Doubts at the Altar
The miscalculations and mistaken assumptions surrounding many searches can mask serious underlying issues that may jeopardize landing the candidate of choice, undermine a new head, or damage the relationship between the newly appointed head and board.
Serving on a search committee is an honor and one of the most important responsibilities a trustee will ever undertake. The chair plays a pivotal role, not only in the search but in ensuring a smooth transition for the head.
One of the first challenges facing a search is how to deal with internal candidates. Some search committees believe it is wise to suggest that one or more insiders throw their hat into the ring. While the old adage “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” may seem to have some merit, such candidates often have little chance of success. If the run they make is destined to fail, the school will be left to manage their unhappiness or disappointment.
In the worst case, the bypassed insider could undercut the new head with teachers or parents. Here is an example of what that can look like:
Sometimes there is one strong inside candidate whom the board really wants to appoint but feels that it must undergo a search in order to satisfy the community, engage in a transparent process, and grant legitimacy to that individual. Such a search normally discourages the best contenders who see the handwriting on the wall early on. The word is out that the insider is clearly preferred. What if some new information or a new development makes the internal candidate less attractive, or a deal cannot be struck? There is no one waiting in the wings.
Internal candidates tend to remain in-place more often than external candidates.[i] Choosing an insider thus seems to ensure greater stability yet independent schools seldom make that decision. Schools tend to want “fresh blood,” unless tradition and the culture are deemed to be so important that an outsider could not really adapt to it or might make efforts to change the culture in ways that would upset faculty and alumni.
In a recent situation a head candidate was told by the search consultant that he would be hearing from the search chair with an offer. The value of the total offer was less than what he was currently receiving. Apparently, the search consultant had not probed sufficiently or counseled the search chair adequately about compensation expectations in the marketplace.
The candidate was a self-effacing type for whom negotiating was unpleasant and was dismayed to receive such an offer. He wrote back to the search chair that he would decline, and the search chair called the consultant in a panic. Even after repeated attempts to reopen the dialogue and renegotiate the package, the candidate refused to budge. He felt that such an offer may well reflect the kind of board with which he might be working. All parties felt the effects of miscommunications and let down. The search committee was forced to start anew as none of the other potential candidates were the caliber of the one who rejected the offer.
Some search firms charge a fee, which is a percentage of the value of the candidate’s first year salary. This is standard practice in the business world and moderately common in the nonprofit world. However, it can backfire and be perceived by some as a conflict of interest.
In one recent case, the search committee wanted to offer a package to the candidate of choice but made a very conservative offer, well aware that the higher the offer, the higher the amount they must pay to the search firm. That was a miscalculation as the candidate opted for another job, based at least in part on the perceived low ball offer.
Sometimes after receiving an offer, the finalist raises the ante by asking for things that were not a part of the original compensation conversation with the search consultant or the search chair. These might include spousal employment, remodeling the head’s house, or other afterthoughts. They could be totally fair and natural or they could indicate a future pattern of behavior by the head of changing course unexpectedly.
The chair may grant these requests in order to land the preferred candidate, but an underlying resentment about that may linger, and the new head may feel more pressure to perform.
In one search scenario, the search and board chairs thought the bargaining would be simple but the candidate kept making new requests. In fact, during the early discussions, the search committee received the impression he might be willing to move to this less expensive part of the country for less money than he was receiving currently. Now the candidate was balking. He told the consultant he had never intended to imply such a thing and would not be coming for less than his present package.
The search committee felt pressed both by the total amount needed to meet the expectations of the candidate and by the jump it represented from the predecessor’s package. They had not anticipated this. The predecessor was a woman who had been promoted from within, and females and insiders are often underpaid in the marketplace. The recipient of the offer was a male with many years of headship at two prior schools. He knew his value and turned the bargaining over to this financial advisor to discuss with the search chair.
The adviser’s tone and corporate style offended the search committee. The initial agreement began to unravel. At that point, Littleford & Associates was retained. Schools often hire our firm for this purpose even when they have used a different consultant for the search. Search firms have different degrees of expertise in negotiating the final agreement.
We asked the candidate to remove his spokesperson from the equation and to specify his priorities. We asked the search committee to step up the offer but not to cover some of the nonessential and side bar items. Ultimately, the candidate found the job attractive enough not to risk losing it over some relatively minor points.
Some few years later, the head is still at the new school and has built a solid record of accomplishment with the school and a strong relationship with his board. His package has increased commensurate with his performance.
Concern Regarding Education of Children and Meaningful Work for a Spouse
Most head candidates will not consider seriously an offer unless the educational choices for their school age children meet their various needs. A school engaged in a head search lost a very qualified candidate due to the lack of local educational resources for her child whose special needs were critical in the evaluation of the options available. The search committee made every effort to find accommodations, but the area resources and curriculum were simply not a fit. If the inability of the school (or alternative local schools) to meet a child’s needs satisfactorily is a deal breaker, it is best to be upfront as soon as possible so both the school and the candidate can pursue other options.
In another recent case, the head’s spouse reluctantly gave up her promising marketing career in a large metropolitan area. The new school’s more rural location made any reasonable and comparable job opportunities unlikely. The spouse’s feelings of a lack of professional fulfillment increased over time and gradually eroded the head’s desire to remain long term.
Another twist on this issue is when the spouse may have been gainfully employed in a satisfying position within the former school. This could be the role of the “first spouse” which can be a demanding and gratifying (and sometimes a paid) job. This is often the case in a boarding school or in any school where supporting the head in major fundraising efforts is particularly important. If there appears to be no value placed on the “first spouse” role in the new school, or there is no suitable internal position available then the spouse may again feel a lack of professional fulfillment.
Chemistry with the Search Committee and Chair:
The successful candidate will create some chemistry or a connection in the search process. The old adage that the first and last and/or most charismatic candidates have the edge does appear to hold true. A rapport between the search chair and candidate is crucial to the candidate’s belief that the search chair is really the leader of the committee.
In one search, the chair allowed faculty, parents and other board members to influence unduly the direction of the committee. The semi-finalist and finalist candidates eventually picked up on that signal as they heard the personal agendas of members of the school community. It raised doubts in their minds about who was in charge then and who their boss would be.
Candidates need to feel a bond either with the search chair or with another key member of the committee. They need to be sold on the school fully as much as they are trying to make their own case. Search committees that just screen and do not sell, or appear to have handed over the process to one or more vocal constituent groups, often lose their first choice candidates and either settle for a second or third choice or start the search again.
No One is “God on a Good Day”
Most search committees want an educational visionary with strong people skills, a pied piper with students, a fundraiser with the ability to pull in six figure gifts, an astute financial manager, and an enrollment and marketing genius. They will find it easy to embrace someone who loves sports and has impressive academic credentials, bright well-behaved children, and a charming spouse. He or she should also be a prodigious worker whose door is always open.
Yet it is important for the profile to signal priorities. A statement of the top one to three qualities that are MOST needed at this stage of the school’s history is critical to attracting candidates who may be the best fit.
Ultimately, search committees often choose someone very different from the profile developed initially. That is because chemistry and a successful visit often trump the official skills stated in the profile.
School search committees express a desire for someone who has presence and “magic” with people. Thus, there are many schools that have chosen form over substance, failing to look beyond people-pleasers to long term effectiveness and those who can make the critical and sometimes tough decisions.
As an example, in a search for an elementary school head position, someone with outstanding university and secondary school credentials but little elementary school background or experience submitted a resume. Due to a connection between a search committee member and this applicant, an interview was granted. The candidate wowed everyone with a very engaging personality and was selected. He lasted two years and his contract was not renewed.
The Pendulum Effect
When schools are searching for a new head, they often vacillate to extremes between personality types, skillsets, and other traits.
For example, one school replaced a long serving but tired head with a younger dynamic visionary who brought enormous energy and drive to the school. He was exactly what the school thought it wanted, and he set out to implement the long list of changes that had built up over time and were being demanded by the board. The new head quickly became seen as a bull in a china shop who was insensitive to cultural norms within the school and pursuing excellence and change at a pace that could not be endured. He was gone within three years.
He was succeeded by a “healer” with a laid-back, non-confrontational, diplomatic style. That was what the school needed until five years later when that head saw a need to assess whether his style was providing effective, forward moving leadership for the school. Board members and staff were beginning to raise this question. He had the wisdom and flexibility to make some necessary modifications in his approach within the limits of his style and age. He thus enjoyed a long tenure at this school.
Lack of Healthy Board Governance
All searches will lead to an unhappy outcome if the board does not have first an effective chair and a well-trained board that understands and applies the principles of healthy board practice. Most search candidates can pick up signals about governance through interviews in the search process. Trustees who speak out of turn, criticize the previous head, and gossip about fellow trustees or administrators send the message that this is an unprofessional board that could turn quickly on the next head.
One of the most positive draws for a candidate is knowing that the board operates professionally, seeks to learn and enhance good governance behaviors, and that the committee on trustees functions effectively in selecting, evaluating, and guiding trustees.
The need for professionalism extends to the search committee. Handling reference checks with complete confidentiality and diplomacy, especially involving sitting heads whose interest is not known to their current schools is of paramount importance. The search consultant must provide some formal guidance and training in this matter.
Boundaries and channels must be observed at all times. There can be no side bar communications between the search committee and other constituent groups, including other board members, unless allowed by the rules agreed upon at the outset.
The Importance of Transition Planning
Boards love the excitement of the hunt. “Long live the king” refers to the search for a new head that excites and inspires the search committee. The “king is dead” is the reality about the departing head.
The search is the easier stage relative to the transition phase when most schools drop the ball either out of fatigue or lack of knowledge and guidance. The transition phase is crucial.
All searches that result in the selection of outsiders cause some loss of momentum for the school during the two to five year transition time while the new head adjusts to and changes the culture, policies, and personnel to varying degrees. Fairly high turnover of teachers and key administrators in the early years of a new head’s tenure is common and can cause some consternation within the community. It is important to avoid overreacting to such events which are to some extent natural and appropriate.
The Middle Man Theory: When an Interim is a Good Idea
This is also known as the “sacrificial lamb theory” because the person who follows a valued long-term head is often gone within three years. Why? The departed beloved head often attains a degree of sainthood. These schools might have done better with an interim head who could release the internal pressures of praise (or criticism) about the previous head, allow a clean airing of previous hidden problems, and not saddle the new leader with being seen as a polar opposite of the valued outgoing head.
Search Committees and Their Private Agendas
In the formation of the search committee, it is important to determine whether the search will be centered only in the board, include some non-board members such as teachers, alumni, and non-board parents or whether there will be advisory committees of students, parents, faculty, and alumni who meet semifinalists and finalists and give their feedback to the search committee.
A head search should not be a democratic process. Letting too many people have roles with input can be risky. Non-board members have no training in basic board governance, such as maintaining confidentiality and respecting boundaries and channels. As soon as the new head makes a misstep, one constituency or another (typically the faculty) reports that he or she was not their first choice in any case.
All committee members have private agendas at some level, as each seeks a trait or experience in a new head that reflects his or her own definition of the mission. However, some members may have an inappropriate motive such as wanting to hire a head who might fix a narrow parental based issue such as sports, or will carry out their particular curriculum agenda, such as support for learning differences or enrichment programs that would serve their own family’s needs.
For example, in one head search, the school was quite intrigued by a local candidate, currently a development director, who seemed to be a good fit with its profile. The search committee passed on another qualified candidate in order to invite the local prospect for a visit. Once the local candidate’s current school learned of his interest, it promised him the headship there, which was his ultimate real goal. He declined the invitation to continue in the search. The search consultant did not know the real motives of the candidate his firm presented, and the candidate who had been passed over was no longer interested. The board was furious at having wasted a pick, and the search consultant felt misled.
A head search is a complex demanding process that can become far more complicated in some schools than others. The complexity is not based necessarily on the size of the school. We have seen small schools with clear cut needs experience a very difficult search due to highly sensitive cultures. We have seen large multinational schools with very sophisticated needs in their new head where the board chair firmly led the search process to a widely acclaimed choice.
The key steps in the process are simple:
[i] Khalsa, Siri Akal, Independent School Magazine, NAIS, 2017, Succession Planning: Getting it Right
John Littleford is the founder of Littleford & Associates, a global management consulting firm for independent schools, colleges, non-profit organizations, and for-profit companies