Lessons Learned During the Head Search Process: The Journey From Aspiring Head to New Head

skitchMany of you may be aware that I will be moving on after five years at Alexandria Country Day School to assume the headship at The Children’s School in Atlanta. I am thrilled to join such a wonderful, progressive community of educators, students, trustees, and families, and look forward to a long, enriching tenure. I’m just as glad that the search process and interviews are finally over. It’s grueling on one’s mind, body, and soul and I learned many lessons about independent schools, being a head of school, Boards, search committees and search consultants that I would like to share with aspiring heads and school leaders. (Note that this is not a how-to guide to head searches, but tips and reminders to keep the process in perspective.) One search consultant did tell me in my first year of going through this process that it takes an average of three years or so to find one’s first headship. Obviously everyone’s experience will vary, and for me, I got the job in my second. In my combined two years, I considered or was considered in as many as ten searches, made it to the semi-finalist in one, and finalist in five. I use my experiences of these two years, along with advice I read or received from mentors, to craft this post.

  1. It’s all about the fit. It’s hard to remember that when you get a call after three interviews and several days and hours spent traveling and on campus that the school decided to pass on your candidacy. Just remember that that’s what we tell our families and students when they apply to that next step after your institution, and it’s as true for you now as it is for them.
  2. Talking about fit, know your fit! Would you like to lead an elementary school, a K-12, day or boarding, single-sex or coed, religious or secular? How about geography, size of school, etc.? The variations are numerous and it’s important that you know your comfort level and limit your choices accordingly. Saying no to schools outside your “fit zone” is just as important as saying yes.
  3. Don’t take it personally. Also really difficult advice to impart but I hope that I had heard more of it. A head search that you are really excited about will leave you and, possibly your family, drained by the end. You will have invested a lot of time and mental, emotional, and physical energy to prove that you are the best candidate for the job; the school will also have invested the same in you and it’s difficult to not leave each visit feeling good about your chances. You are putting your best foot forward, as is the school, and everyone wants to make it work even if there can only be one standing at the end. This advice is also pertinent regardless of whether you get the job or not. If you don’t, learn what you can about how you did and where you or your experience fell short of the school’s expectations, and move on to the next one. If you do get the job, celebrate but don’t let it go to your head. This is also going to be useful on those difficult days when it seems you can do nothing right or please anyone. Don’t take it personally.
  4. Know the search consultants and let them know you. Some of the good ones I had the privilege to work with include Educators Collaborative, Resource Group 175, Dick Jung, and Carney Sandoe. I made sure that I spent time on the phone with these consultants and shared as much as possible with them about me, both professional and personal attributes, so that they could guide me towards schools that would be a good fit.
  5. Find a mentor. I have been fortunate to have many such mentors and supporters along the way, from former heads to current heads, and other administrators and educators in national or regional associations who know independent schools and can serve as a reference or recommend me to consultants. According to former heads who now work at Carney Sandoe, “The guidance of a leader who understands first-hand the pluses and pitfalls of Headship could make a big difference in your career.  Find someone you trust who can share his or her experiences with you and help guide you.”
  6. Similar to #5, aspiring heads should shop for heads, not schools or titles. It’s very easy to let the reputation of a school or the glamour of a title attract one to the wrong or an okay fit. Instead, shop for a head you can learn from, who will be supportive of your aspirations and help you develop a leadership roadmap. Great heads develop leaders at all levels in their organization and demonstrate inclusivity in their communications and decision-making. Are you growing as a leader in your current school? Do you get informal and formal feedback from your supervisor/head? Are you included in decision-making? A head’s reality is different from the reality of virtually everyone else at school, and any window into the head’s job will help you learn what it means to hold the top position. It can also give you a preview into your head’s thought process and the behind-the-scenes look into how decisions are made. (There’s no one way, of course, to making decisions, and the process will depend a lot on the school, circumstances, head’s personality, experience, and leadership style, however the trailer will help when you are in that position.)
  7. Connect, connect, connect. Attend NAIS institutes and conferences, take the opportunity to go on accreditation visiting teams, and seek out school leaders you may know of or have heard of, even if they don’t know you. Reading blogs (my two go-tos in currently: 21k12blog.net and The Learning Pond) by school administrators, the Harvard Business Review, and subscribing to The Head’s Letter are also ways to connect across traditional and social media and develop one’s personal leadership network.
  8. Heads who lead schools in the 21st century must learn to embrace 21st century technologies and their potential to transform teaching and learning. I found it very helpful in the search process to be a producer of social media too, and referred search committees to my blogTwitter, and Facebook pages where I regularly share my views on the current landscape of education.
  9. Search committees tend to prioritize experience over potential. Independent schools are risk-averse institutions, and experience is easier to assess than potential. Combine those two factors, and you can understand the search committee’s bias to favor sitting heads over aspiring heads. Of course, this isn’t always the case and many aspiring heads do make it, but the odds are stacked against them. One way to claim experience is chairing committees, task forces, and other such leadership opportunities as they arise at your school. Carney Sandoe’s cadre of former heads shares, “Though the specific strengths desired by one school or another for their next Head can vary, every school needs a Head who is a strong leader of people.  Seek out a leadership role in whatever capacity you are able.”
  10. Success builds success. Search committees want to hear about your successes as a teacher leader or administrator. Have you spearheaded the design or implementation of a strategic initiative? How did you overcome any apathy or resistance at your school? What was the desired outcome and did you achieve it? I had the good fortune to chair several committees and task forces, ranging from strategic planning to curriculum and anti-bullying initiatives. The success of each process helped tremendously during the interviews as I shared not only my vision and leadership, but my ability to create buy-in, empower faculty and parents, and ultimately, deliver results. Lots of aspiring leaders pad their resumes with stories of committees, volunteer opportunities, leadership workshops and institutes, but only success builds success.
  11. #10 is true for institutions as well. It was very tempting for me to find schools in crisis or with notable challenges for my first headship, however, as more than one mentor and consultant told me, “you want your first headship to be a success.” Then, be setup for success by choosing a school that is already successful. (Don’t worry: there are always opportunities for growth, but a school in crisis has very little time and patience for you to establish your leadership and the trust you will need from the community to move the school forward.)
  12. Be your authentic self – professionally and personally. Yours and your family’s personal comfort with the school and surrounding communities is as important to your success as head of school, as your professional background and experience will prove. I didn’t realize this key point until much later in the process and I could compare my experience at The Children’s School (TCS) against that of another. It only became clear after my finalist visit to TCS that I decided to withdraw my candidacy from this other school. I could be my full authentic self at TCS. It was only amongst them that I felt celebrated for all of the experiences I bring to the table, where I could engage in difficult conversations respectfully with Board members and faculty, where I could give respect and receive it in equal measure.
  13. The whole process is like a stereotypical arranged marriage: you and your potential match have to make a decision based on a couple of phone or Skype calls and two to three dates. It sounds extremely rushed and it kind of is, but if both parties follow #12, then the chances of making the right decision are really good. Only time will tell whether it will turn out to be a great marriage.

I wish you all the best and hope that this post proves useful to you as you prepare for your searches and interviews. Feel free to share your lessons and experiences in the comments, or just with me via email.

UPDATE: After recent conversations with friends and colleagues, many of them who are heads or aspiring heads themselves, I would like to add #14 to my list above.

  • Managing Your Digital Identity in the Age of Google Search: I know I was Googled by several search committees, Board members, and parents when interviewing at TCS and other schools. Having actively nurtured my personal learning network (PLN) over the last year, from Twitter to a Facebook page and a blog, I am aware of the power of my words and images that now live online. When managed and built appropriately, my digital identity – my PLN – has helped me develop my thought leadership and share it with search committees and school communities beyond a 2-3 page personal statement. Brad Ovenell-Carter addresses this “Brand of Me” in his post: “The only possible way to manage your reputation online is to build it yourself

    we talk about the “Brand of Me” and coach our kids on proactively managing their online identity…


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