deep insights, independent, heads of school, decisions, leaders, discovery, consultants, boards, trustees, leadership, head search process,

How Search Committee Can Make Better Decisions: Hint: The Key Is Not the Last Meeting but The First Meeting

There are several reasons why so many heads of school are being dismissed early in their respective tenures—declining enrollments, undisciplined boards of trustees, entitled and entrenched faculty, a disconnect between leadership style and the culture of the school, a failure to properly calibrate the pace of change—the list is long. I don’t dispute any of these reasons, but naming them in the aftermath of a failed headship in the hope of preventing future failures often has limited power to effect positive change and more often serves to put schools in the deficit hiring pendulum: “Let’s find a new head who has leadership and management qualities opposite those of the previous head.” The shadow of the failed headship maintains its power over the thinking of the board of trustees, ultimately to the detriment of the school.

How can independent schools escape this shadow? Bob Lurie and Bernard Jaworski’s book, The Organic Growth Playbook, examines the potency of “upstreaming” in the decisions that consumers of goods and services make and offers a useful analogy. They detail the cascade of seemingly insignificant decisions that lead to a consumer purchase. According to Lurie and Jaworski, imbedded in some of the “insignificant” decisions are the seeds of influencing behavior. In one example, they show how using advertising to get women to ask their family physicians for a particular test leads to doctors prescribing more often a drug that has an outstanding track record for a disease often undiagnosed. The power to influence behavior and increase sales does not lie with the many benefits of this drug over its competitors; rather it lies with getting potential customers to make a decision early on, a decision that ultimately leads down a path that in turn, leads to a purchase.

Just as upstreaming offers a framework for influencing customer behavior, it also suggests the importance of search committees thinking carefully about the early stages of the search process. A strong foundation leads to an excellent result.

The initial stage of the search process is called the Discovery Stage when a consultant does a two to three day visit at the school. To prepare for this visit, the consultant examines various statistics as well as key documents like the strategic plan. During the visit the consultant interviews individuals as well as larger groups of stakeholders in an effort to identify major themes. The visit provides the consultant with examples of the strengths of the school in order to write an attractive opportunity statement to recruit candidates. In addition, the consultant learns of the challenges the school is facing in order to include them in the statement, albeit in a way that will not dampen the enthusiasm of the candidates. Thus operationally, the primary purpose of the discovery stage is to put the school in the best possible light by highlighting its virtues while acknowledging, but not emphasizing, the challenges. The end game is a robust pool of candidates to present to the search committee.

But in this shallow approach is a lost opportunity to leverage the expertise of the consultant and the knowledge of the search committee about the school to create a fresh perspective unencumbered by how the previous head is perceived. In this alternative scenario, the consultant’s perspective can be used to prompt a deep, meaningful and ultimately, productive conversation with the search committee about where the school is now, where it wants to be, and the kind of leadership needed to make this happen. When the Discovery Stage hovers at the superficial level, search committees run the real risk of staying under the shadow of the perceived performance of the previous head rather than delving into more systemic, structural and strategic areas that can lead to a very different choice when it is time to make the final selection. Choosing leadership in the absence of deep reflection and meaningful conversation about challenges, opportunities, potential strategies, and a focused list of key leadership qualities that flow logically from the articulated challenges and opportunities, misses a chance to positively influence the final decision.

There are many ways boards can do a better job of supporting their heads to advance their schools, but the power of these actions pales in comparison to identifying the right candidate in the head search process, one whose strengths align with the school’s challenges and whose educational philosophy and personality are in sync with the school’s mission and culture. The key to making this happen is developing deep insights about the school and its aspirations through meaningful and productive conversations between the consultant and the search committee at the beginning of the process. These conversations are reflective of a true partnership, one that acknowledges the expertise of a successful former head of school (the consultant) but also recognizes that the search committee knows the school, its culture, how its mission is lived, and its aspirations far better than the consultant ever will. The integration of these two domains of knowledge creates a foundation for excellent decision-making that leads to choosing a head who can add value to the school. Without this foundation, without this intentionality, independent schools are playing a high stakes game of chance. They might win, but what are the chances?