After 32 years as a Head of School at four different PK-12 schools, I have found building a great team of teachers and administrators to be the most important role you have as a school leader. After years of hiring and trusting my instincts, it wasn’t until I joined Avenues: The World School in New York in 2016 that I thought deeply about the hiring process and how to improve the odds that every hire will be at least a good one, and hopefully, in most cases, a great addition to our team.
The Avenues hiring process is modeled after the work of Geoff Smart and Randy Street as described in their book WHO. We implemented their ideas and built an outstanding team. Even during a pandemic, there will be hiring to do, and the great thing about this process is that it can be completed online.
WHO breaks the hiring process into 4 steps: creating a Scorecard, Sourcing, Selecting, and Selling. Each step is time consuming, but crucial. It is best to hire slowly and thoughtfully in a structured way, and to terminate quickly when a hiring mistake is revealed.
I will start with WHO’s last piece, Selling, as it is an ongoing part of the hiring process. From the moment the process begins, everyone interacting with a candidate needs to be selling, creating interest in the school, and communicating in a caring and respectful manner. Everyone represents the school and whether the candidate is hired or not, we want them to feel we were professional, that we delivered on our promises, and that our school would be a great place to work.
Take time to answer candidates' questions and give them the information they will need to make a decision whether to join you or not. Give candidates a schedule, stick to it, and communicate if there must be changes. To keep us honest and attuned to the interviewing experience, we developed an on-line survey that went out to every candidate, asking them to rate us on the different steps of our process, and we paid careful attention to those aggregated results.
In most schools when a job opening occurs, someone pulls out the old job description for the position being vacated, and perhaps some polishing and a few new thoughts are added. A Scorecard is something quite different. It is specific and includes the mission for the position, the outcomes, clearly defining what must be accomplished, as well as the competencies required for the individual who will assume this role. For example, if you are looking for an admissions director, the scorecard should state who it is you are hoping to enroll, the number of candidates that should be generated, and the expected yield. Know and define who you are looking for before you begin your search.
Sourcing should be an ongoing, everyday process. Schools should constantly be looking for new talent and identifying individuals they would be interested in hiring far before openings occur. Ask parents, faculty and staff to supply names of the top teachers and administrators they know from other settings and look for ways to meet those individuals and have them visit your school. Sourcing should never be relying on a single teacher recruitment agency to supply resumes and individuals you can meet at a job fair. Schools should anticipate openings and have names on hand of top talent in their region. It is important to always think about who your next hires could be, stockpiling names so you are prepared to move quickly when an opening occurs.
Selecting the right candidate is crucial and it is in this area that the process is most distinct. Rather than just setting up interviews with members of your team to meet each candidate, make sure that each interview is designed to learn specific things about the candidate and that your different interviews are not redundant.
Interviews should follow a 4-step process and they go best when each of the four interviews is conducted by a different member (or sometimes members) of the leadership team. Begin with a 30-minute phone screen or Zoom call to any candidate who looks promising. Ask about their current job and responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, career aspirations, how their last few bosses would rate their performance when they are called (making it clear that they will be called) and gauge whether there is a good potential match. If the interviewer is intrigued, the candidate moves on the next step: the Career History interview.
The Career History is a serious time commitment, usually lasting at least 90 minutes. With the interviewer(s) armed with the candidate’s resume and notes from the phone screen, over a Zoom call the candidate is asked to go back to their high school days, describe what they were like, how they were involved, what they were interested in and passionate about, and move from there to every different professional step along the way, choice of college, first job, second job, third job etc., with the interviewer asking at each step, what their thinking was, what the candidate found challenging, and what they were most proud of. The goal is to gain insight into the candidate’s thought process and decision making, as they moved along their professional journey. The interviewer can see where the candidate took advantage of opportunities proffered them, where they were given additional responsibilities, and where they stumbled. Most candidates have never been asked to talk so much about themselves, generally enjoy telling their story, and usually share much more about themselves than they had intended.
While these interviews are time consuming, they are very instructive, and often enjoyable. As the interview progresses, candidates tend to relax, and offer comments that are worth follow-up. At the conclusion of many career history interviews I was convinced the candidate would be a great hire, and in nearly as many, I was left with doubts and felt it best to move on to others.
The third interview is the Valued Behaviors interview, where the goal is to learn how the candidate’s values and behaviors align with the values that are most important to the school. In our case we designed Valued Behaviors interviews to test for teachers who were collaborative, adaptable, and learners. To gauge if a candidate was collaborative, we asked, “tell us about a time when you had to collaborate with your peers and the collaboration went really well.” Then followed up with, “tell us about a time when you had to collaborate, and the result was not what all had hoped for.” Finally, we asked the candidate to share what they had learned about themselves in each of these scenarios, and what they thought were the key ingredients for successful collaboration.
To learn if a candidate was adaptable we would ask, “tell us about a time when a school rule or procedure made absolutely no sense to you. What was the situation and what did you do about it?” We were not looking for people who always toed the school line, but were interested in learning how the candidate responded to frustration and how they went about making things better in their school community.
To discover more about a candidate’s natural curiosity and whether they were a life-long learner we would ask, “tell us about a recent time when you heard about something you did not know much about and became unstoppable in learning all you possibly could about that subject.” If nothing came to mind, the candidate was likely not going to be of interest to us. We got excited about the individuals we interviewed who were relentless about their learning, excited by new ideas, and eager to share their enthusiasm.
The Valued Behaviors interview is just like the Scorecard. To be most effective in your hiring you need to be clear up front on what you are looking for, and then test for it. Ask questions that lead you to some conclusions about how the candidate’s values and skill set will match up with what you need at your school.
As part of the selection process for candidates, require a task or take-home assignment to be completed in a short period of time, assuring that the work completed is likely to be the work of the candidate. For example when hiring a Dean or counselor, ask how would you respond when confronted with bullying, overprotective parents, depression or transition from another school.
After the interviewing, we asked each teaching candidate to share a video of themselves teaching a class or come in and do a model lesson. Time consuming, but important in learning how a teacher interacts with students and organizes a lesson.
The final step of the selection process is reference checking and should be as rigorous as every other part of the process. In addition to asking child safety questions, the interviewer should inquire about critical competencies from efficiency, organization, follow through, analytical skills, persistence, flexibility, enthusiasm—all the qualities the school holds dear. Check the references that the candidate supplies, and also ask each reference for names of others who could speak to the candidate’s work and performance, and connect with those people as well. Dig a bit into which supervisors the candidate omitted and try to get in touch with those individuals to get as full a picture as possible.
Once all the information is gathered, hold a hiring meeting to make final decisions on candidates. The meetings may get heated as each interviewer may have connected with a candidate differently, but by having these conversations, everyone gains a broader perspective and looks at the data objectively, and together the hiring team can make an informed decision. We are certainly not perfect in our decisions, but by defining what we are looking for at the start, conducting structured interviews, and testing for a match to our school values, we will do as well as we possibly can at putting a high performing team together.