Searching… Searching… for a Leader

The head of Actual Christian School announced early this fall that he was leaving at the end of the school year. At the first board meeting after the announcement, the board chair had included an item on the agenda: “New Head of School Process.”

Even in the chit-chat before the meeting started, some board members were musing: “Can we rearrange staff and cut costs here?” “I have met a woman who leads my brother’s school; she’d be a good fit here.” “How do we go about finding a new leader? Put an ad out there?”

Check out the “Jobs” category on the CSI website and the content of a few of the head of school ads. Each was likely preceded by a conversation like this. Sooner or later your school board will face this task. Almost all advice about governing a nonprofit agency, including a Christian school, asserts that the most important task of a board is finding the right leader to guide a staff to meet the school’s mission. In my experience in training trustees in Christian schools and conducting six head of school searches, I’ve learned some dangers to avoid and practices to follow.

Dangers:

  1. Just placing an ad. Sometimes, particularly when the board learns late in the school year that the current leader is leaving, group panic leads to submitting an ad right now, with an attitude of “We’ll figure out later what we really need.” This may lead the board to fill the slot with someone who may not be a good fit for that school’s mission.
  2. Following the pendulum model. Boards that have become frustrated with the current leader unthinkingly look for a new leader who is almost the opposite. For example, if the present leader is a great interpreter and representative of the vision of the school but is a poor manager or administrator, the board goes to the opposite extreme, like a pendulum, and chooses a manager who has little ability or interest in leading the staff in carrying out the school’s educational vision.
  3. Only look inside or outside. Boards sometimes don’t do their due diligence and quickly opt for someone on the inside: “Tanya has been here ten years as a teacher; people trust her….” Or, boards jump to hiring a search firm to find the perfect leader “out there” without calculating the risk (couldn’t find an acceptable person) and cost.
  4. Not considering minimum qualifications. Boards can easily set searches in motion without questioning assumptions: must have Christian school teaching experience, must have ten years of administrative experience, must have had his/her children in Christian schools, etc. These all may be crucial in looking for leaders, but each needs examination before the hunt begins.

Worthwhile Practices:

  1. Examine other administrative positions first. Some boards too quickly assume that any position on staff is needed in the same form it was established. I know of schools that found a way to reorganize leadership positions for cost savings at no loss to effective leadership. For example, a K–12 school’s decreased enrollment over the past five years could mean the school can enfold high school leadership into the head of school job and use the cost savings to hire a part-time admissions person.
  2. Establish a Head of School Profile. “Profile” is the current lingo for writing the answers to these kinds of questions: What are the two or three most important character features desired? What are the top three practices in leadership we desire? Answers to these questions should be the key content in ads and interviews. This board practice before searching helps board members really examine the school’s mission and helps them select the right candidate.
  3. Get help for the search. In conducting searches for schools, some Christian schools have paid in excess of $30,000 to firms to conduct a head-of-school search; some believe it was money well-spent and others wish they had found a less-expensive way. I also know applicants who felt almost abused at the shoddy way some schools handled their searches. Before boards decide to get paid help, it is worth contacting Christian schools that have hired a leader recently and get their judgments on the worth of their respective choices.
  4. Measure the autonomy of the leader. If your school uses policy governance (or what many call the Carver model) for the way your board operates the school, the head of school has far more autonomy than in other models. The head is solely responsible for achieving the mission of the school, as long as he/she stays within the limits (policies) set by the board. In this model it is especially important for boards to search and select carefully.

The Case of James: Here’s how James’s case was decided (see my previous blog: The Case of James):

After getting agreement from the chair of the board, the principal invited the Andersons to the board meeting for just five minutes to speak about their son’s special needs. He also learned from another Christian school about a funding model for covering the high cost (three times the typical cost per student) of special education: one-third paid by parents, one-third by the whole school, and one-third by the Andersons’ church and other contributions. Mr. Matters proposed that the school accept James as a student and adopt the funding model. The board accepted the proposal.

– Dan Vander Ark

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