Independent, schools, Head, Search, Candidate, Finding, Right, Fit, Consulting, consultant, committee, process,


Process and outcomes are inextricably linked. This maxim is clearly demonstrated in the most important job of an independent school board of trustees—selecting a head of school. Before identifying a consultant, the board should discuss the merits of a closed search versus an open search, two very different approaches to selecting a head of school. One firm might emphasize a closed search with a heavy emphasis on confidentiality because of the fear of losing sitting heads who are worried about the repercussions with their present respective schools. Other firms tout the open process with lots of participation by constituent groups. In these open searches, candidates are paraded from one constituency to another, with each one providing general feedback. Transparency is the operative word.

So, open or closed?

Each has its benefits and flaws. A closed search is certainly more susceptible to group think and the confirmation bias in which the search committee quickly gravitates to a candidate and then cherry picks evidence to support its original positive impression. Despite this flaw, a closed search does create more opportunity for the search committee to do a deep dive into the leadership skills of each finalist. Untethered by a fixed finalist schedule, the search committee can have lengthy and productive conversations with each candidate, thus allowing it to assess the degree to which the candidate’s capabilities align with the challenges the school is facing. However, without the counsel of a knowledgeable consultant who understands the leadership requirements for being a successful head, a closed search can lose this advantage.

An open search can suffer from an excess of democracy. Candidate interview performance becomes confused with the presence of leadership skills. Personal attributes, like being extraverted, often take on more importance than they should. As I have written before, winning the job is very different from doing the job. The open process puts a premium on skills needed to win the job, but may obscure the candidate’s ability to do the job. Independent school search committees are often prone to the optics of selecting the right candidate—the family photograph and the short biography that delineates the requisite pedigree. An open search, however, is more likely to appropriately address the issue of cultural fit. Does the candidate’s personality mesh with the culture of the school? It also provides more opportunities for the search committee to detect red flags as different constituencies provide feedback on each finalist. Moreover, an open search has the potential of building a foundation of support for the new head with many members of the community feeling that they played a part in the process.

In the final analysis, open searches done properly with a knowledgeable consultant are superior to closed searches as long as the search committee maintains its focus on discovering the true leadership capabilities of each finalist. Furthermore, the search committee can gather feedback from many constituencies and use it to determine if the candidate is a strong cultural fit with the school. In addition, a typical open search ensures confidentiality until the finalist stage, thus minimizing potential negative consequences for many of the sitting heads. Disciplined and thoughtful open searches with proper counsel maximize buy-in, provide opportunities to explore the capabilities of candidates, and ultimately, increase the chances of finding the right fit.

Next Month: Part II The Role of the Consultant