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The Ampersand May 2018 – Section 3.4.7

April 27, 2018

As you know if you read last month’s edition of The Ampersand, we were very honoured and pleased to have been short-listed for the University of Calgary President search in March of this year. It was an exhilarating and exhausting process that saw us pull together a rather remarkable 60 page RFP response, on extremely compressed timelines, and then learn that we were one of only a handful of firms invited for an in-person presentation with the search firm selection committee, a subset of the larger U of C Board of Governors.


This committee was tasked with the mission of choosing from among several excellent search firms the one it wanted to lead what will no doubt be a complex, nuanced and high-profile search.  In planning for our in-person pitch, it was an all-hands-on-deck undertaking. We prepared tirelessly, mobilized our global Panorama partners, flew out our Montreal partner who specializes in higher education search and, on the afternoon of March 23rd, gave it our very best shot.


About ten days later we heard back from the Supervisor, Procurement Services, Supply Chain Management that we were not successful.


Naturally, we were disappointed but there are three undeniable truths that eased the pain.  First, it was a fairly audacious pursuit to begin with. Even getting short-listed was a major victory for a firm that has never led a higher education President search and, but for our Panorama partners, who have led hundreds, would have had no business even participating in the process a mere 18 months ago. Second, it’s going to be an incredibly difficult project with a 15-person selection committee comprised of a broad, divergent and diverse group of stakeholders.  Third, as you know, we don’t stay down for long around here. We are, after all, the same people who wrote about the virtues of pitching and losing in our February edition of The Ampersand.


I can say entirely truthfully that I would do nothing differently the next time around.  We gave it our all, and we lost.  Life goes on.  Of course, I’d love to learn where and how we could improve and so it’s what happened next that’s actually the disappointing part.


Upon learning of the news that we were unsuccessful, I sent a note to the members of the search firm selection committee.  That note read as follows:


Good Morning,


I received the correspondence below from [Procurement] just now and wanted to simply acknowledge, with immense thanks, your rigour and efforts throughout what I can assume was a very time consuming and thankless process.  Naturally, we are very disappointed but we also fully respect the decision and know the local people at [successful firm] to be capable search professionals who will do a good job for you.  


I would be remiss in my own development, and that of my firm, if I didn’t ask for some feedback around where our proposal was deficient and why we lost out in this process.  I realize you have no obligation to invest more time in us than you already have but in the spirt of constant improvement and professional growth I would welcome the opportunity to hear from you — either via email, a phone call, a coffee or lunch — as to what we could have done differently in order to have secured a different outcome.


Once again, thank you for your efforts throughout this process.  You have served your Board and the entire University very well.  We look forward to watching with great interest as the search unfolds.






I followed that note with the following one to the Managing Partner of the successful firm:


Congrats on landing the mandate for U of C.  We pitched hard but feel good about losing it to you guys, if we had to lose it at all. Best of luck on the search.





I share these notes with you to demonstrate that I was not, and am not, throwing my toys. In fact, at the time I sent those two notes, I had not received the reply below; and I was certainly not thinking those notes would one day be shared with you.  Alas, several days later, I received this response to my request for feedback:


Good Afternoon Adam,


I was forwarded your request for a debrief by two members of the evaluation team who were merely following process which is described in section 3.4.7 of the RFP document.  I have copied this section below for your reference.  This section states that a request for a debrief should be sent to me, the Bid Manager (named in Article 1, section 1.1 of the RFP document).  


Unfortunately, I will not be able to provide a debrief as the University of Calgary arranges Proposal debriefs in limited circumstances only.  The value of this services contract will not have an expected average revenue for the successful Proponent of at least $5 million per year nor is the initial term of this contract at least 3 years. Thus, a Proposal debriefing is not applicable (as per section 3.4.7). 


Thank you, Adam.



[Supervisor, Procurement Services, Supply Chain Management| University of Calgary]



On the ten-point scale of university silliness, with the University of Alberta’s decision to award David Suzuki an Honourary Degree an 11, this is about a four.  The U of C is a great school.  I routinely volunteer my time with its students, the Dean of the Law Faculty is a friend and I will even be teaching a course at that faculty this fall. This is not an indictment of the U of C as a school.  It’s about the process tail wagging the common sense dog; a problem hardly unique to university campuses.  In the grand scheme, this is pretty benign stuff but it speaks to a broader problem. We live in a time when projects get approved, but not built. When we need committees to study recommendations as to whether to strike a committee to make a recommendation around an Olympic bid. These of course are highly complex undertakings.  But have we really gotten to a point where one person in our community can’t have coffee with another person in our community because the procurement people say so?


There is a fairly thick irony in an academic institution—a place of learning—refusing to provide feedback and refusing to do so unless it’s financially significant enough to warrant it. On this logic, I would never again provide feedback, advice or counsel to any of the hundreds of U of C students to whom I, and members of my firm, have counselled over the years.


Richer still is the irony that the very Vision, Mission and Values of the institution run entirely counter to the ethos of section 3.4.7. The Vision is “grounded in innovative learning and teaching and [being] fully integrated with the community of Calgary” and the Mission strives to create and deliver “exemplary human resources services, processes, and outcomes [that] contribute to and share in the University’s mission and goals to” among others “enrich the quality and breadth of learning; and fully integrate the university with the community.” The cherry on top of this irony sundae is the articulation of eight core Values which include among them:“curiosity; support; collaboration; communication; balance; and excellence.”  Wasn’t I simply being curious, hoping for support to better enable my firm’s future collaboration efforts while seeking communication in a balanced way so I could continue to strive for excellence?


The members of the search firm selection committee are members of my community; people with whom I share a city and who, no doubt, I will have occasion to connect, liaise, and assist in making it better. I would like to think that the hard-working board members themselves would be slightly mortified by such a response not only because it runs counter to the very vision, mission and values they live under but because it’s simply un-Albertan to not want to meet your neighbour for a coffee and help them out.


John Locke, English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers said, “The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.”  The University of Calgary’s Eyes High strategy was chosen because it reflects the university’s Gaelic motto Mo Shùile Togam Suas, which translates as “I Will Lift Up My Eyes.” Perhaps a first step would be to lift up your phone and grab a coffee.





p.s. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask for your feedback! Drop me a note via email.