Career Advice Opinion

Head of School Interviews: 8 Tips for Success in Landing a Headship

By Jonathan Rogers — January 29, 2013 4 min read
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If you’re in the midst of searching for a new position as a Head of School, you probably already know the process is an arduous one. In the independent school world, candidates don’t just send a resume and cover letter to a school and call it a proverbial day. Rather, a school’s board typically undertakes a rigorous search process--often enlisting the help of a professional Search firm--to find the best possible fit for its next leader.

Interested candidates don’t necessarily have the opportunity to apply directly to the school. Expressing your interest to the Search firm working with the school, if there is one, might help you gain traction in your search. The search consultants will act as your advocates throughout the process, and they will do their best to help you secure an interview.

If you are invited to interview, we offer the following tips to give yourself the best chance to move forward.

1) Do Your Homework

First things first: make sure you understand the unique characteristics of the school. This is important, of course, when applying for any position. But when you’re hoping to lead a community, you should have a deeper understanding of the characteristics that distinguish and define it. Learn the school’s history and its mission and focus on the culture and values of the institution. If you have contacts at the school, ask them questions: what is a unique quality of the school? What does the current leadership value most? What changes have occurred, and what are on the horizon? A successful candidate will understand the traditions and values of the school and apply that understanding to his or her vision for the future.

2) Convey a Genuine Interest in the School

After you’ve researched the school, you will need to convey a genuine interest in leading it to the hiring committee. It is not enough to verbalize a general interest--you should explain exactly what excites and intrigues you about the school and cite positive qualities and potential challenges that reinforce your desire to work there. You should couple your interest with a strategic plan for moving forward. Come to the committee armed with ideas to usher the school into a successful future while maintaining the traditions that attracted you to the position in the first place.

3) Fundraising: Is it in Your Wheelhouse?

It should be. Leading an independent school requires a certain level of fundraising acumen. As Head of School, you will work closely with the Business Manager or CFO and the Director of Development. Because independent schools are not-for-profit institutions, they depend heavily upon major gifts and donations from alumni, community members, and other organizations. You will need to blend your educational philosophy and pedagogy with a shrewd fundraising eye in order to keep the school viable. Highlight specific examples of your financial savvy in your conversations with the hiring committee.

4) Demonstrate Your Experience in Leading Faculty

A successful and effective Head of School is engaged in his or her community. No amount of intellectual prowess or fundraising aptitude will replace basic leadership skills. A Head of School should not be withdrawn; rather, he or she should connect with faculty and students and provide a living example of the school’s mission.

In your interview with the hiring committee, provide examples of your leadership skills. Discuss a time you led a committee, or your duties as department chair or division head. Don’t be afraid to discuss any challenges you encountered and overcame--effective leadership is not always easy.

5) Innovation Nation - Be on the Vanguard

Independent schools typically value a respect for 21st century educational tenets. Demonstrate your understanding of and interest in 21st century education topics, and be prepared to discuss innovative plans to set your new school apart. Draw upon past experience--piloting a 1:1 iPad program, for example, or spearheading an anti-bullying curriculum--in your conversations with the hiring committee. More than merely identifying with and appreciating a holistic, 21st century educational environment, you should have concrete suggestions for nurturing future global citizens in your prospective position.

6) Know thy Weaknesses

It is nearly guaranteed that the hiring committee will ask you about a challenge in your career. Come prepared: know your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and have an anecdote or two--about a conflict with a faculty member, for example, or financial creativity when faced with budgetary restrictions--in your arsenal that displays your ability to meet and overcome challenges.

7) Geography: Is it a Good Fit?

You should demonstrate an authentic interest in the region in which the school is located. Schools often draw aspects of their culture from their surrounding communities--Southeastern schools are very different from New England schools, for example--and are interested in pursuing candidates who are genuinely interested in relocating to their region. Don’t let distance put you at a disadvantage: if you’re currently located hundreds of miles away from the school to which you’re applying, identify specific reasons that motivate your desire to relocate.

8) Be Authentic

Above all, be true and genuine, whether speaking about your past accomplishments or your future goals, your passions or your pitfalls. This authenticity will help a hiring committee understand who you are--as both an educator and a person. The Head of an independent school represents a full community, complete with its faculty, students, mission, and values. An effective leader will likely have an ineffable quality that makes him or her a good match for the school. Don’t force it: be your authentic self, and you (and the school!) will find the right fit.

--Devereaux McClatchey, Carney, Sandoe & Associates

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