How Executive Search helps school boards find a leader to meet their goals - AZEdNews
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How Executive Search helps school boards find a leader to meet their goals


Superintendent Shortage

When a superintendent lets a school district know they’ll be leaving or retiring, Arizona School Boards Association’s Executive Search service can help the governing board find a leader who will help the district meet or exceed its goals.

Executive Search is provided only to members of Arizona School Boards Association at below market rates, and it has a long history of providing customizable statewide and nationwide services to school boards.

“It’s important for school boards to have a search firm that is cost effective and knows how to listen to the unique goals and needs of each school board,” said Nick Buzan, director of legal and policy services for Arizona School Boards Association. “The benefit of using ASBA as your search firm is that ASBA has professionals devoted solely to the task of quality school board governance in Arizona.”

“ASBA’s Executive Search service provides school boards with a proven method of selecting quality superintendents,” Buzan said. “ASBA’s search benefits from working directly with the policy services and board training teams at ASBA, so ASBA knows the issues facing boards in Arizona and can be helpful in finding the leader for your district.”

Policy services recently added two policy analysts with a wealth of knowledge and experience to assist ASBA members, Buzan said. Dr. Charlotte Patterson comes to ASBA after a celebrated career at Tucson Unified School District, where she worked as an interim assistant superintendent, a principal and before that a STEM teacher.  Lynne Bondi is an accomplished English teacher twice named teacher of the year for different jurisdictions.  Dr. Patterson and Ms. Bondi are here to help ASBA members with all K-12 policy questions, Buzan said.

School governing boards don’t search for a new superintendent often, “so it’s good to have an outside party do it, because we’re looking at the whole picture and we can devoid ourselves from certain aspects politically and culturally in the district,” said Steve Highlen, Executive Search and senior policy consultant for ASBA.

“We go out and help them understand who the candidates are, understand what the candidates bring to the table, what the board has said is important to us, then the board makes the decision of who to hire,” Highlen said.

In 10 years, ASBA Executive Search has helped 100 school districts around the state find a new leader, Highlen said.

ASBA video: Executive Search Services

How the service helps school boards

ASBA’s Executive Search coordinates the entire process, from helping school boards get search ready, to assisting boards in developing qualifications and criteria for the position, providing salary and benefit comparisons, posting ads to attract quality candidates, developing a timeline and interview questions, preparing the online application, assisting with screening applications, doing applicant background and reference checks, scheduling and arranging interviews, tours and community/staff forums, providing a public relations plan including templates for media releases, introduction to your community, social media graphics and so much more.

In addition, ASBA’s Executive Search will facilitate a meeting with the board and new executive to set goals, review roles and responsibilities, review evaluation process, create communication expectations.

“We’ve got the history. We’ve got the knowledge. We’ve got the resources, and we are a neutral party,” Highlen said.

Another concern school districts have is that fewer people have been applying for open superintendent positions over the past three to four years statewide and nationally, especially during the pandemic, Highlen said.

“Current superintendents are retiring earlier, because the last two years have been tough,” Highlen said.

Also, as assistant superintendents and principals get closer to retirement, the pipeline of people who may have considered applying for a superintendent position or move from one superintendent’s position to another is not what it was, Highlen said.

When to seek out a search service

If a school governing board knows the superintendent is leaving, they should seek out help in the search process as soon as they can, Highlen said.

“Start with inviting ASBA out to talk with you about what a search looks like, what they should be thinking about, timelines, what does it take time wise, what are the resources going to be necessary, how is your own human resources staff going to be involved, and what’s it going to cost you,” Highlen said.

Then “start thinking about what the profile of your superintendent needs to be. What does he or she need to bring to the table? What are the important things in our district that this person’s going to need to be highly competent in to be successful in this district?” Highlen said.

While the search services role is to do the legwork, “the decision making is the board’s, role and there are many decisions to be made through the process,” Highlen said.

If a superintendent notifies the board in October that they’ll be leaving by June 30, then the board has time to get on the same page to ensure they find a new leader by July 1, Highlen said.

If you don’t start a search until March, it’s much more difficult to get someone by July 1 because many of the candidates available before contracts went out in February or March are not looking for a new position, and that puts pressure on a board unless they have an interim superintendent candidate in the district, Highlen said.  

It’s important to remember that the timeline does not drive the process, it’s “always projected and it has to be fluid, because you have to monitor and adjust as you go,” Highlen said.

“There may be situations where you have to say, ‘Ah that looked like a good idea up front. We need to change that. We’re going to head in a little different direction now,’” Highlen said.

What the timeline looks like

Many superintendent searches take 12 to 16 weeks, and the first thing the school district governing board should do is build a profile of what they’d like in a school leader, Highlen said.

First, boards should think of what qualifications are a priority and which ones are preferred so that they can choose from a wide field of qualified applicants, Highlen said.

Some boards will say they want the applicants to have a superintendent certificate, four years teaching, and district office experience, but “these other things are preferred – budget, curriculum and instruction, bi-lingual, and Title I experience,” Highlen said.

The process works like a funnel, Highlen said.

“At the top of this funnel, the board is going to pour in thoughts, ideas, concepts of what it wants,” Highlen said.

The funnel starts getting a little narrower as the search service screens applications to see what stands out, Highlen said. Background and reference checks then first interviews make the candidate pool is a little smaller.

“Now you’ve got decisions to make. Who gets past the first interview? You go into a second interview, and it gets a little tighter,” Highlen said.

Candidates go to a community meeting, answer questions in front of 200 people from the community while board members listen,  and the pool of candidates narrows more, Highlen said. After another interview and more conversations, one person stands out.

Larger school districts who are subject to procurement laws should consider adding another three to six weeks to the 12-16-week timeline so the school district purchasing department has time to create a document specific to the position with board input as to the types of things that they want the person to bring to the table then go out for bid, and then provide their analysis and recommendations to the school governing board, Highlen said.

“Generally, if you’re work with ASBA, you’re not going to exceed procurement, but you’ve still got to ask the question what is this going to cost me,” Highlen said.

“The key is whether it’s ASBA or other search agents out there, you’ve got to be happy with your search agent. You’ve got to feel comfortable because you’re depending on that organization and that person you’re working with to do all the right things and to help you along as a board,” Highlen said.