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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Head Search ABCs (Always Be Closing)

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

In David Mamet's "Glengarry Glenross," brilliantly adapted to the screen in 1992 with an all-star cast, Alec Baldwin plays Blake, sent from the Premiere Properties corporate offices to motivate the Brooklyn real estate team. Saturated in profanity, his vicious techniques quickly pit the salesmen against each other in a two day, zero sum game.

No one wants a head search committee to function like this, but too many search committees could use a little dose of Blake to arouse them from their stubborn belief that they're buying when, in fact, they should be selling.

Humble start-up or venerable juggernaut, independent schools provide the ideal platform for identifying a strong next leader by approaching the search with the intention of selling the opportunity to candidates. The contents of that sale should arise from a process of discovery undertaken by the search committee that leads to an honest and increasingly granular presentation of the school as the search moves along, but the intent should be to treat the candidate as a party with plenty of choices.

To a great degree they do. It's more than likely that top candidates have traction in several searches, could in fact be using your school as their plan C, lest you convince them otherwise. And even the candidates playing out of their league, or making your school their one skirmish in the market that year always have the option of departing the process of their own accord. Candidates are more likely to leave the process early or choose another school over yours if they encounter some of the off-putting excesses that arise from a school carrying out the search from the buyer's position.

The Lear effect is one of these. You remember the opening scenes of King Lear when Lear tells his three daughters that the one who best expresses her undying love for him will win the biggest share of the kingdom he plans to divide. Surely schools deserve to hear that candidates are keenly interested in the opportunity, but candidates are justifiably apprehensive when the process starts to feel like a lesson in unctuousness instead of an honest conversation about the school's horizons and the candidate's experiences in navigation.

The Seal Team effect is another. In this scenario, the search committee conducts a hyper-engineered, arduous process, replete with extensive psychometric testing and interviews packed with gotcha questions. For candidates this feels like a process designed to be a contest of attrition, at worst a gruesome preview of life to come with the Board, at best an over-analyzed and cynical perception of the skills and personality attributes that help leaders thrive in the glorious mess of independent schooling.

A buyer's stance can lead to other pitfalls--little sand traps of laziness (a missed meeting here, unanswered email there), greater susceptibility to common group-think and decision-making biases--all the product of committees who feel that candidates should be glad to be invited, and that it is the committee's job to pick the best item off the menu.

Head search committees have important work to do, the most important work the trustees in those seasons of a school's history will do for the school. Indeed, the school holds more cards than the candidates, but a search conducted from the seller's stance, done with some measure of grace so that it does not come off as disingenuous, invites candidates into an ethos with which they are very familiar and believe in without reservation, the dynamic of the healthy classroom and independent school community. Any of the unfortunate effects of head searches that I describe above would just as accurately define the most dysfunctional classroom and overall school climates.

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