The SAU #6 school board for Unity and Claremont hired outside help to direct its search for a new superintendent of schools. The New Hampshire School Boards Association (NHSBA) is a private, non-profit organization that offers services to help local school boards, such as help with finding a new chief administrator.
The contract includes directing the search process and consulting, with a base fee of $12,000.
Barrett Christina, Bill Bryan and Allan Pardy of NHSBA gave the board examples of the kind of advice and expertise they offer.
Christina, the executive director of NHSBA, said they do four to six superintendent searches per year. “I'd like to emphasize it's a difficult market right now; the number of candidates is shrinking,” he said.
“Years ago we'd get 30 applicants. These days we're lucky if we get 10 or 15 qualified applicants, especially in New Hampshire,” said Christina.
Bill Bryan, who brings 40 years of experience in hiring, said the process they use is proven to find the best candidates for the job. He started by challenging the board to come up with a list of what they're looking for. “What are the hats a superintendent has to wear and be good at to be successful here at SAU#6? If we don't have measurable standards out of the gate, we're not going to be successful.”
“This may look different from your normal hiring process,” said Christina, “but you need to know what you're looking for.”
Bryan said while their process is good, every school district is different, so it's important to start with a clear idea of what the district wants. A packet handed out to all the board members included a list of competencies in potential candidates, meaning knowledge, skills, and talents. The board was asked to use the list to clarify what they're looking for.
“Are there enough qualified candidates? Particularly in New Hampshire that's hard. Because of the high standards, [by the end] nobody looks very good,” said Bryan.
However, said Bryan, technical skills are the smaller part of what's important in a candidate. “Soft” skills, like handling people, adapting to change, and leadership style, have a greater part in determining whether someone will succeed in a new job.
He described their interview process. Most standard interview questions will not predict the suitability of a candidate for a job, he said. School board members were asked what their favorite interview questions were.
“Why do you want this job?” said Erickson.
“What's your favorite food?” quipped Rebecca Zullo. “I don't really mean that — I've always thought most interview questions are crap.”
“Describe your greatest weakness,” said Carolyn Towle.
“That question has no predictability,” said Bryan. “If you lead anybody to a question, you will not get a valid answer. The intent on all these makes sense, but none of them will give you the answer you're looking for.”
Instead, said Bryan, they use an open narrative style question: “All you do is say, 'Tell me about a high point or a low point in your career.' And all you can ask is, 'What did you say? Hear? Feel? Think? Do?'”
By getting people to tell stories about themselves, he said, you can learn what their competencies are and get an idea of who the person is. The interviewees choose what stories to tell.
The second round of interviews are videotaped, even if the candidate is local, so the videos can be shared with the hiring committee and the board can rate the candidate with the list of competencies they're looking for.
Interim superintendent Kieth Pfeifer, who was chosen via this process, vouched for it. “It takes time, but I think it leaves you with a good product.”
The board voted to hire the NHSBA consultants, and then moved to the next question: should there be a hiring committee? Who would be on it?
Christina strongly advised the board against including community members.
“We can't do that,” said Erickson. “If we don't incorporate the community into the process, we're all not going to be elected again.”
Christina said, “If you get beyond 7 or 9 members, scheduling becomes a problem. I'd recommend one person from each town [in your district].”
Board member Michele Pierce said she felt strongly that if the district is paying $12,000 for expert advice, they should follow it. “The community brought us here to make these decisions,” she said.
Bryan said there are other ways to include the community in the search process, such as surveying people about what they want in a superintendent, or holding community forums ahead of the search.
“If you want people to come, you need two things: pizza and child care,” said Christina.
The board decided to move on without settling the committee question. Erickson said she'll communicate with Christina via email and the board will consider his recommendations for how to proceed.
-- GLYNIS HART