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Recruiter Spotlight: Alan Medders, Founder of Higher Education Leadership Search

In this Recruiter Spotlight, FileFinder Client Success Manager Rachael McDonald interviews Dr. Alan Medders, Founder of Higher Education Leadership Search.


Dr. Medders reminisces about the origins of his firm, and how he came to develop a new model to tackle searches in higher ed. He also discusses how the Covid-19 pandemic affected his business, his views on what may happen next in the higher ed sector, and how FileFinder Executive Search Software has been instrumental in supporting his team’s work and collaborating with search committees.


Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below:





When did you start working in the executive search industry, and could you please tell us about your background in that industry?


I have been in the higher education search industry now, for 4.5 years. I spent 25 years in higher ed, and in January 2016, I left to work for another firm that I had a previous relationship with, and I knew the folks there. And after about 14 months, decided that I wanted to try to do my own thing and make some changes. I had experienced searches as a candidate, and I served on search committees, and then I was in the search side as a consultant, a recruiter. So, there were a number of things that I felt needed to be adjusted. And in June 2017, I officially launched Higher Education Leadership Search. We have finished our third year, and we were just were recognized in the top 40 of the higher education recruiting firms for the first time. That was really a nice honor.



Very exciting, very exciting. It looks like your changes have been working for you.


They have. As you know, anytime you try to change a model, people question whether it actually would work. And higher education is not necessarily a bastion of innovation, believe it or not. But once we got out and started showing that our model could work, and started getting feedback from the candidates and the search committees that we dealt with, then we started realizing, that is was going to work. And we also recognize that our process may not necessarily work for everyone. So, we have turned down jobs, because people wanted us to do it their way, and we said, “Well, no, this is how we do it, and we find it very effective. And if you want to do it that way, then you’re going to have to find somebody who will accommodate you.”


Do you mind sharing a little bit about that process?


There were several things that were really difficult. When I was on a search committee in higher ed, some of these searches would last for 5, 6 months. So, the model we developed was just to streamline the search process for the people who were serving on the search committee. Once the process starts, they work very diligently for 3 to 5 weeks, and they’re done. It also is streamlined with the intent to make sure that we don’t lose good candidates. Because if you let the searches drag out, then you can potentially lose a candidate. Typically, as a candidate, if you’re in one search, you’re in another search. If you’ve gotten to that point, then it’s on your mindset to say, “Hey, I’m open for a change”. And so, if someone offers you that opportunity before we do, then chances are you’re going to take it. 


Then the key piece was that we drastically reduced our fee – because we drastically reduced our time. The institutions like the fact that they don’t have to pay so much; the people involved in the search from the institutions like our process, because they get in, and they do their work, and the candidates like it, because we stay in communication with them. Things move quite quickly. So that’s really the difference, I would say, and it has been very successful. We’ve conducted now over 40 searches in our three years of existence, so we feel very good about the process.



In the last few months, lives changed. Covid-19 has had quite an impact on businesses, including the recruitment sector – and particularly in higher education as schools have shut down. How has Covid-19 impacted your business?


It brought it to a grinding halt. We finished our last search early March. We had five searches ready to start, and each of those institutions basically called and said, “Hey, we’re going to have to put them on hold for right now”. I’ve had a couple of contacts in the last week or so saying, “We’re going to try to do these searches”. But we haven’t had anything definitive yet. So one of the things we’re doing to help institutions that are wanting to start these searches, is to tell them what they really need to be thinking about – number one, to help recruit candidates; number two, to help those people who need to be involved institutionally; and then number three, how do you get people to want to move and even visit? Because these people we are talking about, you’re not just talking about a job. You’re talking about someone’s family, you’re talking about uprooting them, you’re talking about kids changing schools. You’re talking about a spouse leaving a job.


So, in this type of uncertainty, institutions are going to have to become much more sensitive around that, and I think a little bit more creative on how they deal with those realities. I’m certainly quite fearful that getting young people, and professors, and people back on campuses this fall is going to be much more challenging, I’m afraid, than people are thinking it’s going to be. And, if that happens, then you’re going to have budgets that are drastically impacted. Are they going to have the funds and the resources to even conduct searches, even if they wanted to? So, I hate to be very sceptical, but I’m certainly quite cautious about how this is going to move forward, because I do think higher education is going to be one of those sectors that is going to give us a pretty good indicator on how things are doing within the overall economy. But if kids can’t go back to school, it may turn out to be a very long slog for us, unfortunately.


What’s your outlook on the Search industry for 2020 and the next few years?


I think once a vaccine is developed and available to the general population, the comfort level is going to change. People will go back to their day-to-day lives. So, I think higher ed is going to be one of those sectors, that if they’re doing well, then that may be a good sign. If it struggles to get out of the gate this fall, or institutions start closing because of cases, I think that’s going to be a very negative sign. From the recruiting standpoint, it’s going to get very difficult to get people to move into new jobs. But I do think there are certain positions that they are going to do searches for. I do think it’s just going be a tough, slow process for us over the next 2 to 3 years, unfortunately. That’s just my perception.



Can you tell us how FileFinder supports your day-to-day business?


When I got ready to start the company, I knew I was going to need some type of database support. I really did not like the one that I was using at the time. In fact, it was not even really designed for that purpose. It was just kind of retrofitted. So, when I started looking, I did come across FileFinder. I was really impressed from the very beginning. My academic background is out of the fundraising side – advancement or development, whichever term you choose to use. And for those people who are familiar with that, if you don’t have good data, you’re not going to be very successful, especially on the fundraising side. I had always used a very sophisticated database system, so I know how important they are.


When I was looking at FileFinder, it reminded me so much of the logical nature and logical flow of the development software that I was so familiar with. It just impacts everything we do, from the beginning to the end of the search: getting candidates in, making the information available to the search committee members, giving them access to the candidates. I think that’s one of the things that the search committees really like: they have access to the candidate information, just like we do. We provide them all the details, they can download them, or just use the data in FileFinder. They can do that from the client side. So, it just really governs everything we do from start to finish. And our consultants use it for managing the entire process. We couldn’t our job without it, or it would be very difficult. I can’t understand how people can do these things without the type of software that FileFinder is.


And for us, the other thing that is really impressive is how responsive your team is to our needs when there are issues, as well. The software support is really important. I mean, it’s software, there are updates, there are glitches, there are changes, there are hiccups. That’s the reality of what software does. But when those things happen, or when we mess up – which happens more – having the technical support to deal with that really makes things much easier for us.


You’ve pretty much been using the Client Portal since you started with us. How has that helped you manage the search process with your clients?


That’s the thing that they like because they have access to the data.  So, it is just been very advantageous for us. Because when they look at it, this is the first time they’ve ever been on a search committee with total access to all the data. And I think one of the things that we see is that it creates a greater sense of transparency, and it creates a greater sense of accountability within a search committee. So, it’s really the key feature that we talk about. In fact, that’s actually the first thing that we do with the search committee members when we engage with  them. We walk them through how to use the Client Portal. And once they do that, they like that side of it.


I will say one last thing.  We do a lot of repeat searches for institutions, and they actually want to serve on the search committee again when they find out we’re doing the search, because they know our process. And they become an advocate for us, and they can become a support, so it’s an interesting dynamic. It’s a key feature for us, especially in higher ed – those people want to be involved, and they are involved, like we were talking about earlier.






FileFinder Executive Search Software is a powerful, and yet easy-to-use, combination of database, project management, web research and CRM tools, designed specifically for executive search firms and in-house strategic recruitment teams. Available as a cost-effective Cloud, browser-based application or via a variety of alternative deployment models, hundreds of search firms and corporate clients rely on FileFinder technology to better manage their executive search process.


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    Recruiter Spotlight: Higher Education Leadership Search