Jan 14, 2011

Reflections on a Head Search

We recently completed a Head Search for Saint George’s School, an independent, K-12 school of 350 students in Spokane, WA. With a couple of weeks to reflect on the process and successful outcome, I’d like to share a couple of thoughts that hopefully are helpful, or at least mildly interesting, for those about to embark on this exciting journey.

So you want to find a Head. Really?

Are you sure your school is ready to launch a search? Just because your current head has announced plans to leave doesn’t mean you need to jump into search mode. Before forging ahead,  you should take a close look at your institution in much the same way a candidate would. 

Will you hand off a recently completed strategic plan to a new Head, or will it be incumbent upon him or her to embark on this process upon arrival? Are the key administrative roles (admission, development, finance, division heads) currently filled with experienced, capable professionals? Where is the board in its leadership transition and succession planning process? Will you have a new Head and a new Board chair at the same time? By assessing the “state of the school” in fundamental areas, you can develop a comprehensive transition plan to guide the Board, the Head, and the entire community through a period of change that can, from start to finish, span 24 months or longer. The actual Head search is a primary component of the plan, but by no means the only task before the school. Making certain the school is well-prepared, or at least recognizes the areas in which it is not, will not only position the school to find the right individual, but go a long way to ensuring the new Head’s success.

Make sure the right people are on the bus.

The selection of people to serve on the search committee is one of the most critical steps toward ensuring a search that garners community support and trust. This is not an opportunity to reward a key donor with a seat at the table or appease a testy faculty member. This group is charged with identifying that individual who is best suited to write the next chapter in the school’s history. Search committee members must be passionate, informed, and committed, not to mention have endless energy and time. It is not a job for the faint of heart; when done well, however, it is one of the most rewarding responsibilities ever undertaken.

Looking for God on a good day.

We used to chuckle at that adage about searches, knowing there were plenty of great folks out there aspiring to be a Head of School. Welcome to the new normal in Head searches – schools really do want and need that superstar. The first draft list of desired skills and attributes can often span the length of the page, and run the gamut from extensive knowledge of managing millions of dollars in debt to recruiting students from China to developing merit-based compensation schedules, not to mention the running the core business of educating students. The new Head needs to make tough decisions while building consensus, lead the Board while reporting to it, and plan for today and five years out simultaneously. It’s crucial that the Board and the search committee get clear about what are the 3-4 key areas of expertise – the non-negotiables – for the new Head, and hope that he or she brings some of the others on the list as well.

At ISA, we believe that the search for a new Head is fundamentally about managing change – something that is challenging in even the best institutions. Taking the time on the front end to assess your school’s readiness, engage the right people, and set realistic expectations will lay the groundwork for a positive and successful experience for all.

~ Tracy

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