Leadership Lessons: Résumé-Building for Aspiring Heads

Winter 2020

By Vince Watchorn

“I think I’d like to become a head.” The moment of realization arrives for many people in their 30s, often after several years of teaching have led to a successful administrative post. For others, it’s later, or—for the truly ambitious—earlier. The challenge for “more” calls—more responsibility, more impact, more investment in school life. It’s the opportunity to drive conversation and develop strategy and vision for a whole school, to get beyond a silo and see from the bird’s-eye. No matter when the moment strikes, it’s the beginning of a larger process to understand yourself as a leader and position your candidacy to land a job as school head.  
One of the key steps in this process can often be overlooked: tailoring a résumé for head searches. The document is an inherent example of leadership, in that it shows how individuals communicate, present, and think. The temptation may be to simply submit the material that won a current job. An existing résumé can form the basis, but it’s important to present as a ready head, not merely a successful administrator. 
The first step in the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads is a review of submission materials. Frequently, the conversation between fellows and mentors turns to the fundamental uniqueness of the head’s job—and how to present as a promising rising star, ready to tackle the increasing demands of the next job. We talk about why headship may be a good match for an aspiring leader—and then how to capture that spirit on paper for a search committee.
Part of readiness for headship is to know yourself as a leader: to understand what you bring to the table and why a school would hire you. What are the problems your outlook and skills can solve? Presenting in an authentic manner is critical to a committee understanding the candidate, and the résumé should reflect the real person, not a manipulated substitute or a thoughtless summary. Résumés of candidates who “just feel ready for the next step” often come across as entitled and “less than” when compared with candidates whose documents express leadership promise. That makes it important for the résumé to present a version of self that is thoughtful and ultimately supported by the actual product. 

Think Impact

Now is the time to take stock of what your impact has been. That’s because it indicates what your impact—as the candidate—will be. How would your schools be different if you had not worked there? What would students not have learned if you had not been part of their lives? What would have been not communicated or who would have been disengaged, if not for your work? 
The traditional résumé will list that an administrator has been in a post for a certain period and then list some impressive key bullets from the job description. Are we surprised that the admission director was responsible for leading the interview process for prospective students? That the upper school director supervised the divisional discipline process? That the associate head led the implementation of a new academic program? These types of descriptors articulate what it is to do a particular job. In considering a head, committees need to see how candidates used their responsibilities as tools to have an impact.

Core Competencies 

A growing trend in résumés is to open with a candidate summary that reveals core competencies. While not for everyone, the approach transforms the résumé from a work history summary into a statement of who the individual is as a worker or leader. Doing so helps give the reader an answer key to the reading they’ll do throughout the document. Carefully aligned descriptions of various positions with the opening candidate summary will read as good proof—and what can be expected after hiring.
There are many ways to present core competencies, with proven systems and structures to articulate them. One way is to self-identify strengths and use those as descriptors, possibly mirroring the school’s position profile as a language source. Using one of the many self-reflective leadership profiling programs can help candidates speak in language known to the hiring group. Among the most helpful: Korn Ferry’s Leadership Architect, Gallup’s Strengthsfinder, Marcus Buckingham’s StandOut. (Using these tools can also help you identify the jobs in which you might be most successful, thereby profiling the profilers.)
The committees have all profiled the job, either scientifically or anecdotally. A candidate summary presents an opportunity to do some of the work for them. Candidates who put themselves out there at the top of the résumé give hiring leaders something to clearly match to their rubric.

Track Record 

In the 2018 NAIS Head Search Handbook, Jane Armstrong points out that it’s essential for search committees to invest time and energy “immersing themselves in understanding the candidates’ track records.” You can give them a head start by building a résumé that demonstrates your track record.
As you think of your core competencies, experiences, and impact, you should seek to understand the trend lines of your career. Once the impact of each job is identified, ask, What are the positive commonalities between each job or role?  The answer will help you identify a track record. Does each project you undertake conclude with more people engaged than when you began? Do they maximize school resources for strategic gain?
Moreover, a strong track record can be an equalizer among résumés that are often read with the unconscious bias of people trying to quickly separate résumés into “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” piles.

Education First? 

One of the most frequent questions about head of school résumés is where to put your educational record. Traditionally, it goes up top. Consulting firm Educational Directions points out, “You’re an aspiring educational leader. Put education first.” Another philosophy states that putting “education” first can play into bias, not always in advantageous ways. 
If placed at the beginning, it’s a reader’s first impression and the lens through which they read the résumé. If placed at the end, the information behaves like a period at the end of a sentence: “Here’s where it all started and what formed me academically.”
There’s also the question of what education should be included. In short, this section should be reserved for degrees completed. Listing degrees not yet conferred should only be with the “candidate” indicator to show it’s in process and incomplete.
Nondegree programs and professional development programs should be a separate section. If you attended an independent school, including the name of the school and “High School Diploma” for the degree earned shows that you’re aware of the independent school student experience and general independent school culture.

Leadership Verbs 

Throughout our careers and in various job searches, most of us have probably been taught the technique of peppering the résumé with “action verbs” that show we’ve demonstrated leadership and been rewarded with responsibility. These words catch the eye of hiring leaders and signal that we can be taken seriously. They demonstrate our ability to excel in day-to-day operations focused on the now. However, a head search committee is looking for someone future-focused, who envisions, strategizes, and delivers results. 
If we think of search committee members boasting at a cocktail party about the new hire, what do we imagine they say? That they’re excited because the new head supervised 30 people? That they coordinated something? Unlikely. More powerfully, they will be excited by the leaderly impact the new head has had on past communities. They’ll be more excited to share that the new hire really transformed the learning environment, raised X amount of dollars, or built a program that increased enrollment. The same verbs that caught hiring leaders’ eyes while climbing to a core administrative position are assumed as basics in a head search. After all, heads who merely supervise, analyze, manage, or coordinate don’t necessarily get to the level of envisioning, strategizing, and building alliances. Show your leadership capacity by making impact verbs a theme—without being obsequious and contrived, of course (see “The Right Words” at left).
The résumé is an early step on the path to headship and is a primary vehicle for your candidacy. Whether in the search committees’ initial paper review to choose semi-finalists or the parent forum on the last day of a school visit, the résumé will form their basis of opinion. Show them from the start that you’re ready to be a head.

The Right Words

To best capture their career impact, aspiring heads should consider using these leadership verbs in their résumés.
  • Build
  • Collaborate
  • Create
  • Cultivate
  • Deliver
  • Drive
  • Engage
  • Envision
  • Generate
  • Improve
  • Include
  • Innovate
  • Inspire
  • Lead
  • Optimize
  • Plan
  • Resolve
  • Solve
  • Strategize
  • Transform
Vince Watchorn

Vince Watchorn is lead faculty for the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads, editor of the 2018 NAIS Head Search Handbook, and former head of Providence Country Day School in East Providence, Rhode Island.