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Choose Wisely

In the rush to form a search committee, many board chairs fail to consider some important factors that can ultimately determine if the search is successful or not. When one considers that the selection of a new head of school and the subsequent management of the leadership transition is the most important job of a board of trustees, it is imperative that the board chair “gets it right.” What follows are some essential questions the chair needs to ask herself about potential members of the search committee.

1. Does the person have good judgment? An effective member of the search committee refrains from jumping to conclusions based on limited evidence. He or she listens carefully and asks good questions that illuminate the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Impulsive decision-makers should be avoided.

2. Does the person have a particular axe to grind or a single issue that will cloud her judgment? Search committee members have to have in the front of their minds the best interest of the school and its students. There should be a strategic element to their thinking. These vital qualities cannot be overshadowed by a member’s desire to have a stronger lacrosse program or a more formal dress code. Using membership on a search committee to advance a particular issue is a prescription for a dysfunctional committee.

3. Does the person have the time to do this important work? Although there are periods during the search when members have little to do, these are balanced by periods of intense activity. Search committee members must be willing to sacrifice their personal and professional concerns to attend important meetings. For example, it is simply unacceptable during the semifinalist weekend when the search committee is interviewing candidates on both Saturday and Sunday for a member to miss one of those days. There is no possible way that he or she can contribute productively to the decision in choosing the finalists. Likewise, during the finalist stage, each member must be prepared to make several phone calls in order to check references. Board chairs would be wise to avoid stakeholders who travel a great deal in their jobs.

4. Can the person maintain confidentiality? This is a non-negotiable! In order to have meaningful and productive conversations that lead to a good decision, each member of the search committee must have full trust that his or her comments will remain in the room. Candor is essential to effective decision-making. If a member of the committee feels that her comments must be guarded because of the possibility that they will be shared with the wider community, the search committee will have superficial conversations that will lead to a shallow decision-making process.

5. Should faculty, staff, or administrators be a part of the committee? There is no easy answer to this question. Much depends on the culture of the school and the particular circumstances it is facing. If the search committee will be discussing sensitive information related to the previous head, it may be prudent to not have faculty and staff on the committee. Instead, the chair may decide to create a faculty advisory committee to ensure that this important stakeholder group have a greater opportunity to interview in more depth each of the finalists. Although not a hard and fast rule, having potential direct reports on the committee can be awkward. One important consideration—the deeper knowledge of the inner workings of the school that faculty possess can actually tip the balance of power toward their perspective. In many instances, I have seen trustees defer to teachers on the committee by virtue of their deep understanding of the school… not always a healthy dynamic.

6. Should the chair consider potential members from diverse backgrounds? Absolutely! Many studies have shown that committees make better decisions when there is a diversity of perspective. Groupthink should be avoided at all costs. Many searches are fairly transparent, especially at the finalist stage, thus allowing opportunities for stakeholders from diverse backgrounds to have a voice. But there is no substitute for deep and meaningful conversations that tap into the perspectives of groups that may not always be heard. To honor those voices is not only right; it’s also smart, leading to better decisions.

The above is not meant to be an exhaustive list of considerations when a chair is determining the composition of the search committee. Specific circumstances related to the school may lead to tapping individuals who don’t “check off all the boxes.” But the chair must realize, that in choosing the committee, she is sowing the seeds for the quality of the decision. Thus, the imperative to “choose wisely.”