Finding the Right Head of School Part II: The Role of the Consultant

consultantIn my last blog entry I discussed the pros and cons of closed vs. open searches. Though certainly critical to the outcome of the search, the paradigm of closed versus open misses a larger point—the consultant’s important role in helping the search committee identify real leaders. Although search committees understand their respective school cultures, they don’t truly understand the requirements of successful independent school leadership. They do not understand the complexities of the job—the varied hats heads must wear—such as C.E.O., pastor, change agent, politician, fundraiser, public speaker, crisis-manager and more. This is where a good search consultant comes in. She can fill this void.

Whether closed or open, a key to a successful search is the consultant’s work at the top of the candidate funnel. Some consultants tout their firms’ huge database of candidates as if more average candidates make for a better outcome. Spending time increasing the number of candidates may make the search committee feel better about its school, but it will not lead to better outcomes. Rather than focusing time and energy on widening the top of the funnel, a good consultant refines the candidate pool by using her experience as a former successful head to question candidates deeply and in ways that reveal their default positions, such as how they deal with problems, their ability to think strategically, their skills in bringing about change, their self-knowledge, and more. In other words, it is up to the consultant to draw a reasonable conclusion based on interviews and back-channel information (when appropriate) that the candidate has a baseline of leadership skills to be a successful head of school. The vast majority of candidates presented to the search committee should have passed some reasonable litmus test that suggests that they have the “right stuff.” Only the consultant who knows what the job entails can determine this.

At this important juncture after the search committee has narrowed the field, the consultant should start taking a back seat to ensure that the search committee is taking ownership of its decision. Selecting a head of school should never feel like it is being outsourced. Outsourcing might work at the higher education level or maybe some well-established boarding schools, but generally, it is a bad idea. Search committee members should share in devising interview questions with the guidance of the consultant, planning logistics for the finalists’ visits, coordinating the spouses’ schedules, distilling feedback from various constituencies, and checking references. Ownership of the process at this point translates into greater investment in the ultimate decision, and this investment, in turn, sets the stage for the new head’s success.

Critical to a successful search is finding the right fit, and that is the sole responsibility of the search committee and by extension, the board of trustees. The right fit has two components. First it means finding candidates whose capabilities match the challenges and opportunities the school is facing. In this regard, it is imperative that the search committee builds on the initial work of the consultant to uncover that handful of leadership skills or capabilities for each candidate that will have the greatest positive impact on the school. What does the school really need the next head to do? Does the candidate have the skills both in expertise and temperament to do this work? And what questions will help the committee draw reasonable conclusions based on the answers to these questions?

Second, the right fit means that the candidate’s leadership style matches the culture of the school. A head recently told me that in his school it has long been a custom that the head teach a class and have advisees. The trustees and teachers expect that the head will be a visible internal leader. For that school to hire a “corporate” head of school who is mostly away from campus would be a cultural disconnect. Search committees have to identify the leadership style defaults of its candidates and make sure they conform to the cultural expectations within the school community.

It takes a deft touch to provide helpful and timely counsel to a search committee. Though always mindful of adhering to an agreed-upon process, a strong consultant brings so much more to the table than just knowledge of the search process. Using her expertise as a former head of school, the consultant helps the search committee articulate the challenges the school is facing and clarify the vital leadership capabilities required. She screens candidates to ensure that they have a baseline of leadership skills to head a school. Finally, she recedes into the background as the search moves forward, allowing the search committee to own the process and fully invest in its ultimate selection.

For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.

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