I’d like to strike a blow for straight-talk. Too many educators avoid saying what we mean, preferring to couch our thoughts in euphemisms and niceties that aren’t helpful to somebody who would benefit from hearing the straight scoop. From our early days as classroom teachers writing pleasant but unhelpful narrative report cards, to our days as mid- and senior-level administrators pulling our punches when evaluating teachers who should be doing better, to when we’re Heads and offer meaningless titles to colleagues seeking to move up, we have missed multiple opportunities to be helpful when help was needed.
As search consultants we see the fruits of this lack of candor all the time. While search committees want to know what a person actually does, what that person’s responsibilities actually are, too often we see candidates with vague titles like “Assistant Head for Community Life” or “Director of Special Projects” that sound like made-up palliatives for someone who was clamoring for a promotion. As a result of these sorts of contrived titles that are usually accompanied by nebulous responsibilities and little authority, the people who hold those positions are seduced into thinking they’re on their way to a Head’s office of their own when, in fact, they probably aren’t.
If Heads really want to help their leadership team advance in the profession, they need to give those administrators meaningful jobs with accurate titles and specific responsibility, accountability, and authority. (Of course, too many Heads do not really want their subordinates to advance, if advancement means leaving for a job at another school. Such institutional selfishness is deplorable, in my view, but we see it all the time.) Let’s look at this through the eyes of a search committee in a school seeking a new Head.
What are the members of that search committee interested in? Real responsibility and a track record of “getting it done,” not a mushy résumé. They’re interested in experience hiring and firing faculty. They’re interested in faculty evaluation. Work with Board committees. Fundraising. Scheduling. Admissions, outward-facing experience. Finance and Operations. Marketing and Communications. Understanding of Program. How many direct reports does the candidate have? What evidence is there of the candidate’s performance in a crisis?
And then it becomes incumbent on us search consultants to talk straight with candidates. We need to be honest when a résumé is gobbledy-gook. We need to pin down those nebulous job descriptions: “Sounds good, but what do you actually do?” We do a disservice to candidates by putting them in searches where they have no chance of succeeding just to pad our numbers and make it look as though we’ve scoured the landscape for every possible contender. No, we need to be truth-tellers, and sometimes that means saying, “This is not the right opportunity for you, but there will be one and we want to stay in touch for when that one comes along.”
It has been my experience that candidates appreciate candor. Nobody wants to be sent on a fool’s errand. Who wants to be doomed from the start as a candidate? Many candidates have what it takes to be a school Head but they need coaching, they need reality therapy about their chances, and they need a consultant who will take a genuine interest in them as individuals, not just as candidates X, Y, and Z in a current search.
So, if you’re an administrator with a squishy title, see about changing it to something meaningful. If your title is squishy because it accurately reflects your job, see about getting some teeth put into your position. And if you want to be a Head of School, know that the most important factor in a search committee’s evaluation is likely to be a realistic assessment of what you’ve done, whom you’ve led, and how you have fared when your school needed you most.