search, transparency, head of school, school, board of trustees, committees, judgment, outcome, support, mentorship,

What Makes a Head Search Triumphant or Tragic?

Sitting with an independent school board president and a head of school search committee chair a while back, I was asked, “What makes a search for a new head of school triumphant or tragic?” I asked them to clarify their terms a bit – what would constitute triumph or tragedy in their minds? Swift to respond, they said triumph meant that the right person was hired and smoothly integrated into the school community, and that the new head, by the end of the first year on the job, was able to assert and initiate a clear agenda, underpinned by strong community consensus, for the future of the school. Tragedy was articulated as the converse of that; an ineffective leader who was a poor cultural fit who had to be separated from the school in a relatively short period of time. After reminding them that extremes in both cases were rather unlikely, and that hiring a human being for a highly complex job was a process bound to have some bumps and imperfections, I went on to offer several critical factors in head searches that would surely have a major impact.

I told them an anecdote about a school I had recently visited where the board of trustees and the faculty offered widely divergent accounts of the condition of their community. The trustees were Pollyannaish about things, while the adamant faculty consensus was that morale was terrible and the ship was sinking. The departing head was aware of this dichotomy but seemed unwilling and unable to do anything about it. The board had appointed a search committee, as a result, that did not have a realistic grasp of the actual culture and condition of the school. Moreover, the board leadership was not particularly interested in contrary views, seeing them as subversive, and they were firm in the conviction that a pliant new head would only come to a school that was presented as happy and successful.

As a result, this school was utterly unprepared to undertake a head search. Dissonance about school culture and failure to articulate openly and honestly the genuine future challenges for a school are the primary guarantors of an unsuccessful process, ensuring that the school will not find the right “fit” in its next leader. Schools that clearly and candidly present to prospective heads the “hills that need to be climbed” end up with stronger candidate pools, and ultimately with a better leader, than those that deny or obfuscate. After all, a savvy candidate will discern the realities of the job while in the search process, and good people are likely to view challenges, especially those embraced collaboratively by trustees, as the opportunities for leadership rather than as reasons to demur.

It is also important that search committees trust the advice and judgment of their search consultants, operating in a strong partnership with them. I understand that board members feel a powerful fiduciary responsibility to oversee the search process; there is an important difference, however, between attentive oversight and restrictive control. The problem arises when search committees second-guess consultants at every step, often substituting their own experiences in hiring for businesses or partnerships for the very different exigencies of hiring in independent school communities. This tension can undermine the legitimacy of the search in the eyes of other constituencies, discourage good candidates from moving forward in the process, and make it much more difficult for the new head when she or he undertakes their new duties.

Search committees that grasp the difference between transparency and democracy also tend to experience the greatest success. Transparency is essential. When school communities are well informed about process, modes of participation and paths for input, as well as schedules and timelines, it lends an aura of competence and enlightened authority. Search committees need to solicit views broadly, listen carefully, and make a point of asking questions that elicit honest responses. They should not, however, leave any misunderstanding about how the decision will be made, underscoring that this will be a board choice based upon a thoughtful search committee recommendation grounded in careful research, consideration of all sources, and rigorous deliberation. The final choice will not be based upon any sort of vote or public opinion polling from the broader school community.

There are a few more critical missteps that can lead to “tragic” outcomes. The first is when search committees create messianic expectations. Job descriptions of the ideal candidate are fine and appropriate, but it is also essential to remind a school community that the next head will surely have foibles and that self-awareness and desire to learn and improve are more important qualities to measure than to size someone up in comparison to perfection.

Another problem that causes searches to go awry is the breakdown of confidentiality. Candidates can be hurt by this, confidence in the school and the search can be undermined, and the quality of the pool decimated. In addition, the mismanagement of internal candidates for the job is a topic worthy of its own blog. The short version of this is that internal candidates can end up in the center of political maelstroms that damage both their own candidacies and everyone else’s. Many high quality candidates simply will not enter a search competing with an internal candidate because of this potential. Yet sometimes internal candidates are superb, so thinking through how to manage that well in concert with search consultants is critical.

Assembling a search committee full of people who have the broad long-term interests of the school at heart is essential. You do not want people who think they are there to represent or are beholden to a specific constituency, and personal agendas should not be welcome. People on the committee should “play well with others” and their primary qualification should be high character. They should be willing to work hard in the endeavor and embrace that their objective is to come to a single unanimous recommendation to the board of trustees. Anything short of that can lead to a divided school that is suspicious of the merits of the new head.

Finally, boards need to see the search process as something that extends naturally and necessarily into the transition period following the announcement of the appointment of the new head and thereafter through the first year of the new head on the job. Thinking thorough transition challenges and providing appropriate support and mentorship for the new head are absolutely critical. Approaching the search from the outset as a long process extending well over a year, one that includes the inculcation of the next leader into the life and culture of a new community, leads to far more triumphant outcomes. The guiding principle to triumph in the head search process, from beginning to end, is placing premiums on honest transparency and clear and strong communication, while establishing the primacy of the best long term interests of the school and entrusting the process to people of high character and strong people skills.