A Not So Foolish Consistency
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," Emerson wrote in "Self-Reliance," perhaps the proto-battle-cry for today's disrupters. Some consistencies, however, make a lot of sense. For instance, when affordability is not an issue, independent schools almost invariably select an experienced consulting firm to assist them with their search for a new head of school. Schools with limited resources stretch or seek targeted funding to secure counsel. Why is this choice so ubiquitous?
Collateral Goals: Second in importance by a slim margin to identifying a great next head of school, a well run search process also engages all constituencies and builds early cultural capital for the head-elect and credibility for the Board. The obverse is that it is entirely possible for a school to identify a very promising head-elect but to sabotage that person's success with a shoddy search process. Independent schools are built on relationships, and parents, faculty, and ultimately kids expect the head to be the chief weaver of the community fabric.
Work and Pace: A well-run head search is an enormous amount of work, and the market has a fairly well-described "season" that puts all of that work onto a discrete timeline. Search consultants contribute about 75% of the total sweat equity in the search, setting up the search committee and Board for confident, visible, timely leadership throughout. Consultants also take on the coxswain's role, setting the pace for the work, encouraging, pushing, occasionally chiding to insure that the committee meets key deadlines.
Alignment: Having a consultant serving as the quarterback for the process keeps the essential qualities of the next head at the center of the work. Schools that choose not to use a consultant often distribute the work I describe above and thereby invite a confusing variety of research approaches and reporting strategies (and in worst case scenarios, hobbyhorse excursions) that quickly turns apples to apples comparisons into apples to hacksaws. Consultants also guide the search committee away from common group-think and logic biases. Tom Olverson, a consultant at Resource Group 175, has written about the common biases that afflict decision making--a must read for all search committees. Good consultants push hard on committees when they see them heading off on these dangerous trails.
Connectivity: Most head search consultants have spent decades in positions of school leadership. As they moved into consulting, they brought their networks of collegial relationships with them and continued to grow and maintain them with a more defined purpose as consultants. They keep track of rising star candidates, experienced heads who are open to new opportunities, and school leaders who are eager to recommend candidates within their networks. As industry insiders, consultants know many of the schools where candidates currently work or know someone to call at a school nearby. They grasp the context in which candidates are currently working and its potential relevance to the search school.
Politics: As neutral parties, consultants can more easily ask naive questions and challenge institutional myths. They can help the school mitigate the complicated dynamics occasioned by internal candidates or an unhappy departing head. They can organize a process that improves the status of the Board's leadership in the eyes of current and past parents, donors, alumni, and most importantly, they can bring the head-elect into the school with cultural momentum.