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Being a successful Head of School is more than just adding value to the school – it requires good judgment. Case in point: the crises involving sexual misconduct that some independent schools are currently facing. Yet sadly, the typical independent school search process rarely addresses this critical aspect of a person’s skillset. This failure is reflective of the shallow process for identifying new leadership, a process that associates interview performance with the “likability quotient,” but often at the expense of determining if a candidate possesses critical management skills associated with sound judgment. The result can sometimes lead to devastating consequences.

What to do?

Make sure the school’s search consultant is a former head of school with the requisite interview skills to uncover how candidates make important decisions. Only a former head of school has the knowledge and experience to probe beyond the typical superficial responses that sound reasonable but reveal little. A former head with superior interviewing skills can ask the key follow-up questions that reveal how a candidate approaches a difficult decision. Every candidate has a default, a complex amalgam of emotion, fear, experience, personality, and more. The key is to find that default and determine if the candidate has developed disciplined protocols that lead to more reasonable and thoughtful responses.

True story: a first-time head of school in his first summer on the job establishes a major academic administrative position and appoints one of the division heads (whom he barely knows) to that position, adding to her responsibilities. His rationale? This position existed at his former school, and it really worked well there. His new school had lost almost 200 students since 2008 and had not gained any traction in increasing its enrollment. To spend precious resources in this situation and to appoint an unknown quantity speak volumes about this head’s lack of judgment, his un-checked impulsivity. His default behavior could have been uncovered in the search process with penetrating questions asked by a skilled search consultant who was searching for those defaults.

By providing descriptive information about the candidate’s skills, the consultant gives the Search Committee an opportunity to understand the candidate at a deeper level and then verify that understanding by closely interviewing references. From the consultant’s initial interview and the subsequent reference checking, the Search Committee gains valuable insight into the judgment of a candidate.

Focusing on past behavior, the consultant is equipped to question the candidate about a difficult decision. The consultant might explore the degree to which the candidate gathered information and perspective, why the decision was so important, her knowledge and experience dealing with these kinds of problems, the management of emotions, whom she included in the deliberation, the moral and political basis for the decision, the anticipated consequences, time constraints, the process for making the decision, including listening to other voices, how she dealt with conflict and resistance, the communication and implementation of the decision, and finally, what she learned in hindsight from the process. In these answers lies a treasure trove of information about the candidate and the way she approaches thorny problems or initiates change. Although not a full-proof proxy for sound judgment, these responses, the significance of which will be apparent to the consultant, will illuminate the candidate’s self-knowledge and the maturity to check those default behaviors that may lead to poor decisions.

Ron Carucci’s ten-year study (Harvard Business Review, January, 2016) identified the key leadership qualities of successful executives and found that they were all great decision-makers: “Exemplary executives have the ability to declare their views, engage others’ ideas, analyze data for insights, weigh alternatives, own the final call, and communicate the decision.” These are vital qualities needed to lead an independent school, and yet the search process rarely touches on the extent to which a candidate possesses them. When one considers the lawsuits and negative publicity some schools have endured over the past several years or the indecision that plagues so many heads of school, it is clear that consultants and search committees need to spend time examining the decision-making skills of candidates. The stakes are too high not to.