Growing Administrative Talent: A Case for an Increase in Internal Successions to Head of School

The ratio of external placements to internal placements in the hiring of new heads of school is drastically out of proportion.  Instead of a majority of schools hiring the new head from outside of its community, it is my belief that the majority of new head hires should come from within the school.  Indeed the search consultants, with whom I am acquainted, appear to have noble intentions in their service to schools and they appear to approach their task as true professionals.  However, it is the belief of many independent school leaders, as it is my personal belief that the proportion of new independent school heads hired from external searches is out of balance.

When an independent school undergoes a change in head of school, there is immense pressure on the board to conduct a national search.  The head search industry, as it exists today, is benefitted by national searches and short-term placements.  There is an implicit, if not explicit, message conveyed that a school only maintains respect in the independent school world if a national search is undertaken.  Boards are often left with the impression that their school will be slighted if they do not conduct an external search.

Boards are encouraged to believe that the perfect candidate for the position is somewhere outside of the school; a grass is always greener mentality.  This is not only erroneous, it could imply that the school has not considered its full range of options for succession planning and has not appropriately engaged in developing the talent of its own administrators.  For this reason, independent school boards should seek advice from a wide array of sources and listen to voices, in addition to search consultants, when determining whether or not a national search is in order for their school.

Large corporations routinely have leaders within the ranks of the management team that could assume the reigns of executive leadership, if necessary, without a drastic change or disruption to the organization.  Over sixty-percent of Fortune 1,000 companies CEOs were hired from within the organization and this percentage is perceived by many in the corporate world to be lower than desirable.(1)  Likewise, having a talent-deep administrative team, from which the new head of school might come, provides confidence to the school community and will convey that the board is concerned about the continuity of mission and long-term sustainability of the school.

The interview and search process should be handled differently when an internal candidate is being considered.  Prior to undertaking a national search, the board should first conduct a thorough review of any internal candidates and make a decision of whether or not the candidate will be offered the position.  A consultant can help guide the evaluation and review of the internal candidate; however, this consultant should agree not to undertake the external search in the event that the internal candidate is not hired.  This agreement will eliminate a major conflict of interest for the consultant since a contract for a national search is not possible if the internal candidate is not hired.  The consultant retained for the purpose of evaluating the readiness of an internal candidate should be solely focused on that task.

It also is important not to engage in just one search process when an internal candidate competes with external candidates.  When a strong internal candidate is included in the candidate pool of a national search, it poses at least three problems.  First, there is an inherent difficulty with maintaining a similar and impartial process for internal and external candidates.  The internal candidate is already known by and knows the community and therefore shouldn’t be vetted using the same methods appropriate for unknown external candidates.

The second problem occurs from the tendency of good external candidates to be more hesitant to apply for a position when they know that an internal candidate is in the pool.  The perception by potential external candidates is frequently an assumption that an internal candidate has a distinct advantage and the search is merely an exercise of due diligence

A third problem arises when an internal candidate is included in the same search pool as external candidates in that it creates a greater potential for the internal candidate to be embarrassed or humiliated if not offered the job.  Additionally, this process often strains the relationship between the new head and the internal candidate that often leads to the internal candidate moving to another school; thus, the loss of one who is often a valuable asset to the school.   Although a separate process does not guarantee that an internal candidate will remain at the school, it does provide more opportunity to “save face” if not publicly or specifically rejected in a head-to-head competition.

The current state of independent school head searches in some ways undermines our goals as independent schools.  The way searches are handled places too little value on continuity of leadership and cultural fit and perpetuates the message to strong administrators that they will need to move out to move up.  Independent schools have an opportunity to grow talent from within and should view talent development for administrators and teachers as one of the primary methods to sustain and perpetuate the mission of the school.  We lose an opportunity to foster the intense loyalty to the school that is usually developed with long-term tenure.

Without a doubt, there are times when a new head should come from outside of the school community. When the board seeks to change directions or undertake a drastic overhaul of the school or when the school needs to recover and heal from a disruptive head or traumatic event, it is often useful for the new head to bring to the school a fresh perspective.  Also, when a potential successor exists within school, there will be times when it is clear that person is not sufficiently prepared to become the next head of school.  Yet when this is the case the determination can and should take place outside of and prior to a national search.

Although to some this may seem like a radical idea.  However, when considering the value of a highly qualified administrative team and leadership that is steeped in the culture and mores of the school, it is not radical at all.  It is my hope that schools will be more intentional in the professional development of its administrative team and that more strong candidates for head of school positions will come from within. It is also my hope that in the future the first question asked by a board of trustees is which of our talented administrative team should be considered for the head position, rather than the first question being which search firm do we hire for a national search.  National searches will still be an important activity within the independent school community but it is my belief that there should be considerably fewer than presently occur.

Perhaps a new model of search consultant will emerge to supplement the current industry; those who specialize in assisting schools with the assessment of internal candidates while not undertaking national searches.  Consultants whose success is measured not in how many placements they have done or in how many candidates they have in their stable, but rather in how long each placement has thrived.

Additional steps to consider:

The first step in any succession-planning endeavor is a full examination of the cultural values of the school, the congruence of mission with all aspects of school life, and tone and tenor of the school community.  It is important that boards engage in a regular process to assess the opinions and input of stakeholders in reliable and meaningful ways so that the board is able to listen to many voices and not just the loud voices.  This is both a best practice and a basic tenet of good governance.  Understanding the culture and values of the school will allow the board to build a profile of desired characteristics, personal traits, and professional credentials for its next head of school.

The second step is for the board and the community is to understand the direction it is headed.  What are the strategic visions for the school in the next 5-15 years that will help the school continue to fulfill its mission with the next generation of stakeholders?  Understanding the strategic visions for the school will allow the board to build a profile of desired competencies and skill sets for its next head of school.

All too often searches focus more narrowly on finding the right person for the second step rather than someone who is the right person for the culture and the community of the school.  Too often boards incorrectly assume that the second is the more important of the two.

When boards are inclusive of the entire school community, then they have successfully answered the questions and they have built a snapshot of the next head of school.  This snapshot includes characteristics, personal traits, professional credentials, competencies, and skill sets.  Now, as a board charged with the continuity of mission and succession planning, they are ready to search.


1.  Charan, R. (February, 2005).  Ending the CEO Succession Crisis.  Harvard Business Review.


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