The search for a Head of school position is not an easy one. Just ask any head of school candidate. Resumes and cover letters are proofed over and over again by peers, mentors, coaches and the candidate’s own eyes. Next follows a myriad of long and grueling interviews, and a hopefulness about being asked to move up to the next stage after each round. Whether interviewing for the first time or heading toward a second headship, the sense of exhaustion at the end of each stage of the process hits every candidate like a cement brick.
There are two types of searches: the open search and the closed search. The more common open search process used to be the way all heads of school were chosen. In this model candidates start by meeting with only the search committee. If they make it through this stage of the vetting process, the next step is two long days visiting the school community, usually with a spouse or partner, culminating each night with dinner. The candidate is fully visible to those in the community and because the independent school world is small, word usually gets back to the candidate's school before the process is over. I remember heading back to my job as the Head of Middle School at a large school in Southern California and a parent running up to me asking why I was moving to Seattle. I had not yet been offered the position.
The newer model in independent schools is the closed search, which is the standard operation in corporate CEO searches. In that model candidates are vetted by the search consultant, meet with a small search committee usually in an off campus setting. The first round with the search committee is usually a questions and answer session. If a candidate moves to the finalist round, they are asked to prepare a formal presentation similar to one a head of school might present to their board.
For my first headship I entered an open search. As a semi-finalist, I quietly toured campus on a Saturday and had my first interview with the search committee on the school’s campus. I got a feel for campus and the flow of the buildings and began to picture myself there. As soon as I was notified that I was moving on to the finalist round, which would include spending multiple days on campus meeting various school constituents, I notified my current head of school. Even though my current school and the school to which I was applying were in different states, I already knew from experience that the independent school world was a small one. And as predicted I found out the two schools had several connections.
For my second headship I interviewed in a closed search process.I never once set foot on the school’s campus. I interviewed at the downtown offices of the search firm and the only community members I met were on the search committee. As a sitting head I was assured that confidentiality would be kept and I was able to keep the search from reaching the ears of my current community. However, I did miss meeting the entire school community and was less sure of how I would fit as a member of that community. Except for those who would serve as my references, I told no-one in my current school community I was in a search. This left me feeling as if I was not being transparent and honest to the people who trusted me to run the school.
Although both models produce the same result I found that the onboarding process for me, as a new head of school was much harder after a closed process. In the open search I was interviewed by every school constituent; trustees, faculty, staff, parents, students and alumni. Each group got to weigh in to the search committee and felt they had their say. In the closed search many members of the school community were angry at my appointment and felt as if decisions had been made from on high with no thought given to their input. They were right and I had to slowly begin the uphill battle of gaining trust in the community.
One aspect of both searches that I found similar was the reaction of the community I was leaving. In both open and closed searches the shock, celebration and feeling of shock were identical. There was never a good time to reveal to the community that although the job had brought me joy that it was time to move on. The departures were not easy for me or for the community.
Although the closed search left me with less connections and partners in my new school, I felt I was not on display and I felt as if I was chosen for my skills and competencies and not my personality. In the open search, I felt like I knew my new community and that they had the chance to know me so we could start our work together.
In facing a head search as either a first-time aspirant or as a veteran, it’s important to understand the differences between open and closed searches at the start of the process.
Ronnie Codrington-Cazeau is head of University Preparatory School in Seattle, WA. She was head of Evergreen School, in Shoreline, WA from 2012-2020