hiring, leadership, qualifications, attitude, references,

Make a Great Hire!

It is a pleasure to welcome our newest blogger, Coreen R. Hester, former head of school at The American School in London where she served for the last 10 years, and before that as the Head at The Hamlin School in California. Coreen recently joined RG175 as a consultant and is already playing an active role in on-going searches at United Nations International School (NYC), Riverstone International (ID), California Association of Independent Schools (CA), and Chandler School (CA).–Tom Olverson

It was a painful moment: the students were bored, the teacher looked miserable, the class was going nowhere, and I was embarrassed. This was fulfilling our promise to educate young people? Hardly. How did we get here? And how could I avoid ever being here again?

Hiring outstanding professionals is a critical responsibility for school leadership, and—like teaching—requires perspiration and finesse to get it right. Even the great guru Jim Collins says that great schools still make bad hiring decisions—they just turn over less competent employees faster than other schools. But the time and effort to “turn them over” is a painful distraction to the leadership team and, worst of all, hurts students! Best to get hiring decisions right from the outset.

Here are three pieces of advice to keep in mind for making a great hire:

1. Know who and what you need.

Starting a job search requires the discipline to analyze and articulate who you want and what the school needs. If you can’t say it out loud and write it down, you will definitely not find the person you want. It’s not enough to say you need a terrific new Middle School history teacher. Instead, you must clarify the professional qualifications and personal attributes you want and need at your school? Make sure you have that notion front and center in the job description and that your questions reflect that need. Is collaboration a priority? Do you need someone who understands how to implement problem-based learning? A person who exhibits cultural competence? Don’t assume you’ll get who you need if you cannot say what you’re looking for. A great international school leader told me that interviewers for his school asked three questions up front: How do you plan a unit? How do you use technology? And how do you collaborate? Those questions reflected the values of the organization, and the faculty came to reflect those values as well. They wanted a team who could design curriculum, use technology, and collaborate—and that’s what they got

2. Attitude is always the winning ticket.

You can deepen technical expertise, you can sharpen understanding of learning objectives, you can improve classroom management skills, but you cannot change a person’s attitude and work ethic. Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Ideal Team Player, declares that we want three characteristics in a good hire: people who are humble, hungry, and smart (meaning, “people smart” and able to work well in a group). Nothing about these qualities is about content; it’s all about mindset and attitude. Can you admit when you’re wrong? Can you listen to good advice? Will you put in the extra mile to make sure the lesson goes well? Will you use a caring and respectful manner with colleagues? Attitude beats out expertise every time.

3. Do deep reference checks.

The old adage is true: the best predictor of future success is past success. I loved the advice I got years ago (Hiring Smart by Pierre Morrell) to try to call references when the reference is unlikely to be available. (Cell phones make this harder, but I still try.) The measure of an excellent candidate can be calculated from how fast the reference returns your call. It works like magic! If a recommender is hesitant—and has to formulate what to say—that person procrastinates. But an enthusiastic recommender hops on that phone or computer fast, eager to support the candidate. And the message you leave? “I’m calling about So-And-So and would like your unvarnished opinion about whether or not So-and-So would be an outstanding member of our team?” Bold-face intentional. Set the bar high in your initial call to references. Their reaction to that language will be helpful to you as well. And never stop your reference calls until you hit something negative. If you cannot get a beat on a negative, I suggest asking, “If we hire So-and-So, how might we need to coach So-and-So?” That approach will usually yield something of concern for you to factor into your decision. Finally, always make that call to the candidate’s head of school or supervisor. Only regret arises from not following through on that step.

As the season approaches, “Be Intentional” in your hiring practices. It makes all the difference—to you, your faculty, and, most importantly, to your students!