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Cover November 2, 1998

The Head Search-Some Observations
By Larry N. Crouch
Surabaya International School

The head hunting season is again upon us as evident by the International Schools Services web site. It seems only a few short months from the time when I reactivated my placement files and went through the roller coaster ride of trying to obtain a new superintendency. There were about 75 head of school slots open last year. I applied for sixteen, got six interviews and three job offers, and am now enjoying SIS in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia.

The last time I was on the market was in 1989. Comparing that search with this one, it is clear that changes have taken place in the process.

Search's today are assisted by several organizations (ISS, SEARCH, ECIS, TIE, etc.). They play a dual role of linking candidates with boards conducting head searches through their own unique processes. In a sense, they "represent" both the candidate and school board. Their effort to maintain objectivity about candidates and their suitability for a particular position is handled in slightly different ways.

ISS, after all the candidate's paper work is in, maintains contact largely through formal letters noting one's status. If the candidate takes the initiative to obtain more information about a school or the position, it is likely that the response will be largely neutral. There is a strong impression given that this is necessary to maintaining a "level playing field". ISS screens candidates based upon the board criteria, and presents a "short list" of varying length to the boards. The list contains narrative comments about each person. Once the board has the list ISS assumes a more passive role, responding to boards upon their request, while encouraging them to follow through with their process.

SEARCH follows similar procedures it seems until the short list stage. It then takes on an advocacy role regarding those on the short list who seem to fill the board's stated needs and qualities desired in a candidate. They appear to advocate a narrower list, and will actively assist the board in understanding what makes each candidate unique. SEARCH will provide personal insights into the status of a search, and will critique the paper work which a candidate has submitted.

I understand the tightrope walk that head search groups try to execute between candidates for the same position, between candidates and the board, and even within boards. They are trying to maintain objectivity, to attract a large group of excellent candidates, and to fill the needs of schools and candidates. Favoritism would kill integrity and lead to fewer successes.

The two examples above give us certain choices when we're looking for new head ships. What I'd like to see added to the process is....

  1. On the practical level, I think there are enough candidates looking for positions annually to encourage the search organizations to develop materials targeted to helping head candidates in their search. This could include tips and suggestions about resumes, what materials might be taken to the interview, sample interview questions, profiles of what the board seeks in a candidate, how boards might conduct the interview process or even school produced materials (budget, handbooks, etc.).

  2. Also on the practical level, it would be useful to have sources that could review the candidate's materials from a professional and lay perspective, and give criticism, insights, etc. Yes, most of us have personnel experience and think we're experts. But, remember that doctors don't perform their own surgery. We could benefit from having someone with no other motive than to help in the search take a look at our pre-interview presence.

  3. More could be done to help the head looking for that first job. It seems we take for granted that people know all about becoming a head, since so few articles appear anywhere that encourage us in the field to share our experiences in obtaining leadership positions. I see much more of this in the AASA magazines and bulletins than I do in our international publications.

  4. If I were seeking the top job in a company in the U.S. I would select an agency that would examine my background, give me some advice, and then would ADVOCATE my candidacy to the appropriate decision makers. We don't have that service now; we have services that give us access, but not full advocacy.

There is considerable variety in interview formats now being used by boards. This must becoming from the advice received from the search organizations and perhaps from board experiences in public education or the business world. This variety includes...

  1. Interview formats ranging from highly formal to very informal. One board gave the candidates a list of eight written scenarios to respond to, going down the list with hardly any interaction between board members and the interviewee. Another had no questions, no format and basically asked the candidates to start talking!

  2. Questions to answer in writing prior to the short list selection.

  3. Written questions to respond to during the interview; these were provided the day before the interview or as it was starting.

  4. The two-three day "power interview" rather than six or seven days.

  5. Simultaneous on site interviews by all candidates.

  6. Spouse interview with the board, and in one case with the candidate present.

Board's need help in improving consistency and protocol towards candidates. They could learn much from their superintendent's on this score. If a board has chosen the simultaneous on site interview approach then they need to insure that all candidates are present, order to have a "level playing field" . Otherwise, the candidate(s) who manage to visit before or after the group has more time with the board, school personnel, etc. The information provided to candidates before an interview should be the same, and instructions about who to contact on the board or in the administration (if anybody) should be clear for all candidates. The board should disqualify anybody who abuses these instructions, and search organizations should make their standards clear.

I found it fascinating that while most of the opening announcements for head jobs this year referred to curriculum development and program evaluation as major priorities or components to the superintendent's initial tasks, there were no questions about them during six interviews! Finance, buildings and communications were dominant themes.

The search organizations are urged to make very clear their expectations of board protocol. Some suggestions include...

  1. If the spouse is to be interviewed, either by the board or by an administrator, make that clear BEFORE the interview trip.

  2. Personally notify the candidates of the board's final decision by a short phone call as soon as possible.

  3. Provide the interview schedule to the candidate ideally before she/he leaves home for the interview.

  4. Advise the candidates about what they should bring to the interview of a specific nature (e.g. recent evaluations, recent contracts, salary history, etc.).

  5. Urge the board to appoint one person to be the contact for all candidates with the board before, during and after the interview.

  6. Ask candidates their confidentiality needs before the board or agency gives out information regarding the short list.

  7. Advise boards about the likely outcomes of highly formal interviews compared with less formal.

Candidates are not provided with sample board questions that could arise in interviews. They may be asked about the "challenges" described in the position announcement from a search organization, but don't count on it. Some topics to consider preparing for are...

And be prepared to be interviewed by the following during most on-site visits...

Not too surprising is that more boards are using e-mail and the Internet to communicate with candidates prior to short list selection and the interview. While I can't say a candidate is limited by not having these resources, that day will come. One board member favorably noted I had visited his school's web site several times before the interview!

The selection process has at least an implicit if not stated goal of laying the foundation for a successful board/superintendent relationship. Assuming this, how would you respond to ....

In the United States, boards are beginning to conduct "sunshine" interviews with candidates that are open to the public, including the press. They are using committees of parents, faculty and administrators to formally interview superintendents. They are asking superintendents to video tape a board meeting for presentation to the board as part of their application package. They also are requesting written letters of recommendation from students, teachers, parents and other administrators covering previous employment as part of the initial application package. And, site visits to the applicant's present school are almost routine. Will we begin to see any of these overseas?

The search process has advanced considerably since 1989 in variety, professionalism, information made available to the candidates and services from which to choose. I do think, however, that further strides can be made in insuring that head candidates, especially those new to the search, are given professional assistance. And, while I realize "you can lead a horse to water but can't . . .", boards need direct and clear assistance in being professional and equitable in their search. After all, their behavior does reflect, positively or negatively, upon the organization giving them assistance.

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