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Have You Thanked Your Search Committee Today?

Alternate Titles Considered....

  • Making a Plea for Thinking Positively or Everyone does Not have Evil Intentions

  • Maybe You Don't Know as Much as You Think

  • Join the Latest Self-Help Craze: Fighting against the Human Tendency of "I could have done it better"

I am a school person. For the past 17 years I have worked with schools instead of in one day-to-day, but I am a school person. Unfortunately some individuals within schools would argue vehemently against my self-descriptor because my now-professional title "Search Consultant" connotes all sorts of suspicion. Consultant is a dirty word within many school walls and I do kind of get it because our own disgruntlement with the profession was what encouraged my business partner and me to start Independent Thinking. I really don't worry too much about how I am viewed because I know I do good work; I know what I do adds great value, and I know that I help schools and that by really caring about helping a school find the right leader, I can help move a school forward. I am a matchmaker and my abilities to get the culture of a school and to read people accurately make me very good at what I do.

A great deal of my work with schools is spent in the company of another set of individuals that is often looked at suspiciously from those within schools: yup-Board members. Once in awhile in a conversation with a faculty member, I have the opportunity to say something that faculty do need to hear on occasion: "You do know that they don't get paid for being on the Board. You do realize that they give of their time-and a darn lot of it-and their energy and their wisdom BECAUSE THEY LOVE THE SCHOOL. They really don't volunteer to do this because they are trying to figure out how to make you and all of your colleagues' lives miserable. Really. They care. You get paid to be here; they don't." It is akin to the message that some students need to hear: "No. Your teacher did not give you a C because he hates you. You earned a C." Are there perhaps some Board members out in the world who serve because they think it might allow them some influence or so they can brag about it on the cocktail circuit? Sure, of course, but really the vast, vast majority of these individuals are amazingly good-hearted, generous individuals without whom MANY an independent school would no longer exist.

Serving on a search committee is NOT a cushy appointment. It requires a great deal of hard work and time. Let me outline a fairly typical search committee member's work based on a recent search:

  1. Initial meetings to choose search consultants/ plan for search activities/ launch public process: time 10-15 hours

  2. Carefully read through 25 candidate file: average pages per file 15= 375 pages: time ??

  3. Meet with full committee to discuss and narrow down the field: 3.5 hours

  4. Interview in person 10 candidates over one weekend and narrow down the field:

  5. Friday 3-9 pm

  6. Saturday 7:45-12:00 (so people could go coach)

  7. Sunday 8:30 am-7 pm

  8. Total hours: 21ish... sacrifices: family time, fun time, need to check scores on handhelds in-between interviews.

  9. Hosting 4 finalist candidates on campus: 4-10 hours per candidate dependent on committee assignments.

  10. Reference checking and write ups: 2-10 hours dependent on committee assignments.

  11. Reading through pages of input (average survey compilation per candidate 32 pages; average reference note compilation per candidate 12 pages) =176 pages

  12. Time spent listening to non-committee members thoughts on candidates and process: many

  13. Time spent with committee discussing and listening and deciding: hours

Wow. It is intensive work. Often we have committee members tell us that while it was some of the hardest work they have done, it has been the best professional development opportunity ever (numerous faculty), and a great opportunity to really think and learn about the school and its needs far more than imagined-all committee members. And always these individuals serve recognizing the unbelievably, awesome responsibility they have to the entire school community-a responsibility I have only ever seen committee members carry with awe and care. I have never worked with a committee member who took his or her responsibility to "getting it right" on behalf of the entire school community lightly.

I am certain that there are numerous people sitting on the outside of these intensive search processes who read this and say, "Absolutely. I would have done all of this. I too would have read all those pages and devoted all those hours and given up a weekend and many nights at home to do this for my school." And that is what is so awesome about doing this work with independent schools. People care a great deal. There is something about a lot of schools that generate such crazy loyalty and devotion. Board after board is filled with individuals who in their day jobs get paid great sums of money for their time and their wisdom AND they are giving all of that away for free to these schools. The things we do for love.

So-first overt plea here: appreciate those individuals serving on the search committee; appreciate them A GREAT DEAL. Recognize that they are working really hard on behalf of the entire school community and that they fully carry the mantel of responsibility with which they have been entrusted. Say thank you and banish all of those less-than-attractive thoughts you've had about them from your head.

Faculty have all met parents and non-teachers who somehow think that because they went to school, they know how to teach or run a school because, you know, they went to school once. All of us who have worked in schools have endured many a second-guessing and many an unsolicited opinion about how we could do what we do better-just because somehow the wisdom-bearer knows more and knows better. That human tendency invades school communities when ta-da the finalist candidates are announced and introduced: Why aren't there sitting heads? Why isn't there more diversity? Why could you possibly think this person is good enough/experienced enough for us? The messages to the committee being: you guys don't know what you are doing and if I was in charge of the world, I would have brought SUCH better candidates.

Suspicions and interesting assertions get thrown at the candidates many of which could come under the umbrella of He or she doesn't care at all about our school and is just trying to sneak in here to get the title and the paycheck. Really? Do that many people go about intensive job interviews and intensive reference and background checks because they have ulterior motives? I haven't encountered too many folks like that in my more than 25 years in independent schools. This profession tends to attract a different sort of individual. Almost everyone around schools will admit that the head of school job is not one that they would want; that it is a thankless job; that is an amazingly difficult job; that it is a job that is so demanding in today's world, etc...., etc.... So, if nothing else, maybe you could appreciate the bravery of those individuals who are willing to give it a go.

If you have read this far and you were successful in, perhaps grudgingly, recognizing that the search committee has worked hard and with great care about getting it right-perhaps you might be willing to also consider that you aren't fully knowledgeable about the lay of the land regarding leadership in independent schools in 2011. For the last handful of years, NAIS has been warning the independent school world that the time was soon going to come when many school leaders were going to reach retirement age. Here is a small example of that: of the nine boarding schools in New England conducting head of school searches for July 2012, seven of those heads being replaced are retiring. So there are seven individuals who are not moving onto a new headship. Additionally, if you studied the appointments in the last three years, you would find that 3 out of 4 headship appointments are to individuals who were something other than a head of school prior to the appointment. In other words, 75% of head of school searches do not end with a sitting head being appointed. Also consider-is there really a direct correlation between having done the job and doing it great? Haven't we all met heads of school that we thought weren't necessarily doing it so well?

It is not easy to be a head of school. If it is all going well-you know your school's culture, you've figured out how to generate buy in and bring about change, you have a board that you are partnering with successfully-why would you want to start all over at another school? What motivates sitting heads to look? It is usually because one of those areas isn't working quite so well or sometimes, ideally, because the person is ready for a new professional challenge. But it takes a lot to take it on again and start all over.

All of that being said, maybe that hard working search committee considered some sitting heads during those parts of the process that have to remain confidential and did not see those individuals as best for your school.

NAIS has also studied the data nationally and notes that independent schools have fewer women and fewer individuals of color serving in leadership capacities. If you've been involved in any hiring for your school, you know that generating a diverse candidate pool is really, really hard. And, if independent schools are finding it difficult to attract individuals of color into teaching and entry level administrator positions, and we all acknowledge that of the many people who work in schools, a relatively small percentage are willing and able to grow up to be great heads of school, it should be understandable that there are simply not enough diverse candidates available. Unfortunately, a national problem for independent schools.

Please-go hunt down the data on leadership in independent schools. Do the research if you are someone who needs to find the facts for yourself about what the landscape is out there. You might just discover that you have been basing your opinions on suppositions not facts.

We know. It is really frustrating when you are told you can't have all the information you'd like to have and you are asked to trust the people who are in the know. But much of this work has to be confidential because it involves individuals, their livelihoods and their professional reputations. Would you want a whole bunch of people to know about every job you have applied for? Would you want your references to be made public? If you've ever been asked to provide a reference, would you perhaps temper what you said if you knew it was going to be something other than confidential? If applying for a job meant perhaps jeopardizing the one you are in now because of a lack of confidentially, might you re-think applying for the job?

The school world used to be one in which the protocol encouraged educational professionals to seek new challenges and find professional growth and one could look at new opportunities with the blessing of a head of school or Board Chair. But that landscape has changed, and in a world where there are not plentiful jobs, one is wise to be careful in protecting one's current position. There are at least three schools in the New England that have appointed or have plans to appoint a head of school without the candidates visiting campus.

While I don't know each of those schools intimately, I would surmise that at least some of those faculties and other constituent groups might have appreciated more process, more involvement, more voice. But the landscape is changing-not because power hungry Boards want to just get it done and have a "Let them eat cake" mentality about the faculty. It is because candidates are demanding it because relationships between a Board and a head of school are not always easy. And, these heads of school know that if they tell their Board they are considering another job that the Board might just tell them to pack up their offices and go away. That is not paranoia. It has happened and is happening with more frequency.

Have you ever had a parent suggest that you should have done more to help her child, your student? And you want to shout back, "Are you kidding? I gave hours of extra help. I let him do that paper over. I granted that extension. I consulted with his advisor, his other teachers....." But you don't shout because you know its not the professional thing to do and part of you realizes that even if you had recorded all of those moments in detail and played them back for that parent that maybe even then the parent would still feel you hadn't done enough. Well, consider that when you pull a search committee member aside to share your criticism that what you share might be akin to that parent telling you "You didn't do enough."

So have you thanked your search committee members today?

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