If there is not a good fit, or the institution is not willing to commit those things necessary to have success, then it will be very hard to attract the right candidate.

We believe there is great value in interviewing multiple candidates and encourage our clients to see more than less. Not too long ago, a school was able to go into the market and simply buy a coach by using salary as an incentive. But as money has poured into athletic programs, many schools are willing to counter-offer. In such a competitive field where usually time is of the essence, having an understanding of the marketplace is critical.

At PES, we understand this ever changing marketplace. We maintain a state of the art database that can be of great value to an AD or college president. We help broaden the candidate pool so that our clients are able to consider, and then interview as many candidates as they would like before coming to a decision. Many ADs focus in on just a handful of coaches, and do not consider the benefit of interviewing a varied set of candidates.

What are the common mistakes you see candidates make during the search process?

There are two major mistakes. The first big mistake is when a candidate comes to an interview unprepared, or worse, she or he comes in with the assumption that they are going to convince the hiring committee that the school needs them much more than the other way around.

A candidate’s primary objective during an interview is to make it clear that they sincerely want to be part of the institution and the athletic program. The best way to do that is to know everything there is to know about the job, and what it will take to be successful. If an athletics director or president has to spend countless hours figuring out what they are looking for in a hire, then a candidate should spend even more time to prepare and do their research.

The second mistake is when a candidate does not keep the search process confidential. “Leaking” information and publicly “campaigning” for the job are usually fatal mistakes that will cost the candidate the job.

Candidates should trust the process, let things develop, and then be strategic. Often, I see candidates disqualify themselves from jobs simply because they were too aggressive. It’s especially true with coaches who think that if they can get a student-athlete to sign by calling them twenty times in a week, they can convince an athletics director to hire them using the same tactic.

How advantageous is Parker’s vertically integrated business model in Higher Ed for the sports division?

PES truly understands the role athletics plays on a University campus.  We understand the balance between athletics and academics. We believe that it is important to establish and nurture relationships across the campus, both academic and athletic. This is a guiding principle that differentiates PES from other sports-centered search firms.

Our company established itself as a leader in academic search before delving into athletic searches. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, faculty, staff, and students are familiar with our team and our process. With athletics, we always maintain the same integrity, work ethic, and business model so that everyone on campus can feel comfortable and confident with the search.

We believe having relationships with the academic leadership of the institution is a great help when we begin to research and qualify potential candidates for athletic positions. Candidates will always list references that they are sure will put them in the best light, but what’s most valuable is having access to individuals who will give you a frank and candid assessment of that candidate. Since we have a wide variety of campus relationships across the country, we can gather an incredible amount of relevant information for our clients.

What was the genesis behind the pricing model for search consulting services in college athletics?

In terms of our pricing model, we are a true executive search firm in the same vein as Korn/Ferry, Witt/Kieffer and Spencer Stuart. In the business world, the base fee amounts to one-third of the eventual hire’s first year earnings. But in college athletics, it’s not realistic to charge one-third of a $3,000,000 coaching salary. Instead, we establish a base rate that accounts for the time and work necessary to prepare for and then complete the search. Sometimes this depends on the size and type of institution, the position that is being filled, or perhaps the urgency of the situation. Regardless, the price is agreed upon before the search process begins.

Our compensation is very much in line with how the rest of the executive search industry operates.

Many in our industry believe being a search firm is easy. What do most people not understand about the difficulty of attracting impressive candidates for an opening?

I can certainly understand why some people might think that way, but as I stated earlier, the role of PES is to recruit, advise, and facilitate the search process. While this sounds simple, there is no way to measure the effort put into preparation, time, market research, data collection, drafting a specific search strategy, and establishing relationships with the institution’s key leaders both on and off campus. And, this does not take into account the amount of travel that is necessary to ensure the right process is in place, and a successful search is launched. There is quite a bit done behind the scenes to make a search look easy and run smoothly.

Lastly, all of us at Parker Executive Search aspire to lead the field of search consultants. The PES team and I understand that there are no short-cuts. Everyone is committed to the hard work that is necessary to serve our clients today and going forward. We continue to invest in our people, our databases, and in building life-long relationships to better serve higher education in general, and intercollegiate athletics more specifically.


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