Appointing your next Head – how to avoid heffalump traps

Do you want to be sure that you can appoint the best possible Head for your school? Having done this lots and lots of times, I know that there is no secret recipe for success but for sure there are great big heffalump traps to avoid. Before I made my escape from winter in England, one of my last missions was to oversee the planned recruitment of Heads for two of our large independent schools in the North. Being involved in the appointment of Heads is highly rewarding – a privilege and a responsibility. Getting it right really matters for the good of the school and for children.

So, from my experience in appointing something in the region of 50 or more Heads and senior educational leaders, these are my top 8 traps to avoid:

  • Inadequate preparation: Great recruitment involves really thorough preparation: a very clear vision for what is needed in the next Head of your particular school at this specific point in its history. My recommendation is that you take time to have a facilitated session for Governors (and ideally also with parents, staff and pupils) in which no more than 10 priority characteristics are identified, refined and refined again. The danger is that the words you come up with are insufficiently tailored to your specific circumstances. Many governors in many schools will say, for example, that they want a Head to be ‘Inspiring’. What exactly do they mean? Exciting? Impressive? Motivating? Exhilarating? Persuasive? Invigorating? Authoritative? Commanding? Giving time to apply rigour to your thinking and for depth in your preparation will significantly reduce the risks of making appointments that you later regret. And by involving a wide range of people in this preparatory thinking, you will ensure that they are fully signed up to the outcome.
  • Governors who are unlikely to have been involved in the recruitment of a Head before: Although Governors bring many skills and have great experience in a range of professional and commercial fields, the chances of them having extensive experience in the recruitment of a Head is normally remote. Most Governors do this once during their tenure, if that. If possible, therefore, governing bodies should make sure they have access to someone who certainly has recruitment experience and ideally has been directly involved in the appointment of Heads. Obviously executive recruitment agencies have highly valuable and relevant skills; in my opinion, however, nothing can replace actual Headship recruitment experience. And that brings me to the next thing, which is the role of the recruitment agency………
  • Passing the buck: Recruitment agencies can add considerable value to the recruitment process, most helpfully when the agency has a really strong ‘little black book’ of contacts and potential candidates. The agency can also take some of the pain out of the process through applying a thorough screening process. But my strong advice is to be careful not to pass the buck to the agency in terms of the decision itself. The Governors need to really ‘own’ the outcome and to take full responsibility for the appointment; a really good recruitment agency won’t let them off the hook on that one.
  • Selection by knife and fork: It is now thought to be old fashioned and perhaps unprofessional to involve candidates in a social event – in some conservative contexts this might have been a drinks occasion. But the principle remains. You need to see candidates in a wide range of activities with as many different people as possible. I am always surprised how a front-running candidate drops down the order as a result of seeing them in a different context. Above all, you need to see the short listed candidates interact with children and staff. A well-designed set of assessment tasks is imperative.
  • The split panel: A nightmare – but one which can be avoided by making sure that there is absolute clarity as to who owns the decision. And by having an odd number! However, if there is a genuine difference of opinion don’t appoint. The Head must be confident of having 100% support as they take up this challenging position. If there is always a sense of ‘Well……..I told you so’ in the background, that confidence is undermined and will come back to haunt you. The opposite of a split panel is ‘group think’. Although a split panel is difficult to handle, ‘group think’ is just as damaging – when the panel members don’t, won’t or can’t express their own opinion for fear of standing out from the crowd. This risk is reduced if the Chair identifies this danger right at the start and, as it were, gives everyone permission to express their different views, and then for panel members to respect those differences.
  • Attitude is Everything: Above all an outstanding Head is one who consistently does the right thing in the right way. A thorough and rigorous appointment process gets to the point of really knowing and feeling the attitude of the final candidates. A good tip is for panel members to have in front of them a list of ‘attitude’ words, both positive and negative, which can be used during the interview process; having a physical list of words helps bring these thoughts to the surface for discussion during the decision-making part of the process.
  • So don’t appoint……….: Every appointment panel I’ve been on starts out by saying that they won’t appoint if they don’t feel they have the right candidate – but, in my experience, it is very rare for the governing body to actually be that courageous; for it does indeed require courage to admit the process didn’t work for whatever reason. The problem is that the quality of the candidates in front of you almost never clear cut. You find yourself identifying complementary strengths but in different candidates: one will impress by his or her ability to set high expectations and the other will demonstrate very good interpersonal skills. All the appointments in which I have been involved and which subsequently turned out to be calamitous showed those signs during the recruitment process. This is not something of which I am proud. We should have shown more resolve and should have started the process again.
  • The wrong end of the telescope: Finally, my advice to governing body members is to challenge themselves to think big – avoid short term decisions, don’t be too timid, eschew the parochial. Appointing ‘one of us’ may well be a comfortable decision and will certainly be very easy to explain to parents and the school community. But my question is, does it take the school forward to outperform even its greatest hopes? Does a ‘safe’ appointment allow the school to exceed expectations? Yes or no, the important thing is to at least ask the question.