Candidacies Killed by a Typo

Written by: Dennis Barden
Published on: Mar 19, 2018


There it sits, right in the middle of the first paragraph of the cover letter. Or on the second page of the CV. It’s a misspelling. Or an errant autocorrect. Or a missing article or conjunction. It isn’t an error of fact or a misrepresentation. It is a typo — an ordinary if neglectful mistake that was overlooked in the proofreading.

And it can end the applicant’s candidacy. But should it?

Anyone who’s ever been involved in a leadership search — especially but not exclusively at the presidential level — knows that guiding the various constituencies toward a consensus on a candidate is a fraught exercise. Certain common issues regularly crop up that symbolize the divide between the on-campus groups and the off-campus ones, particularly between professors and trustees. One such issue is the typo.

My fellow search consultants and I hear the mutual skepticism all the time. Trustees often maintain that the faculty members chosen to serve on search committees have far too little experience hiring executive leadership and don’t know it when they see it. Professors frequently believe that trustees don’t understand or respect the ways and norms of higher education.

Frankly, both positions have merit, and they often find their convergence over a typo.

The faculty’s theory is that important documents should be perfect. A cover letter or a CV is more than a statement of interest and experience; it is a sample of a leader’s communication ability and style, and we have a right to expect it to reflect the standard of excellence held by the candidate. If there is a mistake in the cover letter, the writer is either not meeting the standard, or the standard is too low.

Trustees may agree if the typo is particularly egregious. But, more often than not, they see a typo in a letter or on a CV as a subsidiary issue. They are looking at the big picture — the leadership, the vision, the strategy, and the mien of the candidate. They value personal charisma as an important leadership quality, for example, whereas faculty tend to be skeptical of charisma.

Of course both constituencies want it all in the ideal candidate. Trustees certainly value clarity and precision in communication, and professors definitely understand the importance of leadership. In the search process, perhaps the most important difference I see between the two is that trustees tend to be much more willing to follow their instincts in reacting to a candidate than faculty members, who are trained to focus on the empirical, the provable.

Trustees inevitably believe that leadership has an intangible quality — an “it” factor, if you will — that defies quantification but is there to be perceived.

Faculty are typically distrustful of such gut instincts, far preferring to identify quantifiable requirements and preferences and then to measure them, adding up who among the candidate pool is the most worthy in as mathematical a way as is possible. And in that math, a typo is always a negative.

In most shared-governance environments, differences in perspective can be a powerful asset in a search for leadership. When the streams cross — when trustees find the intangible where professors find a preponderance of assets over liabilities — strong consensus is built, and that consensus provides confidence in the hire. Happily, that is how many searches find their way to a resolution. But in a great many cases the dynamic doesn’t start out that way.

Contrary to the bias that many trustees bring to the search-committee table, professors actually are involved constantly in hiring. It is one of the most important service roles that they play within an institution: serving on faculty search committees. Academics can spend hours poring over candidate materials, evaluating the quantity and quality of someone’s scholarship, assessing letters of recommendation, and making judgments about skills and abilities juxtaposed with disciplinary and departmental needs.

Professors frequently deal with exceptionally large pools of candidates, often numbering in the many hundreds, and yet they probe deeply in an effort not to miss any flags — green or red — that offer a clue to the applicant’s potential to contribute in the classroom and as a scholar.

These folks really know how to read a CV.

Trustees are usually familiar with a very different kind of search. Senior corporate executives in particular are accustomed to very brief searches in which a small number of highly qualified candidates are brought to the table. Hiring decisions are based, to a large degree, on intangibles. The success of such a search is judged entirely on the effectiveness of the candidate of choice, with the comprehensiveness of the process or the building of consensus around the choice an afterthought at best.

In their own private-sector searches, trustees are looking first and foremost for qualities associated with leadership — integrity, judgment, energy, optimism, creativity, drive, and communication and interpersonal skills (especially the ability and willingness to listen). They’re looking for people who are persuasive, decisive, competitive yet have a sense of humor and the courage of their convictions. They prioritize such attributes over technical skills … including the ability to proofread.

These folks really know how to read a person.

Unfortunately, all too frequently at the outset of a search, the two constituencies not only do not judge candidates in the same way, but they don’t respect how the other one does, either:

  • “Given what this candidate has accomplished,” say the trustees, “how can you let a typo or two in his résumé disqualify him from consideration?”
  • To which the faculty reply, “He talks a good game, but his materials are so sloppy and error-ridden that they display an inferior or undisciplined mind not suited to the leadership of an intellectual enterprise.”

Searches have the greatest opportunity for success when trustees and faculty members come to accept and appreciate what each of them brings to the table. Trustees can and do learn to honor faculty assessments of the candidates and their potential to lead an institution, a most critical constituency of which is their fellow faculty. Faculty can and do come to trust the instincts and executive experience of trustees in making judgments about a candidate’s ability to lead. When all parties come to trust and respect each other, the potential is there to choose a leader who will have credibility among all constituencies and who will enjoy a strong start in her new role.

And the typo?

It provides the search committee with an insight into the candidate’s habits of mind and communication skills that — when added to other observations both quantitative and qualitative — help lead it to a sound and confident judgment. In a well-balanced process, a typo becomes a factor in the process of candidate assessment.

But not the factor.

Dennis M. Barden is a senior partner with the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. He works extensively with boards, senior institutional leaders, and search committees at both public and private institutions and has written extensively on the administrative search process in higher education.