The Hard Business of Searching

For search firms, filling a superintendency can be as demanding as the job itself by PAUL RIEDE
After eight years helping school boards find new superintendents, Bert Grover finally decided enough was enough. The late nights of meeting with boards, often followed by a long drive home, were too reminiscent of his own years as a school leader.

“It brought back painful memories,” he says with a laugh. “Been there, done that.”

Grover, 66, and his two partners sold their Wisconsin search business last summer partly because of their ages—Grover’s partners were both older than he—and partly because the job was becoming ever more frustrating. Each new superintendent search required weeks of meetings with school board members, dozens of phone calls and scores of mailings in search of elusive candidates.

“I had the biggest post office account in town,” says Grover, a former local and elected state superintendent in Wisconsin. “It’s not a slam-bang, superficial enterprise.”

As more superintendents reach retirement age and fewer young educators seek to replace them, the job of finding new school leaders has become an enormous challenge. Search firms that once relied on advertising to bring in most of their candidates now must doggedly recruit people through networks of consultants across the country.

“We have to do an enormous amount of networking and recruiting out there and really beating the bushes for new candidates,” says Jacqueline Roy, who has been finding superintendents out of her Massachusetts headquarters for nearly 20 years.

At the same time, the search business is becoming increasingly competitive. A 2001 survey by the National School Boards Association counted school board associations in 34 states that provide search services. Many regional education centers, such as the Boards of Cooperative Education Services in New York or the Educational Service Centers in Ohio, also offer help with searches.

Many searchers say the number of private search firms across the country has grown markedly over the past decade, but that is hard to pin down. Ken Underwood, the 75-year-old managing partner of Harold Webb Associates, says that’s because small firms—often started by retired superintendents aiming to keep active—come and go so quickly.

“You know how you see restaurants open and then close, open and then close? That’s about it,” he says. “They don’t realize the hard work it will be. They do a few searches and say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”

Shrinking Pool
The reasons behind the shortage of leadership candidates have been well documented. The first is simple demographics: The legions of baby-boomers able to retire at 55 are moving on to other pursuits—in some cases becoming superintendent searchers themselves.

Beyond that, the much-publicized pressures of the job—from dysfunctional school boards to impossible budget crunches to a myriad of new government mandates—have scared off many potential candidates. Add to that the fact that in many cases, superintendents earn only slightly more than their deputies.

“A lot of central-office people are making darn near what the superintendent is making,” says Grover. “Why get out in front of the parade?”

Although some search firms say their recruitment numbers have not changed, many concede they have seen huge drops in their candidate pools.

“We jokingly used to tell boards that it’s dwindled from a pool to a puddle, and now we say we’re looking under the rocks for moisture,” says William Attea, managing partner of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates of Glenview, Ill., one of the nation’s largest firms.

Roy, who specializes in searches in the Northeast, says she used to receive 50 to 80 applicants for each search and was able to find 10 strong candidates to recommend to a board. Now she must find those 10 candidates in a pool of 20 or 25. Even a once-envied job like the leadership of a high-achieving, 3,000-student district at a salary approaching $200,000 drew fewer than two dozen candidates in a recent search, she says.

Richard Lerer, who has done many searches for prestigious, high-paying districts in Long Island and Westchester County, N.Y., says even those jobs are far harder to fill than they were 10 or 15 years ago. “Different world is putting it mildly,” he says. “It’s a 180-degree turn from what it used to be.”

Finding good candidates is even more challenging in larger districts. Harry Weinberg, one of six former superintendents in the California search firm Leadership Associates, says that in districts of fewer than 5,000 students, his firm can usually expect about 30 applicants, with many coming from the ranks of assistant superintendents and principals. In districts of more than 15,000, where school boards often require previous experience in the top position, it may find only 15 to 20 solid candidates.

Changing Tactics
All of that means that searchers have to be far more aggressive than they once were. Many firms say well over half the candidates they recommend as finalists to school boards now come from individual recruitment rather than advertising. And that translates into many more hours of tedious work for the searchers. Nancy R. Noeske, president of PROACT Search Inc. in Milwaukee, says that for each search, her firm sends out from 500 to 800 letters and e-mails and makes from 200 to 300 phone calls to drum up candidates.

Even before any letters are sent, searchers must spend time in the school district, interviewing board members and others to clarify what kind of leader the district needs and how much it is willing to pay. In some cases the boards will state those needs with surprising precision. William L. Newman, executive director of Ray and Associates in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says that in one recent search a board specifically sought a leader who could close the district’s student achievement gap. The firm went out and found someone with a record of doing so.

In other cases, boards are less precise but no less demanding.

“They want [someone who] not only walks on water but changes water into wine immediately,” Roy says.

Even after the perfect match is found, the searcher has some work to do. Weinberg of California’s Leadership Associates says the best prospects are usually people who tell him, “I’m happy where I am.” That’s an indication that the person is a solid performer who, with some gentle persuading, will be capable of stepping up to a new challenge.

One of the frustrations of search work is that increasingly such persuasion doesn’t work. It never worked with Ed Gotgart, who now runs searches for the New England School Development Council. He says he had several opportunities to move up when he was an assistant superintendent. But he saw too clearly the effects of the 60- to 70-hour weeks, the nightly meetings and events and the constant pressure to perform on a public stage.

“I saw what it did to my bosses and said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that,’” Gotgart says.

Now he is in the position of persuading others to take those top jobs. The key, again, is to match the right person with the right job.

“The issue is convincing them that the job is doable and attractive,” Gotgart adds. “You have to do a lot of salesmanship.”

Board Reality
Weinberg, who spent 17 years as a superintendent in southern California, says the first question most superintendent candidates ask is, “How’s the board?” Then they ask about the working relationship with the teachers’ union. Only then does the discussion move to salary and benefits.

A divided or erratic school board—or simply one that turns over a lot—is anathema to most candidates. It also can cause excruciating flashbacks for searchers who may have dealt with such boards when they were school leaders.

Terre Davis, a former superintendent who runs a search firm out of Grand Rapids, Mich., says she believes school boards in general are becoming less rational and responsible because so many members are elected on single issues or causes that are often divisive. The most challenging part of her job is often to get school board members on the same page regarding the district’s needs and goals.

“You have to constantly remind the boards what their purpose is and what kind of person they are looking for,” she says.

Split or irrational school boards can be not only annoying to searchers but dangerous to their credibility. Underwood says he did a search in which board members hid the fact they had a “favorite son” internal candidate. After his firm went through the entire search process, the board ignored its recommendations and hired the less qualified insider.

“The board wanted us to say what a good guy this was to the media,” Underwood says. “Our comment was ‘no.’”

A growing number of firms, realizing that their reputations are on the line, are now working with school boards even after a new leader has been hired. For the past five to six years, Underwood’s firm has offered a free, two-day workshop with the newly placed superintendent and the school board to start them off on the right foot and head off misunderstandings down the line.

Similarly, the California School Boards Association, among others, has developed a “good beginnings” program to help set ground rules and expectations for boards and their newly hired leaders.

Noeske, of PROACT Search, offers a guarantee on the firm’s recommended candidate. If the new leader leaves the district within a year, the firm does a new search at no cost other than expenses. She said the firm has not yet had to make good on that offer.

Increasing Competition
Most searchers say they are seeing increased competition whenever they seek a new job. Jeremiah Floyd said that when he started the superintendent search program for the National School Boards Association 25 years ago, he used to simply mail a proposal to a school board and have a follow-up phone conversation before being hired to conduct a search. The NSBA doesn’t do searches anymore, but as head of his own firm, Floyd invariably must meet personally with a board in order to land a job. Typically, he is pitted against two or three firms that have been invited to give presentations.

This year, with many districts facing fiscal crises, money has become the major factor in school boards’ decisions. A former school board member in Montgomery County, Md., Floyd says: “For the most part they’re going for the lowest bidder, whether they’re the best or not.”

Often, the least expensive option is the search arm of one of the state school boards associations, which often compete head-to-head for jobs with private firms. One indication of the competition between school board associations and for-profit firms is a posting on the web site of the Ohio School Boards Association called “The Myths and Facts about OSBA Search Services.” One of the first myths, the association contends, is that private search firms do a more thorough job because they charge more and have more resources. OSBA says it can do at least as good a job for far less money because “our bottom line is not economics.” The association charges $5,900 per search, plus expenses that usually run a few thousand dollars.

Another myth, according to the OSBA, is that school board associations are barred from recruiting candidates from member districts. The website says the OSBA has approved “a new aggressive recruitment policy” that allows it to actively seek out candidates from those districts. Rob Delane, who heads the OSBA’s search arm, says the association sends out about 2,600 brochures to school administrators inside and outside Ohio for each of the approximately 30 searches it conducts annually.

But Delane acknowledges the group stops short of pirating superintendents from member districts, which private firms can do.

Timothy Kremer, who ran OSBA’s search effort for 15 years and now directs the New York State School Boards Association, can attest to the hazards of that practice. He recalls a search in which he found a qualified candidate but the candidate decided not to take the job. Rather than advertising the position again, he went out to recruit a few high-profile superintendents from other districts in the state—districts that paid dues to his organization. “I was cherry-picking and I was doing so on the q.t.,” he says.

Kremer found the right candidate, but he soon got a call from an outraged school board president. “What the hell are you doing?” said the voice over the phone. “You’re picking off our superintendent, you SOB!”

Kremer’s association in New York is phasing out its search arm—for the second time in a decade—because its two searchers, who eagerly accepted the job two years ago, have realized that the travel and frequent night meetings are not for them.

Keeping It Secret
The travel and night work are just two of the down sides of the search business in the current environment. There are others, says Linda Dawson, president of the Aspen Group, a Colorado-based educational consulting firm that has left the search business because it has become so labor-intensive.

“It’s fraught with opportunities to make people mad,” says Dawson, who earlier worked for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Chief among them is the issue of confidentiality. As firms more actively recruit administrators who aren’t looking for jobs, they are facing more demands to keep the candidates’ names secret. If a name slips out and embarrasses a candidate in his home district, the search firm often gets the blame.

Attea says that in searches four or five years ago his firm would routinely trot out the final three or four candidates for interviews with different constituent groups in a district. But confidentiality is such a big issue now that in all of his firm’s current searches only the final candidate’s name will be revealed.

In states where the law limits confidentiality, such as Ohio, Florida and Michigan, it is far more difficult to get high-quality candidates, says Attea. That leads to various strategies for keeping searches surreptitious. In a recent search in Florida, Attea’s firm contacted potential candidates but told them not to apply for the job or send any material. As long as there was nothing in writing, the names would not have to be disclosed, Attea says. The candidates did have to agree to go public if they became finalists, however. (See related story)

The confidentiality issue puts smaller firms at a disadvantage because a potential candidate returning a phone call can be so nervous about discovery that he or she won’t leave a message on a machine, says Gotgart of the New England School Development Council. Unless the firm has someone answering phones at all times, it may lose its chance at landing some of the best candidates.

Even while maintaining confidentiality, searchers must carefully scrutinize the lives of the most serious candidates so there will be no surprises for the school board.

“I’m extremely conscientious about checking references,” says Vince Coppola, executive director of Western New York Educational Search Consultants. “If there are any skeletons in the closet, I know.”

Newman, who works for Ray and Associates, says his firm interviews people from every job the candidate has ever had.

Making a Match
The changing nature of the search business is so pronounced that at least one searcher, Herb Pandiscio of Herbert William Consulting in Avon, Conn., insists that searching for a superintendent is more stressful than being one.

Pandiscio, who led the Avon school district for 25 years and has had seven interim superintendencies since, says as a superintendent he had a support staff, community resources and a list of accomplishable goals. The job was fatiguing, but also tremendously rewarding, he says. Now he works in a far less certain environment.

“As a superintendent, every day you go to the office you have work. As a consultant you have to find that work,” Pandiscio says. “Then when you go out on a search you have no clear idea of what the pool is going to be like. The pool is forever shifting.”

In addition, some of the things that make the superintendency so exhausting—particularly the drawn-out night meetings with school boards and constituency groups—are also present in the search business.

But Pandiscio is an exception. Most superintendents-turned-searchers say that despite the growing demands of the search business, the stress doesn’t compare to that of leading a school district. And even Pandiscio agrees that the ultimate reward of the search—finding the right person for the right school district—can be worth all the painstaking work that leads up to it.

Grover, the retired search consultant in Wisconsin, says that after a school board voted to hire a recommended candidate after a long search, he and his distinguished partners—all former superintendents themselves—would become almost giddy.

“We were like little kids on the drive home,” he says, “just making jokes and giggling.”

Paul Riede is an education writer with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com