How to Navigate Urgent or Surprise Searches in Schools

Photo: Vecteezy

It happens: there’s a late, sudden departure of a head of school or senior administrator at your school. The typical initial reaction is that it is too late in the school year to conduct a successful search for a replacement. Examples include:
  • A head of school comes into a board chair’s office, or a senior administrator walks into the head of school’s office, to announce that they are taking a different position. (Ideally, this leader would have let you know early on about searches they are pursuing, but this doesn’t always happen.)
  • An employee is terminated due to a specific inappropriate action that demands it or a “straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back” moment that convinces you that the employee needs to leave.
  • Your hesitancy to decide about an employee’s status earlier in the year followed by the realization that you need to make a change, despite where you are in the academic year.
  • Difficult circumstances involving the health of the employee and/or the employee’s family members.
  • A last-minute relocation due to a partner’s job.
  • The decision to create a new position on campus comes late in the academic year.
So, what next? First, decide whether you can come up with an interim solution and then begin a full search the following year. If there is a logical interim solution—typically with an internal candidate—this might be the best decision and easiest solution available.
Before going this route, ask yourself three questions first:  
  1. While the interim solution solves the problem on paper, does the move truly allow the work of the school to move forward?
  2. Is the interim candidate ready for the new role? (You don’t want to derail rising talent by putting someone into a position for which they are not yet ready.)
  3. How will the previous duties of the internal interim leader be handled? If the rising leader is asked to perform both their previous and new duties, this will likely present too much of a burden to the leader.
From my observations of schools and search work, search firms might add even more value than usual in unusual situations. Each year, late in the spring, I’ve met numerous rising leaders who came “this close” to landing impressive positions in new settings—and many of them remain available for last-minute opportunities. These candidates join other seasoned and discerning school leaders who are selective in their desires when it comes to school type and mission, location, and positions. The candidates I’ve met and placed in independent schools this past late winter and spring—in searches that began in January, February, March, and April, with even one candidate placed last year in a search that started in May—are all strong additions to their new schools. Beyond finding candidates, a search consultant can educate a hiring manager or search committee about techniques to assist in a quick, nimble search. The consultant can also provide reassurance within the community if needed, particularly when there is trauma or confusion involved with the previous leader’s departure.
Here are five tips to consider if you find yourself running a late search:
  1. Don’t let perfection get in the way. Writing a wonderfully crafted opportunity statement after a fully inclusive discovery process isn’t as important as spreading the word of the vacancy as quickly as possible. Side note: I see so many opportunity statements that list scores of competencies, experiences, and attributes these days. They are exhaustive—and exhausting. It isn’t always possible, but creating focus through a concise opportunity statement adds value to a search.
  2. Don’t be overly suspicious of candidates still available at the end of the hiring season. Due diligence about their availability and a candidate’s eagerness to move will be needed, but a good search consultant will ensure that this happens before you see their file.
  3. Beyond researching a candidate’s background, ask the candidate to speak about it themselves at some point, covering each important transition of their career.
  4. Establish a quick process, but alert candidates and the community that the process is a guideline, rather than a requirement; if an outstanding candidate emerges right away but has other offers on the table, you need to be ready to act.
  5. Keep your school running—and care for your students! If you have to spend an inordinate amount of time amidst the details of a search, you can shortchange your community. Time-saving, both for you and others, is another compelling reason to hire a search consultant during the most hectic moments of the year.
There are inopportune times for a personnel change in any business or nonprofit, but the academic year calendar adds additional stress to school searches. I’ve seen late searches work, though—and when they do, they are very satisfying for all involved.

Andrew Watson, Senior Talent Consultant

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