When the announcement is made that a Head is leaving (retiring, stepping down, seeking other opportunities, etc.), the clock immediately starts ticking. Boards who have their act together usually time the announcement of the departure of the current Head (and the public accolades that go with it) to coincide with the public commencement of the "search" for her or his replacement. In recent years this has usually involved contracting with a search firm or individual head-hunter who is charged with creating a position description; advertising; screening applicants; helping to construct a short-list; and even often preparing questions. While slick and efficient (and often pricey!) there are a few inherent problems with handing over much of this singularly crucial task to an outsider. To begin with, no matter how in tune they are with your needs, they won't necessarily understand the nuances of your school culture (parents, faculty/staff, board) and, unless you make a concerted effort to bring all constituencies into the process, you may end up with a poor fit. Secondly, many search firms have a "stable" of highly respectable candidates who get trotted out regularly but have never actually been chosen by a school. While these recruits can fill out a lean field for Board consideration, interviewing them is usually a waste of your time. Finally, even the most thorough agent will only want to spend a finite amount of time on your school. They will occasionally exert subtle pressure to choose someone from the short list, even if you don't feel that you have found the ideal candidate. I often hear from Boards who were told that this was "the best that they were going to get" for the position due to any number of reasons (location/reputation of the school; salary; availability; etc.). There is already a natural tendency among volunteer Boards to want to just get the process over with and, if they are being coached that to continue on would be almost pointless, they will often opt for closure rather than perfection.
Given that the success or failure of this process can be a turning point in the life of the school, Boards need to commit to spending the time to do it right. You can't simply buy a short-cut to your preferred outcome.
So, here are a few things to consider when you are setting up to search for a new Head.
1. Give yourselves lots of time. Start early (September for the next July), and don't set an artificial deadline to be finished. Your goal is to find an excellent candidate, not just to fill the chair.
2. Look around the table. Ask yourselves, "do we have the expertise to run this process on our own?" If you have experienced Board members with managerial or HR experience, maybe you can do it yourselves. If so, hire some additional clerical help to do the legwork and then design a process. If however, you don't think that you have the requisite skills, ask your current Head to contact schools that have recently conducted successful Head searches and find out who ran the process for them.
3. Before you contract with a search firm, set your own goals for the process and "musts" for the finalists. You can get the most out of your headhunter if you have done your homework first. Sit down with your current Head, and faculty and parent reps and talk about what the ideal candidate will look like. Write a draft position description that reflects your needs and your school culture.
4. Find a search firm that is willing to work as your partner and not simply follow their own established process and timeline. You are paying for their expertise, but ultimately they are working for you, not the other way around. Share your "musts" and don't let yourselves be steered off-course.
5. Be willing to start over. If you get to the end of the line and you are not completely happy with the choices, reboot the process. Some schools will appoint an interim Head while they continue to search. Although this can bring the change process to a halt for the time being, it is preferable to the option of hiring the wrong person for the job.
6. Give yourselves lots of time! (don't worry this is a deliberate repeat!) Most trustees, if they are lucky, will only have the responsibility of choosing a new Head once during their tenure on the Board. It will be your biggest legacy to the school. Don't rush! Better to drag out the process, than to drag the bottom of the barrel.
One last piece of advice. Once you launch into this process, the next number of months will be tough on your current Head. Even if they are retiring after a long and successful career at your school, it is difficult to watch people be paraded through and the eventually successful candidate be publicly heralded as the "star" who is going to bring great changes and improvements to the institution. Boards can get so focused on transitioning a new Head in, that they forget about transitioning the old Head out, and providing appropriate opportunities for celebrating all that they have contributed to the school. Six months later, when the dust has settled and you have time to reflect and compare, it is far too late to say thanks.