Paul Keller's Deep Dive Into The Head Search Process

Gowan Group offers a unique opportunity for schools in leadership transition.  All of our consultants know the process from all of the key perspectives.  We have been on search committees, been candidates ourselves, and counseled schools through the process.  That expertise is difficult to replicate.  Most importantly, our collective experiences helps us to look objectively to keep reminding schools what they need in a candidate to thrive going forward.

I was recently in a group of around 80 independent school administrators where a straw poll was conducted about school leadership.  The first question asked was how many schools either had a first year Head, an Interim Head, or were in their current Head’s final year of service.  While I knew that many Baby Boomers were retiring around the same time, I was shocked to see that in this room over half of the participants raising their hands.  Clearly there has not been a time in our industry where we are having so much transition in executive leadership in such a condensed period of time.

Another trend that has given me pause for concern is seeing how many schools are looking for new leadership only a few years after having hired a Head that the community was excited about.  Though each situation is unique, there are an inordinate number of schools and/or school leaders who have come to a conclusion that their union is not a “good fit”.  How can so many smart people involved in a thorough and exhaustive search process meet so many talented candidates only to find out after two years that they were wrong or vice versa?

It seems that part of the problem lies in schools confusing their needs for the future with the excitement of meeting a specific candidate.  Once a search process is in its intermediate phases, a good committee will have painted a fairly clear picture of the talents that the right candidate will possess.  This will combine both the ethos of the school with the unique circumstances where a school finds itself at that moment.  However, once candidates begin to come to campus, many schools lose sight of the hard work they have done.  

The visceral feeling of a person in front of you is very different than a resume.  All too often, we get swept up with how a candidate makes us feel rather than looking at what they bring.  This echoes recent research that points to interview performance as one of the weakest indicators of job success, but one that is heavily relied upon.  However, on an informal level, I continue to be surprised by how many times the strengths of who gets named and the needs of the school get mismatched.  The committee begins with a clear plan for what they are looking for, but then get sidetracked by the human element once they start meeting people.     

Head searches are an arduous task for a school community. There is no one way for a search committee to go about it and members of the team should be wary of any firms that use a “cookie cutter” approach.  If outside expertise is implemented, there are several questions to consider.  For instance, how much time will a firm avail to you in order to get to know the uniqueness of your school community?  How well do they know your particular market?  What are some nontraditional avenues they use to find qualified school leaders?  If you do decide to conduct a search without outside counsel, have a clear and transparent plan that gathers feedback from a wide cross section of the community and pay close attention to what they say. 

Contributed by Paul Keller, Managing Director with Gowan Group