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Chairing a Search Committee

Quietly and unobtrusively: that is how Boards of Trustees usually conduct their work. Indeed, few members of the community are aware of its functions or its members. In the face of a Head of School transition, however, the spotlight is on the Board, and people become aware of its responsibility to recruit and hire the next Head of School. Community members who previously had no interest in becoming trustees or volunteering, now become eager to have a role and offer their opinion. This transitional period requires the steady hand of a Board Chair who appoints a trustee or trustees to manage the process and assemble a committee that will nominate a candidate to the entire Board. There is understandably keen interest in the work of the committee and keen focus on the Chair/Co-Chair and Committee as they manage this process. The role is not for the faint of heart, but rather for someone who is both decisive and understands collaborative leadership. It is critical that the Chair or Chairs have a keen understanding and appreciation of the mission, history, and the needs of the institution.  

In our role as Search Consultants, we work closely with the Chair and Committee, advising and supporting them in a new role. For many this is a complex, important, and new experience. Often, no one else on the board has had experience in this role, and it falls to the search consultant to advise and support the chair.

In the interest of making the process more transparent and less daunting, we interviewed chairs and co-chairs from Maret School, Kent Denver School, and Episcopal Day School of St. Matthew’s, three schools which have successfully completed Head of School searches. They shared their insights and experience. Please meet:

Nicole Magaddino, Search Co-Chair for Episcopal Day School’s Head of School (and three years ago for an Interim Head). This is Nicole’s fifth year on the Board where she has also served ex officio as Parent Association President. Professionally, Nicole has been a recruiter for 18 years, and for the last five years she has been the owner of a firm that focuses on finance and accounting. Nicole and her husband have one son at EDS.

Steve LeSieur, Search Co-Chair for the Episcopal Day School Mateo, CA. Steve has been a Trustee for three years, during which time he has been on the several committees including finance. Steve is a managing director at a private equity firm. Steve joined the board because he wanted to signal to his children that he values education. He and his wife have three children at St. Matthew’s. 

Kristin McKissick, Co-Chair of the Kent Denver Search, brought a unique set of skills to the work. A former journalist and communications director, Kristin holds master’s degrees in both economics and public policy, which led to her working at the World Bank. Currently the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Kristin’s volunteer involvement with the school includes the Parent Association and the Athletic Department. Kristin and her husband have three sons who have graduated from KDS.

Sylvia Davis White, the Chair of the Search Committee for the Maret School, is a corporate lawyer by training with a focus on intellectual property. Currently in her fifth year as a Trustee, she has served on several committees and demonstrated her diplomatic and strategic skills by negotiating for the acquisition of field with Washington, D.C. on behalf of Maret. Sylvia and her husband have one son at Maret.

How did you select search committee’s members? If you had a re-do, would you change the process or the people?

Nicole: We decided to have a trustee-only search committee. As Board Chair, in partnership with the Committee on Trustees, I selected the committee. We had representation from all divisions, including the vestry of the church, which was important for our community. As a frame of reference, half of the committee had been on a prior search. Although he was not on the prior search, Steve is a powerful voice in the board room and in the community and we wanted his perspective and leadership as Co-Chair.

Steve: We had a cross-section of the community balancing grade levels, gender, tenure, socioeconomics, and diversity. In the end, there was more commonality among the committee members than differences. A unanimous decision came easily for us. Everyone was there at every part of the process.

Sylvia: We restricted the committee to trustees and chose trustees with a range of experience because we wanted the next head to be able to establish long-term relationships with trustees. In our efforts to cover all constituencies of the School, we included the outgoing and incoming Chairs of the Board. We had ten members, and I am honestly not certain that this was the best plan. As a committee we achieved consensus, but it took time and diplomacy. 

Kristin: We only had trustees on the committee since we wanted to maintain confidentiality and have people with established relationships who represented a cross-section of our community. I selected trustees who had four to five years’ experience since they knew the school well and trusted each other. While they understood the school, the flip side is that several have transitioned off. I also wanted people who would show up and do the work.

In the final analysis, the Chairs believed that they had the right membership, and they could and did come to unanimous decisions.

Each search had its own complications. (They always do.)

Sylvia: We were searching for someone to follow Marjo Talbot, who will, when she retires in June of 2024, have been head for 29 years. Because Marjo is the only head most of our community has known and has a national presence, we felt we were under a spotlight. 

Nicole: This was our second search for our Head of School. When the search, two and a half years ago, did not yield the right candidate, we knew we needed time to steady the school. With the help of the consultants, we hired an experienced head as an interim and this year were better positioned for a successful search.

How did you navigate with/through/or around the current Head?

Kristin: The current Head was having mixed feelings about his decision, and the search was an emotional time for him. I kept him informed and assured him that we had a broad pool. He cared about his legacy and the strategic plan which we highlighted throughout the process and which gave him confidence that all his work would be of benefit to the school and honored.

Steve: The current Head, hired as an Interim, was incented to get this done. The only person he talked to was Nicole, the current Board Chair, who is well connected. Though the Interim had a perspective, he did not want to be overly intrusive; he was respectful of the rules of engagement and had faith in the committee.

Nicole: Yes, our Interim was helpful, an advocate for the school and board. We benefited from the fact that he had the best interests of the school at heart. He put the process first and did not meddle. He wanted to be sure he did not make our decision. It was a powerful signal to the faculty.

Sylvia: We had the clear benefit of Marjo’s wisdom and her contacts in the independent school world. The school had been her “baby.” She was naturally protective—and, frankly, used to making the decisions. As a result, there were challenges for her and for me because she was receiving calls from other heads and various people with an interest in the process. We relied on our relationship and trust to resolve any possible conflicts of interest. She has been incredibly helpful and supportive of the next Head of School.

Would you recommend a Non-Disclosure Agreement be signed by all members of the Search Committee?

Nicole: We chose to have an NDA; it protects the committee when they are put on the spot to answer questions. 

Steve: Yes, we felt it gave formality to the process, and it’s in no one’s interest to talk about the process before a decision is made.

Sylvia: We did not feel it necessary to have an NDA. As Trustees, we deal with confidential matters all the time. 

If you worked with a Co-Chair, how were the responsibilities delineated?

Sylvia: Maret embraces Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as part of our mission. Currently, we are about 50% students of color and nearing that percentage on faculty. As a Board we have had anti-bias training, and we are committed to looking through all lenses. That anti-bias muscle is strong on the board and in the community. We made the deliberate decision to have a person of color in a leadership position as the sole Chair of the search. I am a woman of color leading a search at what has historically been a white institution. Having me in this role sent a clear message about our priorities.

Nicole: Steve and I agreed on the school’s mission and where we were headed. We had mutual respect. We were both open to feedback. 

Steve: I am the new kid on the block. Nicole is total pro who knows how the process works and she taught me a ton. As the Co-Chair I felt I was there to learn and to help Nicole. We leaned on her knowledge and her connections with the Interim Head, the community, and the faculty. Co-Chairs must have the same strike zone philosophically. But best of all, we enjoyed one another’s company. 

Kristin: I had a co-Chair who was an alumna, an important consideration as we prepared for our Centennial. As a consultant in education, my Co-Chair also had chaired KDS’s strategic planning process, which helped to frame the interviews for candidates. Our backgrounds, strengths, and temperaments complemented each other.

Who provided the logistical/technical/clerical support for the committee? 

Kristin: I worked with the Director of Communications at the school. I learned to be less specific about the timeline. We worked closely with the Head’s assistant for scheduling.

Kristin’s experience was the norm. The communications directors and head’s assistants at all schools was an invaluable resource.

What was the hardest aspect of the job for you?

Nicole: The hardest part was that we were chasing a competitive job market, managing a search with candidates who were finalists in other searches. Time was not on our side. We had to be nimble and could make adjustments in the process.

Steve: The hardest constituency to manage was the faculty. When a beloved faculty member calls and says the faculty does not have enough say in the process—that is difficult. You want them to know that they have a voice and have been heard. We both understood how important it was to understand their expectations and build trust in us through the process.

Sylvia: Finding the next head to follow the only leader anyone had known and was revered would be a challenge for anyone. Community members questioned everything about the process and questioned me personally. That was hard. Now they are all happy and think that I know what I was doing.

Kristin: Parents questioned the choice of both Co-Chairs. I was not an alumna, and so I worked to respect the history and culture while thinking about the future. We, too, needed to condense our process in a very competitive market that was changing as we searched.

What was the greatest satisfaction in the job? 

Kristin: I loved all the people that I got to know in the process: the candidates, the leadership people in the school, the committee. I now have a stronger network of people in my life. We also have the great satisfaction of learning about how our school was perceived by people around the world. We had a great thing going at Colorado, and I was not aware that other people in the world knew that. We had a wonderful response to our search, which was gratifying.

Steve: The best part was the unanimous approval on the Search Committee for the candidate who was the right person for the right job: the process worked!

Nicole: Satisfactions? Among them, bringing in the info, having a team that trusts you, and finding unanimous agreement with the search committee, having the board’s trust, as well as that of the vestry. A successfully completed search is satisfying.

Sylvia: At homecoming weekend, I was excited by the faculty who would now speak to me again. People have met the new head of school, and are pleased. It was satisfying to have people express their appreciation and confidence in the decision.

What is your single most important piece of advice for fellow search chairs?

Kristin: Review other school’s websites for patterns. It helps to get a broad perspective. Know that this is a full-time job as a volunteer. You must understand that, and manage your time and mental energy. When you get a breather, take it. Purposefully carve out time for yourself to mentally get away and declutter because once you get to the semifinal stage, you are in the midst of the storm; you are fully occupied. Again, before going public, take the time to sit with the information. I had a week where only the Board Chair and Head and I knew, and I had the time to plan and be calm. I really felt I needed to be the calm in the center since there was so much worry and concern among the entire community.  

Steve: The more the school is in transition, whether it’s strategic direction, economics, or leadership, the more important it is for the committee and trustees to be aligned. Where there are fissures, it becomes evident. It is incumbent upon the Co-Chairs to build as much cohesion around the mission, the goals, and the challenges. Our committee was aligned and spoke with one voice. Nicole saved our school in the previous search by having the courage to make the decision to hire an interim and to wait until the school was on better footing to search for a permanent head.

Nicole: Be ready to have a pre-closed candidate. Be transparent with the candidate about the situation through the process, be communicative, be sure that they have what they need. In addition, give all constituents a voice; know where your strengths are. You will be stronger as a team than as one person. Listen to your intuition. Ask direct questions so that you can make informed decisions. Do not make decisions on a resume. If there is something that speaks to you in the profile, let the candidate have the opportunity to speak to you about it.

Sylvia: I felt I was under a pressure cooker: everybody was looking—and they were. What I would say is: keep your head down, stay focused, and do not listen to the noise. There is noise. I had to learn to turn off the noise as it was distracting. Get people in the room who have different perspectives, from old timers to those who have only been in the community for a year or two. I also tried to get to know the committee members as people. Those relationships are important. Building trust results in better decisions. Do your homework. Stretch yourselves and find out as much as you can about the candidates in the semi-finalist stage. The next time you see them they are on your campus. Have faith in your committee. Stay strong as a collective group. Trust the process. 

Thanks for the wisdom of experience to all of our Search Chairs!

As Search Consultants, we see the variety and the similarities in the process. Some processes can be complicated and others stressful. Building trust is important. Thoughtful communications are essential. Ultimately, however, the key drivers in a search are selecting the search chair or co-chairs and the committee. They must be people who have the trust of the Board, understand the culture, are aware of the challenges and needs of the school. In the case of these three successful searches, the schools were well-served by chairs with good judgment, the strength to do what they believed in, and an ability to lead a team.