The Basics of the Search Process
Independent school boards find themselves facing a head of school search infrequently, or at least infrequently enough to be rusty on the search process. The very nature of boards involves rotation such that often only the board chair or other members of the executive committee may remember the last search for a head of school, and even they may have only been tangentially involved in the process. As a result, robust institutional memory of search is a rarity.
Before the board starts the search process, it helps to understand the fundamental steps, a little background, and the timeline. The temptation to focus solely on the finish line is strong. Schools sometimes skip steps, depending on where the school is in its mission, vision, and values work and its most recent strategic plan – or its capacity for an additional layer of transformative work.
There are two touchpoints all schools should consider before starting a search. The first is the NAIS Principles of Good Practice around head searches. These principles are broadly applicable in the independent school world. While they are not part of an accrediting or other rubric – NAIS is a membership organization – they do outline the principles to which schools and search firms generally aspire. For search committees interviewing search firms, the principles found there might be useful. The second is the 2018 NAIS Head Search Handbook: A Strategic Guide for the Search Committee. The handbook is a thorough overview of all things search related, including sample transition plans, term sheets, head of school announcements, etc.
Other helpful resources include this step-by-step look at the search process done in conjunction with a search firm from Wickenden Associates. It provides a sample timeline and bucketing of the various steps. This head’s transition resource set from EAB is also useful to both heads and boards. Many search firms, associations, and other groups that support the independent school industry have other resources that provide a framework for the search process.
Head searches are not inexpensive. Setting aside the cost of a search firm, a basic search includes consulting time for communications, advertisements, travel costs of candidates, travel costs of board members if needed, attorney fees, and potentially other consulting costs to help the school understand its needs and create strategic alignment. If the school hires a search firm, the fees usually include a percentage of the position’s salary, as well as travel and other expenses for one or more consultants. Although very little published information exists on the average cost of a head search, the fee is generally understood to be roughly a third of the incoming head’s compensation (terms vary, some agreements are based solely on salary). This price can fluctuate between firms. Fees can also include research fees and administrative support. Schools that decide to undergo the search independently incur costs of a different sort, possibly equaling the cash value of a consultant-assisted search.
The Fundamentals of Search Timing
Most education positions are on an unusual hiring cycle relative to other industries, and the latency between appointment and starting point can be very long. Although trends are emerging that have heads of school and other positions starting at different times in the academic year, the norm remains that employment tends to begin on July 1st. Inevitably, as one position is taken, an opening is created, causing that second school to find a replacement for the open position, whether that position is for a head of school or upper-level administrator. This ripple effect creates a pattern for heads’ searches. Schools looking to optimize their search process will often announce an opening in the fall or winter almost 18 months before the start date.
For example, the head of school from Green Acres informs the board in the fall of 2021 that she is retiring at the end of the 2022-2023 school year. This notice gives the board time to coordinate announcement of the head’s retirement with the announcement of the search for the new head, identify a search committee, decide if the school will use a search firm, engage in work to assess the school’s overall needs and strategic direction, and choose a search firm by winter, if applicable. Sometimes schools will do these steps in a different order, particularly if the search firm is going to help coordinate the insights needed to create a thorough position description. This timeline maximizes the search window, starting in late winter or early spring, with the new head of school sometimes being announced before the end of the 2021-2022 school year. This approach maximizes that window because it will give the incoming head of school a substantial window for putting their school on notice, and likely helps that head of school comply with the terms of their current enrollment agreement. The downside of this timing is that both the outgoing head and the incoming head have a very long time to be in their current positions.
It is fine if your school does not meet this timing. Many schools have searches in the spring or summer, often announcing the next head of school in the fall of the year that the outgoing head of school is leaving. Some also announce searches during the school year that the outgoing head is leaving, often moving through a quicker search to great results. None of these approaches are “wrong,” and schools have experienced success with all of them. The first approach just ensures the broadest applicant pool.
Schools may also consider the interim head of school option if the timing does not feel right for whatever reason, including if the school is larger or particularly complex, or if the board feels it needs additional time to gain community insights, revisit the school’s strategic direction, create space following a long-term head, etc. Many schools look within for an interim head of school, often to an upper-level administrator who has been with the school for some time. Others hire an external interim head of school, sometimes for up to two or three years, depending on the school’s needs.
This timeline is important as the next section lays out the steps that go into identifying a new head of school. If the school’s timeline is substantially shorter, most of these steps still need to occur, just in an abbreviated schedule.
From Notification to Appointment
Some of these steps may be rearranged, and invariably there are slightly different approaches to searches that may break these components down in other others, but the fundamental steps are largely similar. These steps are fairly standard in most search processes, although individual school circumstances vary, allowing some schools to skip a step or two, while others may need to pay particular attention to some aspects, requiring additional thoroughness and thoughtfulness.
This is the point at which either the head gives the board notice that they are leaving the school, or the board gives the head of school notice that their contract will not be renewed. Ideally this notification occurs as anticipated in the head of school contract to ensure that both the head and the school have sufficient time to plan their next steps. At this point, some schools do appoint a task force or use a board committee to gain an understanding of the overall approach the school will take to the search, including the process of appointing a search committee. This is the approach recommended in the NAIS Principles of Good Practice for head searches.
While the need to find a new head of school is of paramount importance, school leaders should not overlook the importance of transparent communications with the school community about the upcoming search process. Families, staff, alumni, and others friends of the school are generally looking for a degree of stability and assurance in the school’s operations. For this reason, it is important for the initial communication to include what is happening and why (if possible), as well as what the next steps will be. Some schools will send out the initial communication after appointing a search committee, others are comfortable laying out next steps that include identification of the search committee as well as the search firm (if the school is using one). Either approach works well provided the school is prepared to follow through on the steps outlined. In some cases, the school knows it will appoint an interim head and that information may also be part of the announcement.
While change in leadership can impact a school’s forward momentum, it is also an opportunity for the school to see the possibilities that new leadership may open for the future. Schools that seize the moment to get feedback from the broader community on their strategic direction as well as input on the desired or relevant strengths of the next leader ensure overall alignment within the community as well as gain a better understanding of the needs of the school. Some boards will partner with the search consultant on this work, others may engage a separate consultant or take on this work inhouse, depending on the school’s capacity and expertise. Feedback and insights may be gained through surveys, facilitated conversations, or other community events.
Whether a school uses a search firm or not, it should always have a search committee. The search committee spearheads the search process for the school, identifying the search firm, sorting through candidates, performing interviews, etc. The search committee should be made of largely board members, but many schools also include at least one staff member and occasionally alumni, parents, or others. Some search consultants have philosophical expectations or stylistic preferences about the ideal composition of the search committee. Therefore, it may behoove schools to have a very small group first understand the various options and choose the consultant before formally recruiting the search committee. In any case, the search committee should reflect the diversity of the school community. To the extent that the search committee does not include representatives of various community groups, those groups can be represented in the interview process if the school is not doing a closed search.
Although it may sound like putting the cart before the horse, the board and the search committee should understand the compensation range for the next head of school early in the process. Understanding this range well ahead of time will be useful in setting the overall budget, and candidates can be provided with a range. The value of the compensation package could affect the candidate pool to whom the position appeals.
It also helps the school understand the ultimate cost of hiring a search firm, as some search firm engagements that result in placement cost a percentage of the salary of the hired head of school (30% being one reference point). Other firms use a different fee structure, independent from salary expectations. Schools do not have full carte blanche when considering compensation and all boards should understand how the intermediate sanctions rules of the IRS apply to nonprofits. This checklist may be useful to your school, as may this overview. Schools do have a little leeway with an initial contract, but remember that the expectations around that initial compensation may be out of alignment with reasonable compensation required in the next one. Schools should work with legal counsel familiar with intermediate sanctions to ensure that their approach and compensation plans are in compliance.
Search firms come in many shapes and sizes, including large global firms that only focus in the education sector, large firms that have a division devoted to independent schools, individual consultants who take on a discrete number of schools in any given year, and everything in-between.
Many, but not all, schools use search firms or outside consultants to help them with the search. It is important to recognize that the school does not absolve itself of responsibility by hiring a consultant. Instead, the consultant facilitates the process on behalf of the committee. They often take on the tasks of organizing the work, meetings, and communications, which can be very complex.
Search consultants facilitate this work in a variety of ways. Most will help the school create a position description for the job posting, advertise the position in a variety of places designed to capture the attention of an array of candidates, collect the resumes and other background documents, do an initial sort of the materials, and work with the search committee to pare down the list to those individuals who best suit the needs of the school.
Consultants often work closely with the candidate pool, getting to know individuals and assessing how to present their candidacy to the search committee. They will help the school identify interview appropriate questions. Many consultants bring a wealth of knowledge both from their own time within independent schools, but also from managing previous searches. They are experienced at facilitating conversations and navigating unexpected challenges as the search continues down to the finalist round. Consultants often have suggestions on healthy processes for making final decisions.
Search firms can also help facilitate strategic alignment with the broader school community, administering or considering psychometric assessments, creating the support plan for the head school, and offering longer-term coaching if needed. Search firms generally tailor packages to meet the needs of the schools and point to external resources in areas where the search firm may not have expertise. Some firms, such as Southern Teachers, offer a way to support a school largely doing a search on its own.
Cost is an important consideration when it comes to hiring search firms. Many firms will charge an upfront cost for advertising and other fees with the final payment due after placement or in installments throughout the agreement period. Some firms offer discounted rates for smaller schools, and occasionally firms offer pro bono services for schools with unique circumstances. The terms of the agreements differ, but it is important to read the specifics of the contract and negotiate to ensure the agreement fits the needs of your institution and what you are asking the search firm to do.
Working Without a Search Firm
Schools can do head searches without hiring a search firm as well. This approach always requires at least one if not more board members who can drive the process logistics, and the entire search committee must be committed to the heavier lift that managing the search will require. It is preferable that those leading the committee have some experience with executive search or placement and understand the process. The school will also need to assign at least one if not more staff members to help support the committee. Some firms have templates and other mechanisms to help the school walk through the process. The NAIS Head Search Handbook would also be very helpful to have on hand.
The position description should reflect the culture, vision, and story of your institution. In many cases it will be the first impression candidates get of your school and of the position itself. There are nuances between schools and certainly around what boards are looking for in their next leaders. If you decide not to work with a search firm, consider seeking experienced communications consultants to ensure the final position description truly reflects the school as well as the duties and expectations of the role. In either case, it is important to carefully profile the position in alignment with the anticipated strategic needs of the institution’s next chapter – rather than simply a restated head of school job description.
Where the position is advertised is crucial. There are a number of standard posting areas within the independent school industry, including various national and regional job boards, and the Blue Sheet. More schools are looking outside the independent school ecosystem for leadership as well, with positions being advertised through colleges, universities, and a broad range of education media. Schools should work to ensure their positions are posted for exposure to the broadest array of candidates in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, background, and experience.
Initial Pool of Candidates
Once the resumes and other supporting documents have been received, an initial sorting takes place to help the search committee identify the semifinalists. The group might be as many as ten candidates, or as few as four.
Ideally, there should be a rubric for the initial candidate review that is based on the position profile to ensure that the candidates are reviewed on equal terms. There have been any number of studies noting that implicit bias impacts women and people of color significantly during the review process. There are now also additional research-based suggestions for removing implicit bias from the review process.
The semifinalist group is usually the first one the search committee actively interviews. Typically, these are conducted out of sight – on campus on a Saturday or at a local hotel conference room. In recent years, more schools are choosing to conduct semifinalist interviews by videoconference for the sake of cost and ease, although there is less interpersonal information gathered in this method.
The search committee should ask the same questions to each candidate to ensure the experience for each candidate is consistent. All questions should be legally appropriate. Again, the narrowing process ideally follows a rubric rather than a “gut feeling” or sense that may or not be related to what the school has already articulated through its earlier work.
It often helps to have a one-page review form or some other tool for each search committee member to track individual reflections of each candidate during the course of the day(s) as the interviews can quickly run together if committee members are not given time to collect their thoughts during the process. After the semifinalist interview, the search committee will narrow the group further. At this point, there may be another semifinalist round, or the committee might be able to identify the finalists.
Some schools have more groups involved in the semifinalist interviews, with the candidates visiting campus and meeting with different constituencies. As the confidentiality of the search process has increased over the last few years, schools tend to wait until the finalist round before engaging with community members.
Once the semifinal round is complete and the finalists are secured, someone involved in the search informs the remaining candidates that they are not advancing in the search.
The finalist rounds tend to happen in one of two ways. The first way is more traditional, with the candidates visiting campus to meet with a variety of pre-appointed groups including parents, staff, the entire board, and alumni or other constituencies. Feedback is collected from each group through surveys, forms, or discussions for the search committee’s consideration.
The second way has gained popularity in recent years and is often referred to as a closed search. This method does not involve constituent groups and in many cases only the search committee votes on the final candidates. In some cases, the entire search is confidential and the board votes between two or three candidates, but there is no public visit, and the identities of the finalists are never revealed to a broader group. This process is used to protect the confidentiality of the individual candidates. You can learn more about the closed searches in the resource section of this site.
Many consultants recommend a face-to-face conversation about the school’s compensation package before the candidates depart campus.
References and Background Checks
Reference checking is an essential and informative part of the finalist stage that can be educational in many ways. References help schools get to know their candidates more completely as professional leaders. Schools can learn more about the candidate’s experience in a way that can be promoted in school communications, how best to oversee or support the candidate, and whether there are indicators of misrepresentation in the candidate’s background.
Generally, background and reference checks occur only with the final candidate, but some schools check these going into the finalist or semifinalist rounds. It is extremely important that schools take these steps as this person will be the leader of the institution and should be subjected to the same due diligence standards as any other executive employee in the institution. In some states, like Virginia, all school employees must go through a background check and failing to do so makes the school out of compliance and subject to fines. School heads often go through criminal background checks as well as financial checks, reference checks, and academic verifications.
Who ultimately makes the decision on the finalist category depends on the school’s process. In many cases, the board will make the final decision between two or three candidates. In other cases, the search committee will get input from the board and other constituency groups and make the final decision. There is no singularly correct way to do it, but the process needs to be authentic to your school’s community. If the search committee is tasked with making the ultimate decision, this should be made abundantly clear to the board early in the search process.
Negotiations & Contract
It is generally better not to have the entire board involved in the negotiation and contract process. Ideally, a committee of the board (it could be the search committee, executive committee, or some other small group) is granted authority by the board to negotiate the agreement within the financial constraints of a reasonable compensation range based on similarly situated institutions, taking into account the experience of the head of school being hired.
Most importantly, the school should work with an attorney who is experienced in executive contracts related to heads of school or college presidents. These are not standard employment agreements found in other industries that have ongoing hiring cycles not tied to academic years. This agreement should be tied to industry standards, such as notice provisions by the head and the board for nonrenewal and departure, payouts for the head if they are fired without cause during the school year (particularly with such timing that undermines their ability to apply for another head of school job when such recruiting is occurring), provisions relating to on-campus housing, etc. Your school’s local, state, regional, or national associations can help you find an attorney in your region very familiar with these terms.
The announcement sets the first tone of the new leader’s tenure. Once the appointed committee and the incoming head of school have come to agreement on the terms and conditions of the employment, and preferably after both sides have signed at least a Memorandum of Understanding, but often the contract itself, the school will release an announcement from the search committee about the selection. These announcements usually include a statement from the incoming head of school expressing their excitement at the appointment. Schools may also include a window into the transition and plans for this head to come to campus to meet more community members before the official start date.
Once these steps have taken place, the board and staff should organize for the transition, including honoring the outgoing head and onboarding the new head. These should be both celebratory and orienting to ensure that the transitions for both heads are successful.
The transition period is both exciting and nerve-wracking for the outgoing head, the search committee, the staff, and the entire school community. However, it does provide a unique opportunity for the school to consider their next chapter and envision how they will continue to evolve and grow with different leadership. Opportunities abound to engage constituencies in the life of the school and to ignite excitement about the future.
In planning, process, and transition, schools that embrace the opportunity of head search thoughtfully and with a thoroughness reflecting the importance of the moment will often emerge wiser about their institutions and strategically poised for the road ahead.
Debra Wilson is the president of SAIS. Before her time with SAIS, she was the general counsel of the National Association of Independent Schools.