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Published originally in Independent School Magazine, Fall, 2016

The statistics are alarming. According to Marc Levinson, Executive Director of MISBO, in his study “Evaluating the Head of School Transition” from 2009 to 2014 there have been 102 head transitions out of about 160 schools in Florida. For that same period in Georgia there have been 122 transitions out of 158 schools. For North Carolina, 74 out of 90. For Connecticut, 45 out of 100. In the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, there have been 60 new heads for 115 schools. Based on interviews, Levinson concludes that central to this disturbing trend are search committees lacking expertise:

“Former NAIS Presidents Pat Bassett and John Chubb, along with several other association leaders I spoke with, expressed concern with the lack of resources and training for search committees. Most agree that hiring (as well as supporting and evaluating) leadership is the primary responsibility of our school boards, but most are ill-equipped to tackle this assignment.”

Clearly, there is a problem. It is true that some of the transitions cited by Levinson are most likely the result of “boomer” heads retiring, but the staggering volume along with the statements by national and regional association leaders suggests flaws in the way schools select new heads.

There are many possible reasons for the failure of so many head searches: a lack of understanding about what leadership really is and what it looks like, dysfunctional boards, a premium on appearance over substance to name a few. But even more fundamental and, in my opinion, more prevalent, is the bias that inflicts the selection process and the absence of protocols to suppress this bias. In this regard, the work of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning behavioral psychologist at Princeton, provides us insight into the flawed thinking of so many search committees. In Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman details the prejudice that runs rampant in human decision-making and highlights the illusion of objectivity that pervades human thinking. A summary of research that he and other psychologists conducted over the last 30-40 years, Thinking, Fast and Slow provides a conceptual framework for exploring the prejudices that inflict any group’s collective judgement.

And nowhere is this flawed decision-making more evident than in the work of independent school search committees tasked with selecting a new head of school. In fact, the bias that inflicts many search committees is so palpable that Kahneman’s book should be required reading for all members of a newly formed search committee (Note: for a condensed overview of Kahneman’s research and its application, please see the 2015 Winter edition of the Harvard Business Review OnPoint).

Let’s look at some examples.

The “priming” bias is well known in the hiring process. It is sometimes referred to as the “deficit hiring bias.” This particular irrational thinking involves identifying the attributes of the present head of school and assigning them unwarranted value in the selection of the next head. So if a head is perceived as having weak relationships with students, the search committee decides, almost unconsciously, that it is imperative that the next head be someone who will develop great relationships with students, and indeed, it may be helpful for the next head to have this attribute. But too often, search committees unthinkingly and unwisely elevate the importance of the attribute in their selection process. In these situations, the search committee’s perception of the current head primes the unconscious value placed on student relationships.

The “halo bias” is yet another example of the irrational thinking that goes into selecting a head. Perhaps a candidate comes from a highly regarded, prestigious school that search committee members admire. The perception of the prestigious school becomes a powerful proxy for all the candidate’s attributes leading to thinking that goes something like this: 1) this candidate comes from a prestigious school; 2) we wish our school were more like the candidate’s school; 3) we should hire this candidate. Many of us “rational” folk might scoff at the simplicity of this thinking, but it is the kind of thinking that sells cars, soft drinks, and a myriad of other advertised consumer goods.

And finally, there is what I call “the beauty contest bias” or as Kahneman refers to it — the “availability heuristic.” Absent the hard work, discipline and rigor of amassing evidence that demonstrates that a candidate has the attributes that the search committee identified as critical for the next head to possess, the search committee instead asks itself the easy question: “Do we like this candidate?” The fact that the committee consists of representatives from multiple constituencies, hires a consultant to lead it through the process, and champions transparency provides the false comfort and illusion that objectivity rules the day. This is often not the case. A candidate may “knock it out of the park,” in an interview by demonstrating that she really “gets” the school. In essence, the candidate is validating the committee members’ love of the school. Perhaps her enthusiasm for the school and her desire to “land” the job draw committee members to her. Post-interview, the committee looks for evidence to support its initial emotional connection with the candidate. It fails to go back to the attributes of the ideal leader and ask the question, “What evidence in writings, interviews, and recommendations demonstrates that the candidate has the requisite skills, experience, personality, and knowledge to be the leader the school needs going forward?” To answer that question requires hard work and, as Kahneman so convincingly reveals, we humans would rather go with the easy, intuitive answer than the answer that is supported by evidence.

A powerful tool to neutralize the impact of bias is an extended interview with the candidate about past behavior covering a range of leadership skills. Although the search committee can conduct this interview, I think it is more productive if the consultant does it. Without the time constraints typical of the first-round interviews, the consultant can delve deeply into an issue, using follow-up questions to uncover not only the candidate’s philosophy in action but also her default behaviors as well as her capacity to learn. Unlike the typical search committee member, the consultant can often leverage his/her experience as a former head of school to probe beyond the superficial with follow-up questions to ascertain what leadership qualities the candidate possesses. The result of this kind of interview is the establishment of a robust narrative that will be reinforced or modified with evidence from subsequent interviews, meetings with constituents, and reference checking.

One of the most illuminating interviews I have conducted was with a very successful head of a grammar school in a mid-size city in the Northeast. Using the SBO method of interviewing (Situation, Behavior, Outcome), I asked her about the biggest communication challenge she had faced since becoming a head. For the next twenty minutes we delved into a problem with a veteran teacher. I peppered her with questions as she told the story. In the process, I began to learn about her leadership strengths- a belief in collaboration and a willingness to hold teachers accountable for demonstrating it, an insistence that teachers contribute to the growth of the school by bringing their imaginations and initiative to the table every day, and her admission that she had yet to solve the problem but was determined to do so. In twenty minutes I knew why this head in four short years increased enrollment by almost fifty percent in a city dominated by Catholic schools and bereft of knowledge about independent school education. She’s a leader, not content with mere action but focused on results. Riffing on a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, former football coach Chuck Knox once said, “Nothing speaks so loudly as your actions.” Because I had the time to listen to her story, the knowledge to ask her probing questions and the expertise to recognize the significance of her actions, I could hear this effective head of school loud and clear.

But imagine this candidate in the typical head search process. It would have been almost impossible for the candidate to convey this story, much less have the search committee glean the substance behind her story. In the standard semi-finalist interview, she might have been able to talk generally about faculty morale and communication. She may have touched on collaboration and its importance, just like all the other candidates. But lost in the sea of superficiality would be the opportunity for her to demonstrate what makes her so special.

Of course, probing a communication challenge is only one of many leadership areas for a consultant to mine. Difficult decisions, hiring failures, disagreements with the head of school or board chair, initiating and implementing change- these are just a handful of the rich treasure-troves that can provide insight into the leadership skills of a candidate. Absent the probing interview, it is simply too easy for search committees to gravitate to 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 school’s culture- certainly a critical factor in selecting a head. 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).

During the finalist stage the committee gathers 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 the candidate possesses these important skills. 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 relevant information on other previously identified leadership skills. Here the consultant can play a critical role by conducting in-depth interviews that focus on past behaviors as indicators of leadership competencies. Moreover, the consultant can urge the search committee to set aside the long litany of leadership skills so prevalent in glossy position statements and instead, focus on a handful of qualities essential for moving the school forward. Finally, the consultant can design questions that will lead to evidence of the presence or absence of these qualities.

For schools that choose not to use a consultant, I believe it is critical to modify the process to allow the search committee an opportunity to ask probing questions about past behavior. In this scenario the school may choose to have only 4-5 first-round interviews as opposed to the typical 8-10 in order to have time to focus on key leadership qualities for each candidate. Lengthier interviews allow for follow-up questions that lead to answers that reveal the presence of leadership skills. For example, if the committee is probing initiative, it might begin with the following topic: “Tell us about your leadership role in a major change initiative.” Probing questions could include the following:

  • Why was this initiative important?
  • What factors contributed to the selection of your team?
  • Did you have a fixed outcome in your mind? Explain.
  • What research did you conduct?
  • Were there dissenting voices on the committee? How did you deal with them?
  • How did you maintain the momentum of the committee?
  • What factors slowed you down? How did you respond?
  • How did you share the committee’s on-going work with the faculty/staff?
  • How did you achieve consensus?
  • How did you deal with resistance?
  • How did you roll out the plan?
  • Did you develop an implementation plan, a communication plan?
  • How did you measure the effectiveness of the change?
  • Did the change bring about the desired outcomes?
  • What did you learn from the experience?

Of course, what is missing from this list are questions prompted by the candidate’s answers. But in general, search committees should be looking for evidence that the candidate can think strategically, can manage the process of change including dissent, has a clear rationale for the kind of outcomes she wants, possesses a political sensibility, knows when to push and when to pull back, can communicate and execute effectively, knows the difference between action and results, and is able to gain new insights as a result of the experience.

According to NAIS, two-thirds of sitting heads will retire by the end of 2019. In addition, concerns about financial sustainability point to difficult times for many independent schools. The process for selecting heads and in particular, the quality of thinking that informs that process must improve dramatically if our independent schools are to thrive and continue to play a vital role in American education. Consultants and trustees can start by understanding the bias that search committee members bring to the table and work to mitigate it. Most importantly, search committees must never forget that winning the job is different from doing the job.

Published originally in Independent School Magazine, Fall, 2016.