3 Things to Keep in Mind for a Successful Head Search

A few months back, a group of fellow independent school trustees and I were talking when one remarked in awe that his school was beginning a search for a new head who would arrive 18 months hence. Others replied that such a timeline is now commonplace; we had all seen something similar in our own experience.

“Is that necessary?” the trustee wondered aloud. “Can’t a head be found in less time than that?”

Truly, a head of school—a good one—can be found in less time. But that misses the point. There is more to head search than finding a head! With the right introspection, community engagement, and candidate pool-building, the search can build the momentum to transform a school—in addition to finding the individual who’ll help lead the effort.

As I edited the latest NAIS Head Search Handbook, I was reminded of the many ways in which boards and search committees can integrate strategic thinking into the process of hiring the best new leader. Here are three important ones.  

1. Leverage the search for schoolwide strategic gain before and after the new head arrives. 

The goal of the head search seems singular and obvious: Hire a head. But as I noted, the process can also deliver other outcomes essential for school improvement and strategic precision. Key to a thorough search is recognizing the forces working for and against the school. By looking ahead, outward, and inward, schools can more deeply understand the environment in which the new head will lead.

Looking ahead at the school’s long-term future encourages a school to consider its aspirational vision before promoting the search. The board and search committee should examine the ways in which the school hopes to transform itself so they can identify appropriate candidates to make the vision reality.  

Likewise, assessing the school’s place in the world, or looking outward, can build understanding of its leadership needs and its capacity for growth. Reviewing demographics, market competition, changing wealth patterns, and generational changes helps a school avoid falling back on “how it’s always been.” The school needs a leader for the future, not the past.

Also essential is looking inward at current institutional needs. The mission statement sits atop of a school’s philosophical pyramid, and it helps provide a guiding light in search as well as the educational environment. Schools should ask themselves: Has our mission been updated recently—or even reviewed? Is it a true reflection of the school’s culture? Candidates will read the mission and assess whether it resonates with them.

Once this initial introspection and fact-finding are done, the school will be in a better position to develop a new profile of a leader who will be right for the present and the future. The information that the search committee gleans from these steps will strengthen the search’s foundation and inform the entire process—right up to the final selection.

2. Improve the diversity of the candidate pool.

NAIS research reveals this unsurprising but still disappointing fact: Only 36 percent of NAIS schools are led by women and just 7 percent by people of color. Also unsurprising: Well-intentioned search committees persist in applying the same methods and attitudes they always have, tilting the process toward traditional prospects … and then lamenting their failed efforts to generate a diverse pool.

Opportunities to address this problem exist at every stage. At the search’s outset, the school can stress the importance of a diverse pool with the search consultant and form a visibly inclusive search committee—one that shows women and people of color are valued at the school. Other volunteers who increase the diversity of the committee also help broaden its perspective and represent the whole school community.

Once the process is underway, a diverse pool is most likely when the search is part of an overall intention to be inclusive. Making an existing diversity statement a prominent part of the search materials will help candidates see the school’s commitment. So will a conscious effort to avoid sending signals that subtly discourage some candidates. For example, listing certain criteria, even ones that initially seem to indicate the committee has high standards, can limit the pool. Advertising a preference for candidates who are sitting heads and insisting on a doctoral degree actually narrows the pool—and may leave the ideal candidate uninterested in the opportunity.

Committees should also take steps to recognize and mitigate their own unconscious biases. At worst, these biases prevent people from picturing white women and people of color in positions of power. Recognizing the “glass obstacle course” these candidates face in head search could lead to more probing interviews that go beyond superficial résumé points.

Sometimes biases occur when, unintentionally, members may overvalue candidates who seem different from (or the same as) the departing head. Or they may give undue weight to candidates from prestigious places the committee members wish their school was like. It takes hard work to overcome the prejudices that are rampant in all kinds of decision-making. But the effort is essential to avoiding the common trap of dismissing candidates who may not fit the head of school mold but are exactly what the school needs.

3. Measure candidates for more than personality.

It’s easy to be impressed by candidates so personable that we can imagine socializing with them. Although the ability to make comfortable connections with the community is certainly an element of school leadership, it is not the key indicator of what will make someone successful in the role of school head.

That’s why search committees must get past gut feelings. NAIS President Donna Orem writes in the Head Search Handbook about identifying leadership potential: “A new class of predictive analytic tools known as behavioral assessments attempts to bring some science to the art of hiring.” These assessments may focus on the job, behavior, or cognition. Although different tools will be appropriate for different school searches, employing one can help committees be more precise in assessing candidates’ characteristics. The best ones go beyond a simple personality test and toward an assessment of deeper leadership qualities.

One tool prompts the search committee to constantly refer to the position description for guidance and clarity. Even after committees have made the effort to conduct an environmental scan, needs assessment, and bias training, too often they can lose sight of the original document once the search is in the “interpersonal” phase. A constant reminder of institutional needs helps the committee focus on delivering an ideal candidate.

Another evaluative approach highlights cultural competency. This approach not only assesses candidates but also signals to them that their cultural competence will be an important part of their job as a leader. The process includes distinct measurements of knowledge, experience, and skill, with an emphasis on delving into questions that reveal the candidate’s judgment and decision-making process.

All search committee members want to get the job done and name a new head. By putting the search into a strategic, inclusive context that carefully considers leadership qualities and track record, a strong finish can be all the more sweet for the committee and the school.

Vince Watchorn

Vince Watchorn is lead faculty for the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads, editor of the 2018 NAIS Head Search Handbook, and former head of Providence Country Day School in East Providence, Rhode Island.