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Thinking about Headship? Establish Credibility in these 5 Key Areas.

Thinking about becoming a Head of School? As consultants, we meet many rising stars and talk with search committees about them. What do aspiring candidates need to bring to the table? What do boards look for? Here is some advice for candidates considering throwing their hat in the ring, as well as for trustees considering first-time heads. 

The needs of schools and the focus of searches evolve with time. Attributes that ten years ago were considered desirable are now considered essential. Here are 5 key things a strong applicant must address.

1. Academic Chops. Division Heads, Deans of Faculty and Assistant Heads usually have this one covered. Those in other areas of school leadership should ensure that academic knowledge and involvement in the mind of the school are clearly visible and current. Ways to do this: ask your Head if you can teach a course, preferably in the academic mainstream, teach an elective; chair a committee with program review responsibilities; or work with a faculty colleague to design, pilot and evaluate some professional development related to the core academic program. Your and evaluate some professional development related to the core academic program. 

2. Show your strategic streak. Your resume should include—and labeled as strategic—initiatives specific to your field of responsibility. This muscle is strengthened if your resume also shows a strategic initiative that is not part of your direct responsibilities. Cross-departmental examples are great, as is responsibility for an identified goal in the strategic plan. If you can’t find an opportunity to do this in your current school, think about how you might get involved at a visible leadership level with a strategic issue through a regional or national association. 

3. Be the architect and cheerleader of a high-performing team. How did you put the team together? What did you do to transform members of the group into a high-performance team? Cite the outcomes. How do you “keep” that team? Implicit in what you present should be the responsibility you have for evaluating team members. Supervisory credentials are important. While you don’t need to write about how you do that evaluation, you will want to be prepared to talk about it—and lessons learned along the way—in the search process. 

The landscape for our schools, and especially the landscape of transitions, can be both challenging and exciting. The following two areas have never been more important nor received more attention from search committees than they do today. 

4. Engage with DEIJ. DEIJ connotes different things to, different directions for, and different reactions from people. Candidates should demonstrate they have a world view (not just their own philosophy) on this constellation of issues, are able to listen for understanding, can facilitate difficult conversations, and move a community forward. Your application should address what you’ve done, how you’ve done it, and something you’ve learned along the way. CNN commentator Van Jones has a compelling image to consider: “Without a left wing and a right wing, a bird can’t fly.” Trustees want their “birds” to fly and potential candidates would do well to remember that.  

5. Community “builder.” This attribute is always important among faculty and staff and particularly important for parents and trustees of day schools. School constituents have emerged from Covid to a new political, social, safety, and even medical landscape and people of all ages are missing the connections they once had. But the cultural landscape that now exists has changed what it means to “build community.” Many schools look for candidates who can find common ground among constituents that may have very different points of view. The “building” is now about linking different parts of the community together rather than creating a coherent, fully aligned community. Trustees want to know what a candidate has done to help build welcoming cultures and strong bridges in their school community. 

One word of caution: there is no need (and it’s not recommended!) to go overboard on any one of these issues, but each one should be evident in your application materials. Checking the box in each of these five areas makes it much more likely that a search committee will want to know more about you.