search

The yeshiva/day school principal search process: A not-so-simple task

(Unsplash)
(Unsplash)

As we know, this is the time of the year when our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot begin to experience  senior leadership turnover.  Many of these professionals, whether they be  Principals or Heads of School, are either retiring from the field, leaving their posts in search of professional advancement;  or have decided to explore other career opportunities. Irrespective  of  whether this executive turnover is the result of a resignation, retirement or non-voluntary dismissal, one thing is clear…..these schools must now prepare to conduct  a comprehensive and thorough  search process, using best practice procedures, protocols and policies.

For purposes of this post, I will use the most common and less complex or contentious  scenario for the executive turnover. The Principal  announces his/her retirement after many years of  successful  leadership and service to a school, thereby leaving a tremendous leadership vacuum to be filled by a successor. The Principal provides the school with sufficient advanced notice with the hope of being able to assist the school in its exhaustive executive transition process.

Throughout my career, I have received numerous inquiries from Heads of School and School Board Leadership regarding   “best practices”  as they relate to Principal  and Head of School search and recruitment processes. In response to the these inquiries, I could have referred them directly to the myriad of websites and digital posts which clearly outline and detail effective search processes and protocols; or at best, I could have suggested the engagement  of a search consultant  or an experienced  headhunter who could help them navigate and advance their search process for a fee.  On the other hand,  after 32 years of executive leadership experience in Jewish education, I feel a professional obligation and collegial responsibility, depending upon the relationship,  to  help  inform  schools about the most effective way  to conduct a Principal search process: and ways to avoid pitfalls and other collateral challenges resulting from these searches. In fact, given the current proliferation of Principal and Head of School searches, many of my leadership colleagues have recently asked me to commit my thoughts to writing  This latter point is the rationale for this post.

In addition to the costs incurred by engaging a search firm, there are a variety of  other challenges,  variables and factors which a Yeshiva/Day School Principal search committee must take into consideration. I will attempt to highlight only  those which are the most salient, relevant and timely.  Remember, immediately after the Principal’s  retirement or resignation is made public to the faculty,  parents and community, every month that goes by without a  successor or a strong potential candidate for the position, is another month of uncertainty  and insecurity on the part of faculty, parents and prospective parents who require a level of stability, consistency and confidence  that leadership  is or will be in place.

As we know, change in a school’s  senior leadership structure can be  exciting and exhilarating.  But,  it can also be  very challenging and anxiety provoking  for staff, faculty and other members of the administration who require leadership stability and a clear sense of direction.  It is for this very reason that many large Day Schools and Yeshivot have Associate or Assistant Principals. The assumption here is that these Associates  or Assistants are next in line for transitioning, if the opportunity arises.  More about this challenge in a seperate post.

First-Things-First

The very first step in launching an effective search process must be the establishment of a search committee – usually comprised of members of the school board, several  faculty members and parents and one or two community at large members.  The committee must be guided and staffed by a professional – usually the head of school and/or the school’s  executive director. In select circumstances, the outgoing principal may also serve as a non-voting member of the search committee. The breadth of knowledge and experience the outgoing  Principal brings to the search process can be invaluable on many levels. This of course depends upon the circumstances surrounding the Principal’s pending departure.

When searching for a Yeshiva/Day School  Principal – whether it be for Judaic or General Studies –  it is important to keep in mind that the Search Committee will  required a member of staff (as just indicated) to ensure effective  internal coordination and communication, scheduling, follow-up, and thorough reference checking. This person who serves as the liaison between the search committee and the candidate, works closely with the search committee Chair. This individual  may be the Head of School, Executive Director or a senior member of the school’s management team. Finally, the criteria for the selection of  search committee members will be paramount. Each member of the Search Committee (to be selected by the President of the School and Head of School) , must be very knowledgeable about the culture and philosophy of the school,  as well as its mission and vision. Each member must be community-minded and unbiased.; and, must be respected by the school community with the highest level of respect and integrity.

Once the Search Committee is formed,  a Job Description is prepared by the Head of School and/or by the outgoing Principal.  I will not elaborate as to what information is contained in the Job Description, but, it  should detail the  essential roles and responsibilities expected of the Principal in addition to personal and professional attributes, characteristics, academic background and past leadership experience.

In addition to creating a well developed Job Description, many search committees prioritize specific candidate attributes and skills so that there is an internal Committee  understanding and a consensus regarding the most important candidate qualifications.

It is also important to note that some search committees look for specific cultural nuances such as a candidate’s adherence or sensitivity to a specific hashkafa, religious philosophy, and  the candidate’s male vs. female comfort zone. This is true even for General Studies candidates.

Finally, although I personally discourage search  committees from viewing  the age of candidates as an important criterion,  there are those few search committees and schools that sincerely believe that the age of a candidate is essential so that “there is a long-term commitment and professional  stability as the school grows over the years and into the future…..”  This institutional mindset is fraught with a variety of concerns. In addition to the legal implications relating to age discrimination, it suggests that a new Principal will commit him/herself to the school beyond a three-year period. This thinking is “old-school” and flies in the face of empirical data and experience which now strongly suggests that the average tenure for Principals is 4.5 years.  In addition, most schools do not have a strategic plan which  extends beyond a 3-4 year period. So to suggest that a school will be able to accurately predict its programmatic  trajectory or viability over the next 8-10 years with a newly appointed principal (who will stay the course over this same period of time ,) is somewhat short-sighted and myopic.  It may sound great on paper; or an inspiring approach  for donor engagement, but the reality is that its is far from the reality about what we know about institutions, organizational behavior and high quality leadership engagement and sustainability. Bottom line: search for the most qualified candidate with skills and experience; and don’t get hung up on optics versus metrics. At the end of the day, the school will be judged based on the quality of its programs and its leadership responsible for them….. as well as the candidate’s ability to  forge meaning relationships with faculty, administration, parents and students.

Many years ago, when addressing the trials and tribulations in recruiting and engaging high quality school personnel, my doctoral mentor and advisor told us…… “don’t get hung-up on the “cool factor” when recruiting senior executive leadership….they were not hired to be cool, but rather to lead…..cool is great when searching for an art or music director, not for a respected Principal or Head of School”.

The Search Process: 

Once the Job  Description is written and finalized,  a carefully drafted  ad should be  forwarded to a variety of  online job postings/ listings, educational career/job sites, social media outlets,  educational publications, and organizations. This distribution should also include  professional contacts in the day school/yeshiva community who may be  familiar or aware of qualified candidates. If need be, depending upon the size of the community, the search may become national in scope.

Although there are a wide  variety of ad copy styles, they must include the basic information regarding the position. It should be brief, inspiring, attractive and written in a manner that would attract high quality candidates. It should include a hyperlink to the actual Job Description so that candidate can assess more  finite information regarding the position.

All of these fine details may seem somewhat simplistic or obvious. But you will be amazed at how many Yeshiva/Day School searches fail to attract high quality candidates due to poorly written ads and sloppy job descriptions.  Finally, it is essential that the ad require a request for the  applicant’s aspirational statement, a description of the applicant’s philosophy of education and a statement as to how the candidate’s past experience prepares him/her for the position.

Once these ads are placed and resumes forthcoming, the vetting and interview process begins.

The Vetting and Interview Process:

As resumes or CV’s  arrive,  it is essential for the school to immediately acknowledge their receipt with a “thank you”  email. The acknowledgement should also include a statement to the fact that the search committee will be getting back to the candidate shortly.

Once applications are received, they  are reviewed by the committee and  then divided into three categories:  High Value; Medium Value; Low Value. The Low Value applicants should be sent a communication as soon as possible  informing them that they are not viable candidates. for the position. The appropriate verbiage for these letters are many and could be found on a variety of websites. The bottom line is that the letter must be brief, to the pont and courteous.

As the committee weighs through the High and Medium Value resumes, arrangements should be made to begin scheduling initial phone or zoom interviews with as many High Value candidates as possible. Remember, if folks  are applying for a leadership post in your school, chances are likely that they are applying to other schools as well. Time is therefore of the essence.

Once the phone or zoom interviews are complete, the committee will need to decide which candidates to invite to the school  campus for a formal sit-down face-to-face  interview. During that time, candidates should spend the day at the school and meet with members of the administration and faculty.  It is at this point in time that the committee requests references (character and work-related) and is given the green light by the candidate to contact  the candidate’s  references and specifically, his/her current and prior supervisors.

The applicants  in the Moderate Value category  should also be screened via phone and zoom interviews. However, they should only be invited in for formal face-to-face interviews if they exceeded the committee’s expectation for eligibility. The committee should also ask these candidates if they can contact their references.

Contacting references prior to  a candidate’s permission to do so is a real no-no. It can place the candidate in jeopardy if he/she did not yet notify the current employer. It has the potential to create a very messy and unhealthy level of entanglement. It also has the potential to erode trust in the school and therefore compromise the school’s search process.

The greater the pool of  qualified candidates, the more likely the school will be able to recruit  and engage the most qualified person for the job.

Finally, it is important to note that a candidate’s skill-set should include,  but not be limited to the following attributes and  proficiencies:

  1. A purposeful and collaborative leadership approach and style;
  2. Knowledge of Operational Management models;
  3. Expertise in Instructional Management;
  4. Excellent Oral and Written Communication skills;
  5. Sound Decision Making skills and ability

These are just a sampling of macro-characteristics, attributes and skills which principal  candidates will be expected to exhibit on the job. Be sure to drill-down deeper and focus on these and others during the course of your interview.

The Post-Interview Process –  Closing the Deal:

One of the  most important and challenging aspects of this process is the identification of the two finalists; and then the  narrowing down and identification of the actual finalist. This is when salary and compensation issues are addressed and negotiated. The assumption is that the candidate will have a  pretty good sense regarding  salary range and benefits  package prior to applying for the position.  This process is an important  give-and take opportunity for the candidate and school. It’s also an opportunity for the candidate to ask any last minute question or address any outstanding concerns about the school or the position.

One of the most important guiding principles for any executive leadership search process is to never  settle for a candidate out of desperation. Finding  the right candidate can be a very stressful, time-consuming and arduous  process. But always keep in mind that it’s far  better to have the position vacant, than to hire the wrong candidate for the position.

Finally, once the “deal is sealed” publicize and  celebrate the great news in the school community.  Promote the candidate’s appointment with a photo, and press release in addition to meaningful quotes from the candidate and from select members of the search committee.

Summary of  Essential Questions for the Principal Candidate:

  • Why do you want to be the principal of this school?
  • What has been your greatest contribution to the schools you have worked in?
  • What would your top priorities in this position?
  • Outline the role that parents should play in the school?
  • How do you motivate and encourage staff?
  • What professional development activities have you undertaken?
  • How do you set about building good relationships with staff and parents?
  • What professional goals have you set for yourself for the next 2-3 years?
  • What are your major strengths as a principal?
  • What are the most critical inputs you can bring to our school/
  • On what criteria do you judge your success as a principal?

In closing, it is important to note that the Search Committee is empowered by the school to ensure that the best candidate for the position is selected.  As such, the Committee must consciously be mindful of this daunting role and  responsibility at all times. This means maintaining levels of confidentiality throughout the entire search process and conducting its work with trust, integrity and confidence.

Remember: as much as the Search Committee is interviewing the candidate….the candidate is interviewing the Search Committee; and, there are no do-overs if you unfortunately  lose a strong candidate due to a sloppy and misguided  process.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School in Margate FL and Executive Coach and Consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments