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Which Comes First? Search Or Governance?

Unfortunately, while some schools have little time for a carefully planned search due to the recent firing or resignation of a head/director, other schools have too much time on their hands to prepare and organize a search. With too much time, schools risk potentially undercutting the board, governance and the remaining tenure of the current head and the goals that he/she may still be able to accomplish. There is an inextricable link between healthy board governance and the proper preparation, timing and launch of a head search process.

I. What is the Right Amount of Lead Time?

How much time is enough for a search? How much is too much? What is the impact of both on governance, school stability and the current head’s productivity and ability to lead from strength?

Most boards hire a search firm and conduct a search (possibly with an internal candidate included), and unless the window for the search is too short due to a sudden termination or resignation, most schools will not hire an interim. In some situations, the head is so long term and has left such a powerful legacy, that an interim is recommended. Otherwise, the new head may fall into the unproductive “sacrificial lamb” or the “middle man” scenario.

If the prior head is leaving on his or her own initiative, in good standing and provides sufficient notice, then the board should be comfortable with an 18 month window from the hiring of the search firm to the beginning date of the new head’s tenure.

Once a school head has signaled he or she may be thinking of a defined horizon, there are board members who will encourage that valued head to remain longer, in order to keep the School in a continuing healthy posture. That is often wise. But all too often there are other board members who get caught up in the excitement of the search or in the sense of power it conveys, and that has the potential to undermine school stability.

Too many boards move too rapidly to the mode of “The King is Dead, Long Live the King!” That refers to the excitement associated with a leadership change and how that can monopolize the imagination and agenda of a subset of the board or the board as a whole. When a board moves to interview search firms and launch the process sometimes as many as two or more years before the head’s planned departure, it may become preoccupied and sidetracked by this one activity for a prolonged period of time. Board members do not realize that a search of this length will be fatiguing not only for them but also for the constituents who feel in limbo.

For example, one long serving, highly respected Head had three more years remaining on his contract with the third being his last. A Board member with one year remaining in his term wanted to chair the search committee and persuaded the Board Chair that the Board really needed two or more years to do their homework, hire a search firm and complete the process. The Board Chair thought that this idea was proactive and reflected appropriate planning. The Chair’s relationship with the Head was a bit strained, and he also thought that if an excellent candidate who was a good fit could be found sooner rather than later, the School could buy out the last year(s) of the Head’s contract. These Board members devised this strategy almost entirely on their own, unbeknownst to the Head, or even the entire Board.

The problem with this plan is that it totally confused the staff and ultimately the parent body. Was the head staying one, two or more years? Was there a “problem” or an issue with the Head’s performance or integrity that resulted in this expedited timetable? To confuse matters further, there was also an inside rumor that the Chair could be a candidate for the Headship.

II. Which Comes First: Search or Governance?

Most search processes result in the hiring of a head with the polar opposite personality and leadership style of the predecessor. This is particularly the case the longer the departing head has been in place, no matter how much he or she has been appreciated and admired. Since the majority of heads do not survive their transition period which can extend up to five years, clearly any search process always needs to be embedded in healthy governance behaviors FIRST.

Boards need to have a constructive conversation about the reason, timing and true agendas behind the departure timeframe for the head and what they want the new head to accomplish. If the head is truly leaving on his /her own and has a track record of good evaluations, that search process should neither be rushed nor overly drawn out. The traditional search cycle is to hire the firm by March; find and interview the best candidates by September; interview the semifinalists in October and the finalists in November; and appoint the head/director by December 15 for the following July 1.

Some schools with valued heads who announce their own departure far in advance may want the new head named a full year before his/her arrival on site. The success of that plan is dependent upon the good will and willingness of the new head’ s current school to live with him or her for a final year as well as the departing head’s tolerance for all of the attention paid to his/her replacement. Prominent schools with mature heads leaving their respective schools in good standing may choose this route. We know of two very fine Schools who did this very smoothly last year.

However, a 2.5 year timetable is very rare and thus raises these questions. Is the board being more than “conscientious?” What other agendas are behind the scene? What does this say about the health of the board? What does this say about the board’s support of the head and how the next head can expect to be treated?

An abrupt and poorly planned search raises the same issues. For example, this Consultant recently received correspondence from a parent who asked, “What is good practice in search and transition?” She described this situation:

“In September 2012, we received a letter from our School’s Board stating that it had asked the Head of our School to stay until 2017 and that she had agreed. We were thrilled because this meant that her contract extension for an additional four years would ensure that the visionary curriculum which had attracted us to the School could grow and develop under her leadership.

In June, our Head suddenly was gone. The Board was there with a new Head of School. The Board had said that she had tendered her resignation in March of this year effective in June 2014 (which would have been the end of her original contract). They did not make anyone aware of this and when we questioned the Board members if they had ever offered the Head a contract extension, they admitted they had not. They did not engage a search firm, although they had done so for previous hires. This time, they only had one candidate, a former Board member. No one else was involved in the process. Meanwhile, many parents, including myself, had signed contracts in March and paid in full, all in good faith with the belief that our former Head, the Visionary, would be there. Already, we are hearing about unwelcome changes in the program that suited our children so well. At this point, I have removed my children from the School.”

Before setting a search in motion or even discussing it and before screening and selecting a search firm, the board first needs to examine all of the following: its relationship with its current head; an agreed upon timetable for retirement or departure; the appointment of an appropriate search committee; clarity up front of all agendas and personal issues on the table; and a clear path as to how the current head will be able, and supported to be a strong leader through the end of his or her tenure. Unfortunately, too many boards spend too much time making sure that all constituents feel heard in the process of choosing a new head and not enough time for their own training and preparation for transition.

To be certain that all board members are on the same page and that all understand search protocol, this Consultant recommends beginning all search cycles with a governance review process and possibly a workshop for the full board. Littleford & Associates offers the full range of search services including search and placement, transition planning, board governance training and head compensation services for both retiring and new heads.

John Littleford
Senior Partner