Good Board = Good Search

Frequently, a conversation about a search begins with the question about what makes for a successful search. While there are many factors, the search process begins and ends with the Board of Trustees and its own governance. Because this is the entity that hires and supports the head and elects the board president, its health and functioning will set the stage for hiring the new leader, providing transition, and establishing the strategic goals for the new head and school. A healthy board has trustees who speak openly and respectfully with each other, who understand that the board’s authority is vested in the collective, and who take seriously its responsibilities. A search is well served by having a board chair who is respected, who “gets” the school’s culture, and who understands the dynamics of the board and the personalities of all involved. As with other committee assignments, the president appoints the search chair and is often a member of the search committee.

In a united board whose members understand that their role is to provide oversight and guidance, the search process of finding a head who has the qualities, experience and skill necessary to lead the school, provides an ideal opportunity for trustees to work closely together on something of immense importance to the school, learning to trust one another and becoming better colleagues.

Advance Work
It is usually a good idea to have announced the current head’s departure in advance of announcing the formation of a search committee. When that’s not possible, announcing the head’s departure and the creation of the search committee in the same message obviates the tendency of people to self-volunteer to serve on the committee.

In advance of the search, the board should conduct a review of its by-laws so that the roles of the board and the search committee are clearly understood. More than one search committee has been surprised to learn of some peculiarity—like having the faculty or parents vote on the final nominee or be vetted by the alumni!

Setting up the Search
As with all board committee assignments, the chair or president has the responsibility to appoint the chair of the search committee, a person who should command the respect of the board and community at large. I often think of the search chair as part cheerleader, part ringleader, and part diplomat. In order to manage this process, the search chair needs to be willing to devote the requisite time, be a clear communicator, and have no personal agenda or bias other than hiring the best person possible. Ordinarily, it is the board president together with the search chair and the executive committee if the search committee has yet to be established, who hire the consulting firm.

In putting together the search committee, the president should seek members with a range of experience and diversity of thought but a common purpose. This is not the committee to have opposition or a contrarian. As a general practice, our firm’s consultants recommend that the committee be comprised of 7-9 trustees. That may not be possible possible but with the understanding that it is the board’s number one job to hire the head, search committee members must appreciate that confidentiality is essential and that being present is non-negotiable. You cannot have a search committee with part-time members.

Once the committee is in place, the committee chair and consultants set the calendar for the search and outline the time commitment, again stressing the need for confidentiality among the members. (To emphasize that, a number of search committees these days are obliging their members to sign non-disclosure agreements.) Maintaining good communication with the board president and search consultants—and later on with candidates—is crucially important, more often than not falling to the school’s communications director or head’s assistant.