CANADA: Want the top job? Be ready for some scrutiny.

Janet Wright, a Canadian executive-search veteran, says going through the hiring of a new university president means being able to find out everything you can about your candidate. That would mean everything. Whether the potential candidate is a womaniser or a union basher, Wright says she has to know. That translates into several hours of her calling around and talking to many people about that one person who's being touted for the top job at her clients' university.

Wright says one of the most important aspects of her role is to ensure there is no "smoking gun" in any parts of her nominee's history. Since 1982, Janet Wright & Associates Inc. has helped hire 79 university presidents. At the top of the list of those institutions are two mentions of the University of Toronto - and that is because Wright's very first presidential pick died one month before his term began.

"It was a heart attack. We were not as attentive to those things 26 years ago," she says. "I don't remember if we asked him for a physical but we would do that today. If he had a history, we would have requested some type of medical."

The potential university president, the term most commonly used in Canada and the US, and known in other countries as a vice-chancellor, must be willing to go through some scrutiny for the position. But Wright says some of the more intense scrutinising happens further on in the process.

After the search committee has contacted Wright's firm and the number of candidates has been whittled down, the first phase of the vetting process sees the candidate interviewed without any references. Then, he or she allows Wright's office to call his chosen references.

If the candidate is still passing with flying colours after that phase, the search firm then asks to call references the person has not named. The firm, however, will tell the candidate who they called. The last stop is what Wright refers to as "carte blanche," where she can call anyone she wants without revealing their names.

"They can call a halt to this at any time," said Wright, who works with two colleagues with 28 and 30 years of experience in the business. They all have a wide network of potential candidates - as well as some of their nemeses.

It is at this final phase that Wright will talk to people who might just bring up that "smoking gun": "For example, if that person has a history of fractious labour relations. Will they be effective in a highly unionised environment?"

When asked about John McCain's search blunders after his staff brought on Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential running mate in their failed bid in the last US election, Wright offers some lessons. She says searches cannot be done at the last minute: the moment you find out the name of your candidate, you should be looking into their past and finding out their viability for the job.

The job of being a university president has become more demanding and less attractive to people in both academia and business, Wright says. That means a shrinking pool of potential candidates - men or women willing to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the executive-search firm.