Recruiting a new Head of School

No task is more important for a school board than choosing the right Head to fill a vacancy.  Once appointed, the next most important task for the board is building and maintaining a relationship of mutual trust between it and the new Head.

Heads up: that word “trust” is the underlying theme of this article for the obvious reason that it really, REALLY matters!

The nature of the role of Head of School is changing rapidly, and it is certainly very different to when I was appointed to my first headship in 1988 at the age of 35.  Compliance requirements are more demanding, documentation expectations are more onerous, remuneration and some working conditions in education have declined relative to other industries, parental expectations are expanding, curriculum freedoms are declining, social media is bringing hitherto unknown and uncontrollable risks, and all these factors are additional to the pressures of a global pandemic and the stresses of leadership that have always been omnipresent in leadership.

It is perhaps not surprising that increasing numbers of Heads of Schools are leaving their positions abruptly.  NAIS statistics from the United States show that as many as 20% of new Heads leave their jobs after three years or less, while a worrying 42% of Heads have reported a “strained” relationship with their board over the past decade. 

The stresses of leading a school are significant, but they are insufficient to explain alarming statistics such as these.  In many cases, the problem goes back to the recruitment process, beginning with expectations.

Recruitment word cloud

In the unlikely event that every board member actually shares identical expectations with every other board member of what they WANT in a new Head, this will almost certainly differ from what they NEED.  Many (perhaps most) search committees develop such an idealistic and unrealistic list of characteristics for a new Head even before they have met the first candidate that (to use a long-standing aphorism) it could only be satisfied by “God, on a good day”.

Another mistake that many boards make is to swing the pendulum excessively.  In other words, boards seek to recruit whatever qualities, skills and attributes they felt were deficient or missing in the Head who is leaving.  This is a recipe for potential instability when the new Head arrives as existing policies are challenged, assumed leadership styles are missed, existing ‘comfort zones’ are disrupted for long-standing staff, and so on – all of which can be further exacerbated if the Board also requires the new Head to “fix up” a few unfinished issues from their predecessor’s tenure.

There is no doubt that an external, neutral consultant, working closely in partnership with the Board’s own Search Committee, can help professionalise the recruitment of a new Head.  Before engaging with a consultant, it is helpful for the Board to do some preliminary work:

The next step is to find a recruiting consultant who satisfies several criteria:

Once a recruiter has been appointed, it is important that the recruiter and the Search Committee function as effective partners, partaking in frank, robust (and always confidential) discussions, asking each other the ‘hard questions’, adopting a single co-ordinated approach to reference checking, with neither party deferring obsequiously to the other.

It is important not to develop a premature attachment to any particular applicant, especially an internal applicant from within the school.  Once a short-list has been curated, it is highly advantageous for the recruiter to visit each of the final applicants in their own schools to see the applicant in the context of their own school culture, to ascertain the respect they are shown by students and staff, and perhaps to conduct confidential interviews with named referees.

Before a final decision is made, it is wise to bring the ‘finalists’ to visit the school, perhaps on a weekend when there are fewer people present, and to meet with and speak to the whole board.  The Search Committee should be ready to make a recommendation, but the final decision must reside with the entire board.

Once an offer has been made and accepted, the process of co-ordinating announcements with the school from which the incoming Head will be departing must be set in place, after which board members can begin the exciting process of generating enthusiasm for the arrival of the new Head, balanced with paying due respect to the achievements of the departing Head.

This is also the period during which a detailed transition plan should be developed to address the Head’s professional and personal needs, preferably by a Transition Committee established by the Board specifically for the purpose.  In addition to developing a list of priority actions for the new Head, the Transition Committee should also oversee arrangements of introductions to key constituencies such as staff, students, alumni, Heads of nearby schools and local politicians.  First impressions can be highly significant, so this potentially fragile process should be carefully managed. 

The needs of the incoming Head’s family must also be addressed at this time, including easing the pains of relocation such as orientation to a new city, finding a new home (if required) and arranging schools for children (if required).  Support for the family should continue to be available for at least the first full school year.

Much more that could – and should - be said about the process of recruiting a new Head.  When a board engages a competent recruiter, such information would be expanded and articulated in considerable detail to ensure a common understanding.  The process may seem intimidating at first for board members, and there is no doubt that nothing less than the school’s future rests on the process and its outcome.

Nonetheless, the selection process invariably becomes more and more exciting as the potential for advancing the school’s mission and vision become clearer.  Conducted well, the recruitment of a new Head is the most important task any school board ever undertakes. 

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Learn more about our approach to Head of School recruitment, or to initiate a discussion about how we might be able to help your board in recruiting a new Head, send an e-mail to [email protected].

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