The Head of School Search: An Overview

There are three areas of responsibility where a board of trustees has a critical impact on the success of a school: defining and serving as guardians of the school’s mission, vision and values; crafting and adopting policies that guide the operation of the school; and—crucially-- hiring a strong and effective head of school.  In fact, these responsibilities are intertwined because the board hires the head to advance the school’s mission, vision and values and to implement board policies. 

The head of school is the board’s sole employee and serves, in effect, as the institution’s chief executive officer. Therefore, it is imperative the board takes great care when conducting the search for a new head, hiring that new head and transitioning to new leadership. The board is responsible for ensuring that whomever it hires is the appropriate person for the school at this time and given the school’s current circumstances. Additionally, after the hire the board is responsible for developing an effective partnership with the head; assisting in a smooth transition; nurturing the head’s well-being; and supporting her or his professional growth.

The search process is particularly high-stakes because in many cases the board has little experience in undertaking this complex and challenging task. Therefore, it should be prepared to invest the necessary time and resources so as to ensure that the search is thoughtfully done and that the new head will be the best fit for the school. 

Hiring in the International Context

Recruiting an effective head for a school is challenging in the best of circumstances. Doing so in the international context brings additional layers of complexity, as a number of factors are particular to the world of international education, including the following:

  • Supply and demand: The explosive growth in the number of international schools has created intense competition for qualified school administrators, particularly for those with prior international experience. The increasing number of school heads reaching retirement age has compounded the problem.
  • Time constraints: Unless a school begins its search early—ideally, 15 to 18 months out—it will find that many administrators will not be available to apply for the position because they have a multi-year contract. Increasingly, contracts between schools and heads require that the board give more than a year’s notice of its intent to offer a new or extended contract and that the head signal her or his willingness to continue serving the school within the same time frame. If a school begins its search a year or less before it hopes to hire a new head, it will have a greatly reduced field of candidates from which to choose. Thus, it’s essential to begin the search process as soon as possible.
  • Family considerations: Accepting a headship is often a family decision—especially if it means relocating to a new country. Factors that candidates might consider include quality of life at the post, safety and security, health care, the opportunities for spousal employment, and schooling for dependent children.  The board will need to answer questions about such considerations candidly while at the same time pointing out the positives of a move to their school.
  • Board sustainability: International school boards experience frequent turnover which means that the composition of the board hiring the new head will often become quite different over time, with different understandings and expectations.  This can be quite problematic. Ideally, the hiring board develops mechanisms to guarantee that subsequent boards understand the terms under which the head of school was hired, including the expectations, goals and terms of employment articulated at the time of hiring.

We’ve flagged these challenges because boards in international schools need to be aware of them. Yet, at the same time, we do not want to underplay the advantages that an international headship presents. The right person will view a move to a new school in a new country as a particularly exciting opportunity. The board should be prepared to “sell” such a move and to highlight the benefits of serving as the head of their institution.

Beginning the Search
In brief, we recommend that boards conducting a search follow these steps:
 
Sharing the News
Once the board knows that the current head will be moving on, it is important to work with her/him to consider how to share this information with the school’s administration, the faculty/staff and the school community.  What is said, who says it, and when it is said are all important; therefore, a communication plan should be developed by the current head and the board chair, who is the spokesperson for the board, announcing the departure. The goal of this plan is to keep the community informed.   At the same time, given the anxiety that usually accompanies such an announcement, it is critical that the board makes clear it is going to be conducting a thorough, thoughtful, and inclusive search to find the best person to build on the legacy of the current head and to lead the school forward. The board also needs to reassure the administration, faculty/staff and community that it will be consulted at critical points in the search process; for example, when the search committee builds the “desired candidate profile” and when finalist candidates visit the school. 

 

Taking Stock
When a board learns the current school head will be moving on, a common reaction is to jump right into the search process. Instead, we suggest that the board pause, reflect and take stock of where the school is at this point in its history. Where has the school come from? What are its current strengths and its challenges? What do relevant data—climate surveys, the student profile, the school’s other metrics—say about what the board should be looking for in the next leader?  In addition, as NAIS President Donna Orem notes, the start of the search for a new head provides the perfect opportunity to …
 
  • Look inward: What is the state of the school’s current leadership team? What strengths are already present on that team?
  • Look outward: What is going on in the local environment and in the world that has—or might have—an impact on the school?
  • Look ahead: What is the school’s strategic vision? What kind of individual will be best equipped to achieve it?

This also is the perfect time to thoughtfully review the school’s mission, vision, and values. A principle of good governance is that all major board decisions are taken in support of these ‘foundation documents.’  They should inform the search process.  A mission-driven board will look for a person with the skills to lead the school toward its articulated strategic vision and with the personal attributes that reflect the school’s values.

We recommend that this analysis be done thoughtfully, perhaps in a day-long retreat. This kind of an assessment will be helpful when it comes time for the board to build the profile of the ideal person to serve as the next head of their school.

Building the Position Description

After reflecting on the school’s current situation, including its strengths and challenges, the board should begin to build a candidate profile. That profile should include a list of the head’s key responsibilities, preferred credentials and experience, and desired character attributes.

Some additional advice:

  • Although some international schools must deal with hiring restrictions in their host country related to nationality, religion, sexual orientation, age, visa or work-permit regulations, or other considerations, keep in mind the increasingly vital importance of building a diverse candidate pool.  This cannot be over-emphasized as it will signal to the community and to prospective candidates that the school values diversity.
  • The board might consider hiring from within the organization if the school has an effective and balanced leadership team.  Whether or not the board would consider an internal candidate is a critical question that should be tackled before the search begins.
  • Realize that requiring the school head to have a doctorate may needlessly eliminate many outstanding candidates. Likewise, requiring prior experience as a head will rule out many rising stars with a strong administrative background and great leadership potential.
  • Avoid looking for a superhero. Reflecting on the school’s foundation documents and the board’s analysis of what the school needs in terms of skills and attributes, prioritize three to five leadership skills and a similar number of character traits. Don’t insist on a person supremely well-qualified in all areas.
  • Keep an open mind, prepare to be surprised.
Selecting the Search Committee Chair

As with other committees, the chair of the board or the board’s executive committee makes this appointment. While the board chair is often, though not necessarily, a member of the search committee, another person typically serves as its chair. Take note: if the current board chair will be leaving in the near future, it helps with continuity for the chair-elect of the board to serve as the search committee chair.

The chair of this committee should have the following attributes and skills:

  • A deep understanding of the school—its culture, its history, its strengths, its challenges
  • Reliability and willingness to devote the necessary time to this task
  • Strong organizational and communication skills
  • Good meeting facilitation skills
  • The ability to balance the need for confidentiality with the need for transparency

It is also helpful if the chair of the search committee will be on the board for at least the first year of the incoming head’s tenure.

 

Populating the Search Committee

In some cases, the search committee is made up solely of board trustees.  However, in the interest of giving the school community a sense of ownership in the process, most search committees also include non-trustees, something we recommend.  This approach provides a variety of perspectives and signals to both the community and prospective candidates that the school values a variety of perspectives.  The committee should be large enough to represent diverse perspectives yet small enough to be efficient.  The board chair and search committee chair should work to achieve balance when populating the committee. Ideally, members will be collegial, dependable, respected by their peers, able to keep confidences and willing to put in the many hours that the work of this committee will require.

Members of the search committee need to keep in mind:

  • They do not represent a constituency but are chosen to bring a particular point of view to committee deliberations nor do they report to any constituency

  • They can expect to be asked about the search but must maintain confidentiality out of respect for the integrity of the process
  • Sharing information about candidates before finalists are selected can inadvertently damage a candidate’s standing with her/his current school.
  • The search committee is a coordinating group assisting the board.  While it will make recommendations, it is the board that makes the final decision of whom to hire. 
Determining Whether to Hire a Consultant

The search process is very time-consuming and quite complex. It usually calls for expertise not found within the school, let alone on the board itself. Therefore, most boards choose to hire a consultant or recruiting firm that specializes in international school head searches to guide and support them through the process. A consultant or recruiting firm provides a number of advantages:

  • Familiarity with the mechanics of the search process

  • The capability to handle many of the logistics of the search

  • A more objective perspective

  • Access to a large and diverse network of potential candidates

  • Experience in building and/or refining the description of the school and the profile of the desired candidate     

If the board decides to explore working with a search firm, we suggest that it ask peer schools and the current head for names of reputable consultants and recruiting firms with expertise in the international school search process. The choice of firm will come down to its fit with the school and the specific search; its reputation (confirmed by checking references); the thoroughness of its process; and, of course, how much it will charge for its services.  When interviewing consultants and search firms, it is advisable develop a list of questions for each firm to answer.  Possible questions might be:

  • What differentiates you/your firm from the others in the field?
  • How do you align the search with the mission, vision and values of the school?
  • What modifications have you made to your process due to the COVID pandemic?
  • How would you publicize our search? What is your/the firms ‘reach’?
  • Have you worked with schools of our size? in our part the world? with our program of instruction (e.g., AP, IB)?
  • How many consultants would be working with us if your firm were selected? 
  • After the hire, what follow-through services will your firm provide?
  • Can you share with us the names and contacts of search committee chairs with whom you have worked?  

Some schools decide to handle the search themselves. The usual reasons for taking this approach are:

  • money: hiring a search consultant may seem financially burdensome
  • existing expertise: sometimes there are individuals in the school community who are experienced in recruitment so that hiring a consultant may seem unnecessary.

It is our strong recommendation that if at all feasible, an outside consultant or recruiting firm should be retained.  Given the critical importance of the search process to the success of the school, it is worth the investment.

 

Conducting the Search

As mentioned above, a head search is a complex process.  There are a number of considerations that need to be taken into account which are beyond the scope of this paper.  These include but are not limited to:

  • establishing a timeline for the search
  • establishing protocols for:
    • reviewing candidate dossiers by the search committee
    • determining which candidates will be shortlisted
    • interviewing semi-finalists and determining which will advance as finalists
    • arranging for finalist visits (whether in person or virtually) to meet various constituencies, become acquainted with the school and the host city, and be formally interviewed

    • how to make the final selection

    • determining the compensation package and contract details

    • announcing the choice to the community     

A reputable consultant or recruiting firm will provide guidance in handling these and related aspects of the search process.  For more detailed guidance, we recommend that boards review The NAIS Head Search Handbook or hire a search consultant or firm to guide you through the process – or, better yet, both.

Considering an Interim Head
If the right candidate is not found (caution: don’t settle for someone who doesn’t fit the bill) or if there is not enough time to conduct a proper search, the board should consider hiring an interim head to serve for a year as the search for a permanent head continues.  There may be an internal candidate who can fill this role but search consultants can also help to identify experienced heads, often retired, who will keep the school moving ahead. 
 

Transition to New Leadership

“Every beginning starts with an ending,” wrote William Bridges in Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. After hiring the new school head, the board and search committee should pay close attention to how best honor and bid farewell to the departing head and orchestrate the leadership handoff. Transition is a psychological process not only for the people who are directly involved but also for the entire school community.

Both the board and the search committee should develop a transition plan that extends from the time of hiring through at least the first six months of the new head’s tenure. Transition is more than organizing a farewell for the departing head, meeting the new head at the airport, and making sure the refrigerator is stocked. Leadership transition is a crucial time in the life of the school and must be handled with sensitivity and wisdom. A successful transition takes time and forethought to ensure that all concerned can adjust to the change in leadership and what it means for them.  (Resources about transitions are noted above in the side panel. We advise that you review them to get a good understanding of what makes for a successful transition plan.) 

Finally, a bit of advice regarding transitions: allow the new head to have at least six months to settle in and to get to know the school, its major stakeholders, its constituent groups and the wider community. Time invested up front by the new head in building a knowledge base and garnering political capital will go a long way to ensure a successful tenure.

In Closing
As noted at the beginning of this monograph, hiring a head of school is one of the board’s chief responsibilities, one that it cannot delegate.  It will require allocation of resources, significant time commitment and strong leadership.  But it can be done; and when it is done well, it will benefit the school for years to come.

 

The AAIE International School Board Development Curriculum is a component of the AAIE Governance Suite by David Chojnacki and Rick Detwiler, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Under this Creative Commons license, you are free to share this material — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, under the following terms:

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