In the groundbreaking study, Good to Great, author Jim Collins observed that over 85% of top performing companies were led by CEOs who had risen through the company ranks. By comparison, only about 15% of the major independent schools in Canada are led by internally developed Heads of School. The statistic is no different for the next level of administrators either. The reasons for this are as simple as they are, in general, inaccurate. Schools are often drawn to the "new and exotic" and external candidates usually appear at the interview table with only two small packages - a carefully constructed resume which puts their experiences and accomplishments in the best light, and a highly selective list of references designed to sing their praises. By contrast, the internal arrives with considerable baggage. Everyone around the table knows that the "Director of Student Life" on their cv means that they sat up the supervision schedule and ran the detention hall; the interview team knows all of the great things that they have done, but also remembers their initiatives that have bombed in the past or that holiday party from a decade back when they had a few too many.
We have to remember that everyone comes to the table with a backstory. Unfortunately, as interviewers, we only know half of them. As a result, is often an uphill battle for the internal candidate. But, all things being equal, here are a few reasons as to why they are often the best choice.
1. They know the players and the challenges and already embrace the school ethos and culture. A new administrator walking in the door takes 3-6 months to build relationships, learn about the values of the school, and find out where the bodies are buried. An internal can hit the ground running, already has allies, and knows who the opinion leaders are on staff.
2. They demonstrate commitment. Don't mistake loyalty and a desire to stay at your school as inertia. See it for what it usually is, a belief in what you are doing, an affection for the school community, and a loyalty to your institution. All too often, external candidates are knocking on your door, not because you are the nirvana that they have been searching for, but rather because you are the next step on their career path. Given our collective track record of hiring from outside, many ambitious administrators will use short-term stints in a series of schools as stepping stones on their way to their ultimate career goal.
3. It is a return on your investment. Over the years I have spent 10s, maybe 100s of thousands of dollars training people; sending them to cutting edge conferences; supporting them in their Masters programmes; etc. only to have them take all of this school-supplied professional development and personal expertise and hand it for free to another employer. It is a weak argument to say that this is a two-way street, you can never replicate the directed development that your school values by hiring from outside. In addition to squandering your own investment, hiring from outside costs you both time and money that you don't necessarily need to spend.
4. It gives a strong and positive message to your other employees. Many faculty and staff volunteer, sit on committees, take on "over and above responsibilities", and perform countless hours of unpaid leadership tasks both to serve the school, but also to prove their own worth. Passing over one such dedicated and capable employee for an external candidate has a chilling and discouraging ripple effect across the school. By contrast, recognizing, honouring, and rewarding these contributions when a leadership vacancy comes up can be a major morale booster for your most valuable staff.
5. It is the key to long-term growth and stability. You can't build a solid foundation and implement a a long term vision with a revolving door of school leaders. Hire, develop and utilize your best people. Don't expect a "white knight" to come galloping up with all of the answers.
Let's face it, from time to time you definitely need to hit the "refresh" button and get an infusion of new ideas and energy. But, that doesn't mean that it should be "every" time! A nurtured, valued, and rewarded internal team will take you a long way down the path from Good to Great.