When an Executive Search Goes Bad: Remember, No One Held a Gun to Your Head

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Aug 21, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

It’s become common practice in high level NCAA Division Athletics to use retained search firms to hire athletic directors and coaches.

Recently, the University of Minnesota Athletic Director resigned before UM could terminate him for inappropriate activity, after being on the job for two years. How did the University of Minnesota respond to this termination?

Well, they blamed the original search firm of course!

From the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal:

Both the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and University of Minnesota Duluth (each part of the state’s public University of Minnesota system) hired Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search to find athletic directors.

It’s easy to see why they chose Parker, as the firm has been profiled by ESPN as one of the most influential search firms in college athletics and has had Indiana, Kentucky, Notre Dame, Oregon and Northwestern as clients.

Parker’s searches in Minnesota resulted in the 2012 hiring of Teague, who resigned last week while facing reports of sexually harassing employees. It also brought Athletics Director Josh Berlo to UMD, where he is facing criticism for firing five-time national champion women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller.

One Gophers booster told the Pioneer Press he won’t give any more money to the university if it uses any search firm again.

How much blame should the search firm get for Teague’s hiring? That’s a question likely to come up when the University of Minnesota Twin Cities conducts an outside investigation into the case.”

Organizations don’t take responsibility for the hire

I get it. If I paid $125,000 for a company to do a retained search, I would hope they would let me in on every single thing in the candidates background, and even stuff that wasn’t in his background but that they found anyway!

It seems like the search firm, in this case, missed that Teague, Minnesota’s ex-Athletic Director, has previous issues related to harassment.

I doubt highly they hid this information. One placement fee, no matter how big, is worth burning a client.

I’ve never met anyone in the search business who was willing to burn a client over one placement fee. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m sure there are firms that have done it after they’ve made the decision they no longer care if they have a long term relationship with a client.

What I rarely see happen is when the organization takes full responsibility for making the hiring decision. In this case, the University of Minnesota wanted to hire Teague, who had helped Virginia Commonwealth University rise to become a national basketball power.

They were hoping Teague could bring some of that magic to the Twin Cities. My guess is, even if they knew of the harassment issue during the search, they still would have moved forward with the hire.

Nobody holds a gun to your head

The reality is that search firms don’t hire anyone. You make the hire. You make the final decision.

The best search firms will advise you on the candidate and the market, but none hold a gun to your head. When that decision goes south, it has very little to do with the search firm, yet, and I see it constantly, organizations love to blame search firms for their bad hires!

What’s the moral to this story? Never pay $125K for a search, because you will never feel like you got value for that price!

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.