A Search Committee Chair’s Perspective on the Challenges of the Head Search

This month’s RG175 blog post comes from Ed Cesare, co-chair of the Head of School Search Committee at King School in Connecticut, and former Chair of the Board of Trustees at the same school.

I, along with my co-Chair Lynn King, was privileged to lead the Head of School Search at King School in 2017. Prior to that I served on the Board at King for ten years, four of those as Board President. (Thank goodness for by-law mandated term limits!) During my term, the Board presided over strong enrollment growth, $20 million in facilities construction, the completion of a $21 million capital campaign, a qualitative increase in Annual Fund giving, a Mission review, a NEASC accreditation self-study, and a By-Law revision. One of the things I came to appreciate is that a three-division independent school is an extremely complicated organization. Notably absent from that body of work was a search for a Head of School. Although I had stepped down from the Board in 2016, Board President Tom Conheeny gave me the opportunity to fill that hole when our long-standing and outstanding Head, Tom Main, let the Board know he would be ending his great run with us. Appreciation of the complexities of an independent school would be one of the most valuable tools I brought to this job. The other valuable tool was an appreciation for building consensus, which is distinct from “finding” consensus and one of the most important skills in the quiver of non-profit leaders.

King is fortunate to have a highly functioning Board that has the foresight to take a long, strategic, mission-based view of what it sought in its next Head of School. This perspective manifested itself in a leadership vision statement, which set forth the high level qualities and core skill sets we were looking for. The School’s Strategic Planning Committee composed of trustees, administrators, faculty, and parent volunteers led the development of this statement. The Strategic Planning Committee, led ably by past Board President Lou Paglia, was assisted by an outside consultant who guided the committee to articulate the hopes and desires of a large committee representing various constituencies. The final stage in this part of this process was presenting the Statement to the Board of Trustees for approval. This preliminary work gave the School a head start when RG175 arrived to help us recruit our next Head. The Leadership Vision Statement presented consultants Tom Olverson and Clay Stites with a concise, well thought out statement from the entire school community of what we sought in the next leader.

The next step was the creation of a Search Committee, which needed to overcome the competing value of inclusiveness and efficiency. Inclusiveness dictates a size of no more than ten, while efficiency is best served by significantly more. We settled on a committee of eleven, driven by a strong desire to have representation of faculty from each division. We elected not to use an advisory board, but rather remained mindful of the importance of transparency and communication throughout the process. King’s Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications, Tamra Lichtman, provided significant and critical support in our efforts to communicate with all major stakeholders.

In addition to well-constructed, published updates on progress, one-on-one dialogue is crucial. I refer to this as “retail politics” and it begins with an active dialogue between the Search Committee Co-Chairs and its members. These conversations lead to the development of a consensus within the Search Committee that is rooted in the perspective of the various School’s constituencies. These conversations build trust within the Search Committee and the larger school community, and signals that each constituency matters in its own right.

As a function of our slightly compressed schedule we elected to have RG175 manage the first round of candidate vetting. This replaced the traditional “resume party” in which the entire Search Committee sits down and sorts through a large number of candidate resumes. As a result, members of the Search Committee informally interviewed each of the 12 candidates on campus in first round interviews. This allowed the Committee an ability to assess the pool of the most promising candidates and just as important, provided an early opportunity for the Search Committee to sell the School to those promising candidates. We felt that these initial campus interviews put us in a very strong position to expect a “yes” from our first choice candidates.

The next stage of the process was narrowing the initial field to six semi-finalists. The “semi-finalist weekend” went relatively smoothly because of the extensive groundwork we laid at the beginning of the search. One feature of semi-finalist weekend worth mentioning is that a Search Committee should be prepared to digest a large amount of data and opinion during the deliberation that leads to the selection of finalists. Some spreadsheet or other tool to manage this meeting must be created ahead of time in order to facilitate constructive assessment of each candidate.

After each of the three finalists visited campus, the Search Committee chose a lead candidate to recommend to the board of trustees. Our Head Elect enjoyed overwhelming Board support, however there were aspects of her resume that needed interpretation for some trustees. I think this is always to be expected as choosing a Head is one of the foundational and fiduciary tasks of the Board and, inevitably, not every trustee is as close to the process as those on the Search Committee. Recognition of and attention to this tension is critical in the home stretch. This is where retail politics comes into play again. Continually taking the temperature of trustees’ sentiment is critical to a smooth landing before the final vote of the Board.

I found the search process to be one of the more challenging and interesting exercises I have been involved with in my time working on independent school governance. Interestingly, I felt the weight of responsibility as Search Co-Chair much more so than as President of the Board. Speaking for my co-Chair and our entire committee, I can say that, as with many things, a robust process and an attention to detail are vital to success. Finally, effective communication to the whole community combined with a continual understanding of the sentiment of trustees will create conditions for a smooth transition to and success of the Head Elect.

Ed Cesare is a financial professional with over 30 years experience in the capital markets. Ed is very active in non-profit governance and serves on a number of non-profit boards. He is past President of the Board of Trustees at King School and remains an advisor to the Board. During his term as President, the School was able to achieve an impressive list of accomplishments in the areas of advancement, board development and general governance.