Search in spring and summer. John Leuenberger, board president for Lena-Winslow School District 202 (Ill.), advises districts to synchronize their superintendent search with the national job market for school executives, which peaks each spring and summer. Lena-Winslow’s first attempt at recruiting a superintendent, in the fall of 2010, garnered only 15 candidates. The same search process in July 2011 attracted more than 30 applicants.
Find the best fit. For many districts, this will come down to price, but finding a good fit between the school board’s expectations and the consultant’s style is also important, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. He also advises boards to carefully interview and negotiate with potential firms. Most will work with a district on a tailored proposal that meets the district’s financial and time constraints. As there are no recognized national or regional listings for superintendent search consultants, Domenech says that district leaders frequently contact the AASA for recommendations.
Give yourself plenty of time. “When school boards are engaged in a search, they quickly find out that it’s going to take more time than they anticipated,” says Domenech. As it is possible that the first round of recruitment will be unsuccessful, it also is important to specify in advance what will happen in that situation, according to Michael Osnato of Leadership Advantage. Osnato and other consultants are generally willing to conduct a second round without charging an additional fee, but terms and guarantees vary.
Specify the district’s needs. Doug Eadie, a specialist in relations between boards and chief executives and president and CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, says that hiring criteria must align with the district’s top issues. “You’re going to get a lot of applications and a lot of qualified-looking people,” he says. “If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for in terms of the kinds of challenges you’ll be dealing with, it’ll be difficult to choose the right person.” Eadie organizes retreats or workshops that facilitate board communication and planning.
Always ask open-ended questions. During the interview stage, Eadie advises hiring committees to ask probing, open-ended questions that are concentrated on the district’s most pressing needs. “The worst thing is you get a person who looks really good, but because your questioning wasn’t good enough, they fail at some key things that they never understood you wanted,” he says.
Be clear about the salary offer. Communication among board members, search consultants and candidates is critical throughout the hiring process, especially on the important issue of compensation. Gary Solomon, CEO of Proact Search, says that during the firm’s work for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, “we were clear with the candidates on what the board expected in terms of salary.” He concludes, “What we never want to happen is for [the board] to fall in love with a candidate who is too expensive.”