"Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work"

Published: 18 February 2016

Lots of people will have heard me say that if my job wasn’t what it is, then I wouldn’t be in executive search and there is absolute truth in this.  I work with Universities; helping them to attract and appoint top flight research professionals and academic managers to their ranks.  It’s a good dinner-party starter for ten and certainly keeps me busy, but what makes me get out of bed in the morning is much more than this.

The outputs of my clients and candidates make an immeasurable contribution to global intellectual capital; they find new solutions to age-old problems, resolve newly-emergent issues and interpret society’s foibles, disputes and aspirations.  Their work is central to the ongoing evolution and betterment of the human race.  Naturally, this is fascinating and of course it is part of the draw; but the real reason that I love my job is separate to this.  Quite simply, I adore the challenge. 

Working with academics brings its own tribulations.  With the best will in the world, I cannot be an expert in all disciplines, yet I must be a credible judge of research output and quality in any number of different areas simultaneously.  I need to appreciate the “fit” of any given Professor’s profile with existing activities within my client’s Institution, I need to understand where he or she intends to “go” with that research and how that is likely to chime with Research Councils/ grant funders, publications and “impact” more broadly.  I must understand what they require for their research to take place and how much that can cost, why there might be ethical or philosophical reasons why their personal profile wouldn’t fit with existing Faculty and of course how and if they can contribute to teaching and or mentorship. 

The fact that most searches are international brings another layer of complexity; what is the grant-funding situation in their current country?  Are they used to competition? What is the student mentality? Do they teach? Are they publishing in English Language journals?  How are these ranked?  If not, would their work (excuse the pun) translate to the esteemed, peer-reviewed journals that we use as the litmus test for their research? 

The questions are endless and the answers are not always straight forward.  Understanding quality across disciplines is not a neat continuum and whilst REF 2014 and journal rankings offer us a wealth of knowledge, the vagaries of grant funding and the personal intellectual direction of each individual makes my judgement and perspicacity vital. 

And this is what I like; quickly assimilating a broad range of information about a hitherto unknown subject matter and then being sufficiently credible to engage with global experts on the matter, representing my client and communicating exactly what it is that they are seeking to attract.  And then there is the challenge of actually gaining the attention of eminent research-active Professors and explaining why they should think about taking their brain-power, ambition and research tools to a different Institution. 

It’s fascinating.  I am not one for routine and embracing such a diverse workload certainly exercises my brain, making me consider subject matters that I would never otherwise have reason to come into contact with.  This, in effect, means that there is no “comfort-zone” but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Liz James is a Principal Consultant in the Education Practice, specialising in academic appointments

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