Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Talent in Complex Partnerships

The annual international conference of the Association of University Research Parks (AURP) ( provides an outstanding opportunity for those of us in the search business to learn from leaders of some of the world’s most successful research parks.  AURP’s meeting in Madison, hosted by the University of Wisconsin, continued that tradition of exchange.

Harris Search Associates was fortunate to offer a session at the Madison meeting involving two experienced research leaders – Bob Geolas and Bob McGrath.  Bob Geolas is CEO of Research Triangle, having enjoyed earlier success leading Clemson University’s Center for Automotive Research and North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus.

Bob McGrath is vice president at Georgia Tech and directs the Georgia Tech Research Institute, following leadership roles with Batelle.

University research parks are almost invariably complicated relationships involving one or more universities, a foundation, local, state and/or federal governments, private investment and public dollars.  And while real estate is a big part of parks, it is the human capital that creates the value.

Here are some of the insights shared at the session:

• Attracting and retaining talent is complicated by there being multiple stakeholders with varied interests

• Almost invariably parks operate in a very public environment that can attract a great deal of press and public attention, so having leaders who can navigate such an environment is critical. 

• To be successful, research parks need strong support from the university’s president and its governing board, and that support has to be more than financial.

• But universities are jealous of their reputations and are loathe to be tarnished by any unseemly or illegal activities involving a park in which they are partners.

• Employee compensation can be challenging since paying market salaries often entails “cobbling together” multiple sources of funding in order to compete with corporate compensation, but this too can attract scrutiny.

• Just as recruiting talented persons presents challenges, recruiting tenants to take occupancy in a park is also complex since many private companies will not permit their accounting and books to be made public, yet the park may be supported in part or in whole by public funds.

• The search for world-class talent in technical fields is, in fact, a global effort that pays little attention to national borders, but parks operate in localities that must be tended to by persons who know and understand the local culture.

• While park staffs are typically small, they are expected to handle a wide array of responsibilities and tasks, so the best talent is much sought after and competition is fierce.

• Leadership is as important in parks as in most other enterprises, but leaders of parks typically have to labor with little recognition or credit, deferring instead to the partner organizations and their leaders.

In the current environment, research universities – especially public ones – are struggling to secure state funding with which to renovate existing facilities or construct new ones.  Indeed, space of all kinds is at a premium.  These conditions make research parks all the more important to universities.

At the same time, the people needed to lead and staff research parks are in demand, so developing strategies and refining tactics for finding, hiring and keeping good talent are just as important as the bricks, mortar, fiber optic cable and the other elements needed for a successful research park.


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