The search for an international school Head by Andrew Wigford
The process of recruiting a new Head of School is a daunting prospect for most Boards and senior management teams. It’s not a job they get to do every day – thank goodness. But that also means that most people have little, if any, recent practice or experience of it. Consultancy throughout is crucial to get it right. It not only guides your process, but also provides insights into the current market supply and demand, access to potential candidates, and a skilled, impartial and experienced voice that benefits both the school and the applicants.
Fresh, skilled eyes
What does all that mean in reality? I just returned from final interviews at Byron College near Athens, Greece. This international school is typical of a significant sector of the market; a small, proprietorial school, owned and managed by one family who make up the majority of the Board. It’s one of several international schools in the area and stands out for its small, family-oriented ethos. During my pre-recruitment visit, I was able to see how being a small school did not have to be considered a negative for the school – for admissions or for staffing. In fact, it was clear to me, assessing the school from fresh eyes, that size was an asset. Standing in the playground as children arrived for the day, the close-knit, friendly atmosphere and supportive relationship between staff, students and families was visible in spades. Walking around the school during that visit, I witnessed many super interactions between children of all ages talking with each other. I could see that, partly because of its size and also because of its ethos, everyone knows and genuinely values each other.
I identified another scenario during my visit that could well have been perceived as challenging for recruitment. Two members of the owning family are based in an office on the same corridor and directly opposite that of the Head. They manage the business of the school; dealing with the Greek Ministry of Education, handling major HR and budget decisions, while the Head leads all aspects of the teaching and learning. For some potential candidates, such a partnership and the office proximity could be daunting. That’s understandable. My seeing it, registering it, learning more from staff and parents, and then sharing this detail with all applicants avoided wasted time as well as misplaced hope for the school and some applicants. Better for all involved that candidates know and decide prior to selection, than to get to final interview before discovering a detail that could change their mind.
The same was true for the school’s size and ethos which appeals to some Heads but not to all. Seeing it for myself and explaining it to applicants, helped to sort those who found this a desirable culture from those who didn’t. Again a benefit for the school as well as candidates.
The visit to the school meant I was also able to view all the lifestyle details that matter to candidates; from, salary, staff accommodation and local services, to airport access and social opportunities. Benchmarking these against other international school offerings meant that I could provide a clear and honest picture about what a candidate could expect.
The need to know
During this visit, as well as observing, I talked with various stakeholders; from senior leaders to staff, parents and pupils, to identify the challenges and opportunities that a new Head of School would face. This meant that, when it came to formulating a candidate specification with the Board, I was able to knowingly discuss the experience, skills and qualities that were considered essential within applicants – but were also realistic for the school to demand.
A Board needs to hear reality from a trusted external source as independent benchmarking rarely comes from within. They need to understand how their school fits into the global context as well as making comparisons locally. And this matters. When it comes to international school recruitment, rarely does a senior candidate limit themselves to a city or country; most consider schools far and wide.
Reality on both sides
Very quickly, from over 60 applications responding to a targeted advert and database promotion, the team at TIC, headed by Gemma McSweeney, was able to identify a shortlist of 15 candidates we felt were good potentials for Byron College. Gemma and I interviewed these contenders by skype during which we provided full clarity of the school, its salary and benefits package, and ascertained their own priorities and needs, as well as the skills and experience they could bring to the school. Honest communication was vital and setting expectations on non-negotiables saved significant challenges further down the selection process.
These skype interviews were essential for developing a level of trust between the candidate and TIC. In our impartial role, we could provide candidates with an honest view of what the role and life in the school would be like. In return, we were able to gather crucial feedback from each candidate that helped us better understand their own priorities and needs, and whether they were a good fit for the school.
We were also in regular dialogue with the school, providing insight and an external perspective which they valued. Penny Koutsantonis, Managing Director of Byron College said: “Andrew and Gemma constantly talked to us and gave us feedback. Honesty and trust went our way as well as to the candidates. For us at the school this was a major thing. I truly felt that Andrew was just as invested in us finding an appropriate Head as we were. It never felt as if it was TIC wanting to secure a job for a Head; it felt more equal and balanced.”
Following the skypes and all necessary checks and references, we whittled the 15 down to three for face-to-face interviews at the school in Athens. I attended the final interviews which were held over two days at the school.
The final choice
Too often, schools approach the final candidate interviews from the mindset of ‘us choosing you’. More often, particularly now that the market is so competitive, the end choice comes from the candidates. We made sure that during the final interviews there was opportunity for the three candidates to experience Athens. We took them out to dinner and gave them a tour of the city and showed them some options for their own housing. With the Board, I also highlighted the potential challenges and opportunities that the school offered for candidates. We addressed the expectations of the Board and other stakeholders; taking into consideration their desires and those of the shortlisted candidates. Together, we created a realistic picture of a best choice, helping everyone to understand that there is no one perfect match.
The leadership recruitment team at TIC helped the school plan a range of interview panels involving parents, students, staff, senior management, and the Board. Each panel had different priorities and were offered a selection of possible questions and scenarios to present to the candidates. Many people have never had the chance to participate in an interview panel and need coaching and mentoring to know what is required of them, to appreciate the types of questions to ask, and to learn how to evaluate candidates equally. It’s also essential to set expectations for all panelists. While their input will be considered and valued, the final choice will be down to the Board, which may not correspond with the preference of a panel. Establishing an understanding early on about ultimate decision can avert internal conflict later on.
Many factors influence a candidate’s final decision about a job, but experiences during their time at, or with, the school play a major part. This meant preparing not only the Board, but all the panelists and the administration and welcoming teams involved in the candidate visits. Details ranging from airport pickup, to overnight accommodation, school tour, welcome of other family members, viewing of accommodation, dinner or a social activity with a selection of school representatives, a tour of the city, and after-visit communication all impact a candidate’s final decision.
The time factor
Throughout the recruitment selection and interview process, keeping all school stakeholders on task was, as it always is, a challenge. School life goes on in spite of a recruitment process and it’s easy for staff and the Board to let other priorities get in the way. As a result, establishing a realistic timeline and sticking to deadlines was agreed as a priority early on in the process allowing me, as the consultant, to pressure and demand if deadlines came too close. Helping everyone involved to understand the implications of this was crucial. Within a highly competitive recruitment market, finding the right person is a big enough challenge. Losing that right person because of broken promises and insufficient communication is something no school wants. Setting a recruitment communication strategy in place from the start, with appropriate responsibility, helps to alleviate such an eventuality.
For Byron College, the recruitment process has been a success. An excellent new Head has been appointed, one we believe will suit the school well and for whom the school promises to be absolutely right for them and their family. The school has learnt a lot from the experience too; about the process of recruitment that can benefit their wider staffing needs too, and also about their school and how their school is positioned within the international schools market.
The best way
Many Governors and Board representatives ask me the options available for school Head selection hoping there is an affordable solution. The most affordable is what might appear to be most costly upfront. Invest in skilled, experienced, specialist support through the entire recruitment process to strategically, knowingly find the best possible Head your school can find.
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