Ensure Head Search Success — Counter Three Biases

The statistics on independent school headship transitions are alarming. Of 160 schools in Florida, 102 went through head of school transitions from 2009 to 2014, according to the MISBO study “Evaluating the Head of School Transition.” Similar stories played out across the United States, the study reported. Here are some findings:

  • Of 158 schools in Georgia, 122 had head transitions.
  • Of 90 schools in North Carolina, 74 had head transitions.
  • Of 100 schools in Connecticut, 45 had head transitions.  
  • Of 115 member schools in the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, 60 had head transitions. 
MISBO Executive Director Mark Levinson, who conducted interviews with former NAIS presidents John Chubb and Patrick Bassett and other association directors, described the trend’s root cause: Headship search committees, consisting of mostly board members, lack the resources, training, and expertise to select the right candidate for their schools.
"Most agree that hiring (as well as supporting and evaluating) leadership is the primary responsibility of our school boards, but most are ill-equipped to tackle this assignment," the report noted.
The consensus is that there's a problem. Now, it’s true that Baby Boomer retirements are likely the reason for some transitions reported in the study. However, the staggering numbers, along with the views of national and regional association leaders, suggest flaws in the way schools select new heads.
A fundamental problem, in my opinion: the biases that affect the selection process and the absence of protocols to suppress them.

Why Daniel Kahneman’s Research on Decision Making Matters

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral psychologist, provides insight on human bias. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes the prejudice that runs rampant in human decision making and probes the illusion of objectivity that pervades human thinking. A summary of psychologists’ research conducted over the last 30-plus years, Thinking, Fast and Slow provides a conceptual framework for exploring the prejudices that affect any group’s collective judgment. I would argue that Kahneman’s book should be required reading for all members of a newly formed head search committee. (A condensed overview of Kahneman's research and its application is available in the 2015 Winter edition of Harvard Business Review OnPoint.)

Why Search Committees Struggle with Three Main Biases

Let’s explore the three biases that surface in the head search process.
The priming bias. Well known in the hiring process, this is referred to as the “deficit hiring bias.” It happens when people identify the weaknesses of the present head of school and assign those characteristics outsized value when selecting the next head.
For example, if people perceive the outgoing head has weak relationships with students, the search committee decides, almost unconsciously, that the next head must be someone who will develop great relationships with students.
Indeed, it may be helpful for the next head to display such a trait. But too often, search committees overvalue an attribute that the current head lacks. In these situations, the search committee’s perception of the current head primes the unconscious value placed on student relationships.
The halo bias. Here’s how this works: A candidate comes from a highly regarded, prestigious school that the search committee members admire. The positive perception of the school becomes a proxy for the candidate’s collective attributes.
The halo bias leads to this line of thinking:
  1. this candidate comes from a prestigious school,
  2. we wish our school were more like the candidate’s school,
  3. so we should hire this candidate.
Many might scoff at the simplicity here, but it’s the kind of thinking consumer advertisers rely on very successfully to sell cars, soft drinks, and a myriad of other products.
The beauty contest bias (or Kahneman’s “availability heuristic”). This occurs when the search committee falls back on the question, “Do we like this candidate?”
Why does this basic question overshadow the discipline and rigor of amassing evidence that proves a candidate has the needed leadership attributes?
It helps to look specifically at a committee’s composition and process as well as at human nature more generally. First, a school’s board of trustees assembles a search committee made up of several important constituent groups, including trustees, faculty, parents, and alumni. An outside consultant guides the committee through a process that generally takes five to 10 months. The elaborate process creates the false comfort of transparency and the illusion of objectivity for the committee.
Then the table is set. A candidate shows up, interviews with the committee, and knocks it out of the park. Members think, “This person really gets our school.” Essentially, the candidate validates the committee members’ love for the school. Perhaps a candidate’s enthusiasm and desire to land the job draw in committee members.
During their deliberations, the search committee members seek to support their initial emotional connection with the candidate. But this process lacks rigor and discipline because it’s much easier for committee members to like a candidate than to go through a protocol that forces them to assemble evidence and think about that evidence in relation to the leadership needs of the school.
So members fail to spend time answering the central question: “What evidence in writings, interviews, and recommendations demonstrates that the candidate has the requisite skills, experience, personality, and knowledge to be the leader our school needs going forward?”
In the end, members gravitate to their immediate, intuitive choice, as Kahneman so convincingly explains, and reach a collective decision on the most likeable candidate.  

A Call to Make Headship Decisions Differently

According to the 2014-2015 NAIS Trendbook, two-thirds of sitting heads will retire by the end of 2019. In addition, schools continue to struggle with financial sustainability concerns. Strong leadership will be crucial to meet these challenges.
If independent schools are to thrive in the 21st century educational landscape, they need to dramatically improve the head selection process and the thinking behind each decision. Consultants and trustees can start by understanding the biases that search committee members bring to the table and then work to mitigate them. Above all, search committees must never forget that winning the job is very different from doing the job.
Tom Olverson

Tom Olverson is head of The Rivers School (Massachusetts).