Head of school search committees sometimes get confused between seeking what they think will “fit” for their school community as opposed to finding what they really “need.” The word “fit” is bandied about a lot in head search processes. On the surface, it seems like a fundamental concept that underpins the placement of a new leader. Does this person fit in here? Are they a match for our culture? Will they get along with the people in our external and internal communities? Will their personality blend smoothly with the existing norms and expectations of interaction and social protocol? Will this person be effective in our milieu at building relationships? Will this person have key elements of personality and character necessary to be successful in our environment? These all seem like fair and appropriate questions to ask when an independent school is making the monumental decision to appoint its next leader.
Upon closer examination, however, it should be clear that the notion of fit may be riddled with biases and limitations to which search committees need to be alert. What is sometimes actually meant by the word fit is that the new head should not rock any boats. It can mean that the status quo should not be challenged. It can mean that the assumptions and understandings that have guided the school for a long period of time are not to be interpreted from a new perspective. It can mean that certain personnel are safe in their jobs, and performance evaluation should not threaten any long standing or particularly popular members of the staff. To fit into a community might mean that the new head cannot function in contrast to existing norms or modes of operation. Is the school truly committed to change as necessary to best serve its students, advance its market position, and to thrive? Or is there more of a priority on preservation and satisfaction of constituencies who perhaps see the school as a time capsule of what was best and most successful in the past? Is there no mandate for the new head to ascertain and understand whether there are elements of the existing culture that are deleterious to the health and future of the school?
The notion of fit can also fly directly in the face of a school’s diversity objectives. There are many schools where, for much of their history, people from a wide range of backgrounds were not welcome or made to feel like they belonged, whether overtly or implicitly. Many independent schools have made stunning progress in this regard. Fit, however, can be a regressive message to a diverse candidate pool or even to their own extended school community, causing folks to wonder whether the school is sending an unwitting or perhaps deliberate signal about the commitment to ongoing DEIB work.
The solution to this is for a search committee to be clear about what the school “needs” in their next head of school. The first step in this analysis is an unflinching look at the challenges and opportunities that are in front of the school. From that analysis, schools can develop realistic, pointed lists of personal and professional qualities and skills that will be necessary to discover in the next community leader. It is important to distinguish in this early phase of a search the difference between personality and actual leadership ability; there are many ways to lead and we all know a range of people with a variety of personalities who have been effective leaders. It is also critical to spend time thinking about all the biases that can infect the process; bias mitigation training is a “must do” for search committee to fulfill their mandate successfully. Having done this work, search committees can then apply their clearer understanding of what they need to understand the various candidates they will meet during the search process. It isn’t that fit doesn’t matter, but need must take clear precedence for a school to land upon the correct, dynamic, sustainable outcome in a head search process. RG175 head search consultants, all highly successful former school heads, deeply attuned to cultures and markets of independent schools, and highly experienced at working with a wide range of institutions, are uniquely positioned to assist search committees in their work to identify the next head the school needs and who will fit appropriately in the school community.