1. What is your background and how did you get into executive search?
Like many people, I found executive search somewhat by accident. I started my career in academia. I did a PhD in English Literature in the United States, teaching English and Writing for several years there, and then, having moved to the UK when my partner got a postdoc, had the opportunity to teach at Birkbeck, which was an extraordinary experience. I got to work in Bloomsbury – a Victorianist’s dream – and, as one of the strands of my research was on children’s literature at the time, even had the opportunity to contribute to a module taught by Michael Rosen.
My first exposure to executive search was, interestingly, as a candidate. Although I didn’t get the lecturer position I had applied for, I was introduced to the possibility of working with universities in a different way, and ended up finding my match in executive search. I joined Perrett Laver and stayed there for about eight years, developing a real expertise in executive search and working with some fantastic institutions.
2. Why did you decide to join Oxford HR?
I was really drawn to Oxford HR’s ethos and feel of authenticity. Everyone who works here is genuinely motivated to do their best for organisations they feel passionately about, and that makes for very vibrant and inspiring work environment. The people at Oxford HR really live and work by their values.
I was also excited by the opportunity to grow a new practice area. To me, it felt like a chance to really pause and think about what our clients are looking for in a search firm, to consult with people in the sector, really take the time to listen, and develop something that is responsive to those needs. That has truly been one of the most rewarding parts of the role so far.
3. What do you feel you bring to our clients at Oxford HR?
I think one of the most important things I bring is my breadth of experience across the Higher Education sector. Over the last eight years I have worked on just about every role imaginable, not only the more senior or visible roles like Vice-Chancellors and Chief Executives, but everything from estates, recruitment, and IT, and Professorial appointments in disciplines as varied as Electronic Engineering and English. This has given me a really good feel for the university ecosystem and how all the different pieces join up together to make these wonderful places tick.
Having worked in HE in the US and UK – albeit briefly – as well as the fact that my partner is in academia, also gives me a better understanding about both the pleasures and the frustrations of working in a university. This understanding, on a very human level, I think carries over into my approach to search and the way that I interact with both clients and candidates.
I think I also bring a global perspective to my work. Although the majority of my search experience has been with UK universities, having lived in different countries and been exposed, one way or another, to different educational systems and cultures, gives me an awareness of different systems, and their accompanying strengths and weaknesses. I think this will be helpful as the HE practice engages with institutions globally, but is also a welcome perspective to have more generally.
4. Where do you see the Higher Education Sector going?
This is a really challenging time for the sector, but also in some ways a really exciting time. Universities – and indeed students – have been hit hard by the pandemic, but at the same time have had to demonstrate the ability to innovate, act quickly, and to come together as a sector. A lot of universities have shown just how resilient, creative and capable of change they can be, and this could be very exciting for the future, especially when it comes to experimentation and innovation in education. That’s not to say that face-to-face teaching is going away, by any means. But what I mean is that, more broadly speaking, practices that were deeply engrained have had to change so quickly and so radically that assumptions about how things ‘have to be’ are being completely upended, which could lead to great new things.
We are seeing this already, of course, but I think one of the main features of Higher Education over the coming years will be increased collaboration – across disciplines, institutions, sectors, and of course, internationally. There are sometimes barriers to innovation in the way the sector is organised, which set up a very specific system of risks and rewards, but my hope is that breakthroughs from innovators will encourage others to follow suit, and there will be more space for universities to innovate from a place of real creative freedom.
The Higher Education sector is often subject to a lot of scrutiny, but I think that only highlights how very central it is to the attainment of so many of our goals – bridging skills gaps, developing life-saving treatments and medicines, increasing economic development, tackling the environmental crisis, building fairer societies, developing ethical approaches to the uses of new technologies – the list goes on. This is precisely what makes it such an exciting environment.
5. What has been your favourite project that you have worked on?
There have been projects that have been especially meaningful because I got to work with institutions that had personal resonance for me – The British Library and Trinity College Dublin Library, for instance, come to mind – and others have left a mark because I am especially proud of an impactful appointment, or because I was helping the client establish something new, but it’s impossible to narrow down. Even when I’m working with an organization I had never really engaged with before, I always find that by the time we’ve gone through the search process together I’m usually quite attached to the institution and feel invested in their success. What makes search exciting to me, is the potential for impact with every single assignment. A good appointment can have huge ramifications for an institution’s success that go well beyond the individual remit of the appointee and it’s such a privilege to be able to contribute to that.
6. What advice do you find yourself giving candidates most frequently?
To be themselves. Firstly, because you really don’t want to get hired for a role based on an image you were projecting that was not quite you, and secondly because I think candidates are far more likely to present the best version of themselves if they are able to be authentic.
When it comes to interviews, candidates have already done the hard work of accomplishing the things that have gotten them to where they are, as finalists for a role, so the best they can do is show up as themselves and enjoy what should be – when done right – a really interesting conversation.
Eugenia Gonzalez is an experienced executive search consultant specialising in the Higher Education sector. She joined Oxford HR in 2021 after seven years at Perrett Laver.
Eugenia has worked with a wide range of HEIs, advising on senior academic leadership appointments, from Heads of Department and Deans to Vice-Chancellors and their senior teams. She also has extensive experience supporting universities in their professional services leadership as well as advising on Chair and Board appointments.
Her clients have included the Open University, Imperial College London, University of Sussex, Royal Holloway, University of East Anglia, Brunel, University of Edinburgh, UWE Bristol, Sheffield Hallam, University of the Arts London and the Royal College of Art, among many others. She has also worked internationally with clients in Ecuador, Australia, and the Netherlands.
Eugenia has a keen interest in the wider HE sector and has developed a strong track record working with key bodies and membership organisations, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Royal Geographical Society, Design Council, and Association of Commonwealth Universities.
Eugenia has an MA in English and a PhD in Victorian Studies. Before executive search, she taught English and Victorian Literature at the Ohio State University and at Birkbeck. Originally from Argentina, she also lived in Italy, Nigeria, Switzerland, and the United States before moving to the UK.