In an earlier article, “The Bias That Inflicts Head of School Search Committees,” I detailed the kinds of prejudices that influence decision-making as schools search for new Heads. These prejudices extend across all human decision-making and have been written about extensively, most notably by Nobel Prize psychologist Daniel Kahneman at Princeton University. The most insidious aspect of the search process is the illusion of objectivity that the process creates. With its many touch points between candidates and stakeholders, its emphasis on transparency, and its guiding faith in a search committee that represents multiple constituencies, independent schools believe that the elaborate process mitigates against bias. As my previous article argues, this is not the case.
So what’s missing? The answer is depth and rigor. The typical independent school search process used by most consultants is bereft of the identification of the critical leadership competencies that the next Head should possess in order to advance the school. It’s true that glossy position statements will contain sections on “Challenges and Leadership Qualities,” but these attributes have become so generic as to be meaningless. Effective communication skills, strong organization skills, ability to create a vision, capacity to lead, high ethical standards, experience with marketing and fund raising, an innovator- the list goes on and on. But given the generic quality of these leadership skill sets detailed in most position statements, they become impotent in helping the search committee distinguish one candidate from another. The result is an easy default that distinguishes candidates on the basis of “how well they performed.” Interpersonal skills- unquestionably, an important consideration in choosing the right Head of School- drive decision-making at the expense of other vital leadership skills. “Cultural fit” wins the day.
But even the concept of “cultural fit” is riddled with bias. As recent studies have shown, cultural fit often has nothing to do with the compatibility of the candidate with the company’s culture; it has more to do with whether the interviewers feel like the candidate could be someone “they enjoyed hanging out with or could foresee developing a close relationship with.” (Lauren Rivera, Associate Professor at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University)
In addition to greater depth, the search committee must also be more rigorous in its approach. Specifically, the committee must generate questions for the candidates that provide them the opportunity to demonstrate through past behaviors that they have the requisite leadership competencies the committee has identified as critical. Using the SBO method of interviewing (Situation, Behavior, Outcome), the committee begins to build a case for the candidate either possessing the competency or not. The candidate’s answers can be verified by the consultant as well as through reference checking. In essence, the committee is accumulating evidence that speaks directly to the key leadership competencies it has identified as critical to advancing the school. It then uses that evidence to assess the candidate.
During the finalist stage the committee receives feedback from various constituencies and individuals about each candidate’s interpersonal and communication skills. With each finalist talking with parents, teachers, alumni, students, and trustees, there is ample opportunity for the search committee to learn the degree to which each candidate possesses them. In fact, the typical search process almost guarantees that the search committee will receive an abundance of information about each candidate’s interpersonal skills. In contrast, the committee must be intentional and deliberate in creating and executing a protocol that insures that it has information on other previously identified leadership skills. Here the consultant can play an important role by reminding the search committee to maintain discipline and objectivity throughout the process and not let the search turn into a beauty contest.
Today, many independent schools are struggling with enrollment challenges and issues of financial sustainability. As John Chubb, President of NAIS has communicated, these schools need real leaders. Bringing depth and rigor to the search process is a vital first step in fulfilling this need.