Equip your Search Committee with the tools for a successful hire.
Your school needs a new head of school and you’ve been asked to serve on the Search Committee. The Committee, consisting of Trustees and a parent and faculty representative, will be making a recommendation to the Board of Directors. The future leadership of your school is at stake and fortunately you are working with a search agency to serve as your guide. They have explained, however, as the search progresses, your committee will take over more ownership as you interview candidates, decide on semifinalists and finalists, orchestrate the finalists’ visits, and reach agreement on the candidate to recommend.
What can you, as a Committee member, do to ensure a successful outcome? The practices you put in place as a group will be a strong factor in your chosen candidate being a good choice and deciding whether to accept the offer. These nine essentials are time-tested best practices. The essentials are used by search consultants who have been a part of successful search processes and have also witnessed ones that, unfortunately, didn’t go as well.
Essential #1. Partner with your search consultants
Your search consultants are professionals who have guided hundreds of schools through the journey. Many of them are former heads of school and have worked with multiple boards before doing search work. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice, information, models, protocols, and suggestions. They will get to know you and your school well and will be sensitive to your needs and unique school culture. They will provide you with materials for candidates who meet the specifics of your position description and describe why the candidate’s characteristics are aligned with your desired profile. The Search Committee will make the decisions, but you can count on the consultants to be invaluable in supporting the process.
Essential #2. Support the Chair
The Chair of the Search Committee will need your support. The Chair’s role is to keep the committee on task and moving forward. By being present at each meeting, actively reading the candidate materials, drafting questions, and volunteering for assignments, you will be helping the Committee and the Chair advance to a positive outcome.
Essential #3. Schedule time for the next four to five months
Together, with the search consultants, you should discuss a timeline of a four-to-five-month process. Once determined, put dates in your personal calendar and hold them as sacred. Time should be scheduled for regular Search Committee meetings (once a week or biweekly), semi-finalist interview dates (usually a full weekend), and finalist visits. Start with the desired date for the appointment and work backwards: finalists’ visits, decision on finalists, semi-finalists’ interviews, decision on semi-finalists, time for reading candidates’ dossiers, presentation of dossiers. Allow sufficient time for each stage/step! Also, indicate time needed for reviewing materials (usually one hour per candidate), and longer meetings for determining semi-finalists, finalists, and the recommendation.
Essential #4. Pay attention to group dynamics
A Search Committee is a group, and just like any team, it can become dysfunctional. Taking the time to collaboratively establish guidelines at the first meeting can help a group be more productive and build relationships. In addition, taking a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting to review guidelines and reflect upon practices can elevate the Committee’s work. Guidelines such as listening to understand, contributing your thinking, facilitating yourself and others, making space for dissenting voices, and ensuring everyone has a chance to speak can encourage a collaborative spirit that yields a strong outcome.
A guideline that is a given and must be upheld by all members is that of confidentiality. Candidates are told that their application is privy only to the consultants and Search Committee until (and if) they reach the finalist stage. Reading the materials, interviewing and discussing the candidates, and conducting reference checks will enable you to know the candidates better than anyone else in the school community. Your viewpoints and the team’s discussions may not go outside of the Committee; otherwise, the entire search could be in peril, jeopardize a candidate, and reflect poorly on your school.
Essential #5. Strive to minimize bias
We all have biases; the key however is to be aware of them and to check ourselves in regards to viewing a person or group of people positively or negatively. Use the school’s Mission and Values and the desired candidate profile to guide your thinking about candidates and to focus on how a candidate’s skills align with the goals of the school. When discussing a candidate with the Committee, strive to base your feedback on evidence from the candidate’s interview and materials.
Essential #6. Regularly inform the full Board about the process
The full Board will vote for approval of the Search Committee’s recommendation for the next head of school. A Board that hasn’t been kept informed throughout the search will rightfully have questions and perhaps concerns. Informing the Board about the timeline, involving them in the development of the position description, and asking them to participate in the finalists’ visits all bode well for a swift “yea” vote at the end.
Essential #7. Communicate with your constituents
A change in leadership translates to school communities feeling nervous, excited, hopeful, sad, and understandably anxious. Staff, students, and parents want to feel that the fate of the school is in steady hands. While many of the aspects of the search are confidential and the final decision is the Board’s, involving the community in a site visit and/or survey for the development of the position description, communicating the timeline and headlines of the process, and arranging for meetings and feedback during finalists’ visits are all ways to help an unsettled community and pave the way for a smooth transition. Many Search Committees devote a part of the school website to updates from the Search Committee and have a place for Q&A.
Essential #8. Woo, woo, woo!
Every email, conversation, and interview will be scrutinized by candidates, as they wonder, “Are these people with whom I want to work?” and “Would my family and I be happy at this school?” Your smiles, response to questions, and specific positive feedback all make a difference. Video interviews with candidates should feel to the candidates like conversations. Think about starting the interview with something like, “Mark, I see from your résumé that you enjoy sky-diving. What is that like?” If you turn off your camera or act disengaged during an interview, you are communicating to the candidate that they are not worth your time and attention. It impresses a candidate if you mention specifics in their materials because it shows that you have read their carefully prepared documents. If you follow-up a candidate’s response to a question with specific comments, it telegraphs that you are listening intently. Even the candidates you decide not to advance can have a lasting positive impression of your school based upon their interactions.
Essential #9. Commit to a successful transition
When the contract is signed, you can celebrate! However, know that the transition and onboarding need to be carefully orchestrated. The Board should designate a Transition Committee and hopefully utilize the search consultants to frame the purpose and tasks of the group.
The best decisions are made by groups that utilize effective processes to select a leader who represents the qualities and qualifications outlined in your position description and whose skills and experiences are in alignment with the future goals of your school. By working closely with your search consultants and adhering to the nine essentials, you will ensure that your role as a Search Committee member contributes to the best possible outcome. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Deb is the Practice Leader of Carney, Sandoe & Associates’ International Schools Practice. For five years, Deb served as CEO of the Academy for International School Heads (AISH), a leading organization among international schools. Her experience working in independent schools is deep and varied. She was the Director of American School of Doha in Qatar, as well as Director of Curriculum, Assessment, and Professional Development, then Deputy Head of School at International School Bangkok.
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