09/04/2014 by Bob Regan |

The Path a Search Takes

Entrance to yellow brick school building

Recently, I met with the search committee at a large diocesan Catholic school in a major metropolitan area of the mid-Atlantic. We were one of several search firms invited to meet privately and pitch our services. The committee was rather large and consisted of representatives from the Board of Trustees of the school as well as the central office of diocesan schools, including the Superintendent. As is often the case, this was the first time this Catholic school had ever conducted a search for a Head of School, and the anxiety around the table was palpable. They were new to this — and the future of the school (as well as the committee members’ personal reputations) was on the line.

After the usual introductions and opening comments, I discussed our search process and timeline, as well as the unique capabilities of our Catholic Schools Practice. The Superintendent then opened the formal Q&A proceedings by saying, “Well, of course, Bob, first and foremost we will require a practicing Catholic for this leadership role.”

I acknowledged the unanimous nods of approval around the table and commented that I understood.“I’m wondering, however,” I said, “and without being offensive, could you tell me what you mean by ‘practicing Catholic?’”

I wasn’t being flip or disrespectful, but the question seemed somehow appropriate at the time. The reaction around the table was one of stunned silence. All eyes turned to the Superintendent, a large, garrulous man who had served in his current role for many years. Although clearly surprised, he took the question in good humor and proceeded to describe what it meant, in his estimation, to be a practicing Catholic: regular church attendance, no public pronouncements against the teachings of the Church, a life lived with gospel values, etc. Before long, others were chiming in with their own definitions, and soon it became apparent that there was no consensus around the table about what it meant to be a practicing Catholic!

Feeling emboldened, I then directed an operational question to the group: “Let me ask this in a different way. In evaluating candidates, what will you be looking for that will affirm for you that the person under consideration is truly and genuinely a practicing Catholic? How will you know? What will you be looking for?” Our discussion continued respectfully and robustly for some time. And in the end the bond we achieved, as thoughtful, earnest colleagues, was real and deeply gratifying.

Several days later I received a call from the Search Chair saying we had been selected to conduct the search, and that they were so grateful for my candor in getting them to reflect on the process and to examine their most fundamental assumptions. She mentioned that no other search firm had questioned the “practicing Catholic” requirement or forced them to think boldly about the process and their priorities. Since our meeting, the committee has come to a new appreciation of its role and the critical importance of honest reflection.

What does this mean, and why do I share this story? In a kind of oblique way, I have come to realize that a search process conducted well and thoughtfully is an existential journey: a communal process of introspection, discovery, and renewal. But that process must begin with honest reflection—about mission, core values, and shared responsibilities. Robert Frost said of love that it “Begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” That seems to be the path a search takes—beginning in delight at the sense of excitement and future possibilities, and ending in wisdom with a renewed understanding of a school’s unique place and purpose in the world. A good search is organic, dynamic, and potentially transformational. And the role we play as search consultants is one of profound privilege. We are invited to participate in the most private conversations about schools and leadership and the people who make a difference in the lives of children. Often, the search itself becomes the occasion for a larger conversation with boards. While focused intently on finding exceptional leaders, we can’t help but see from our detached perspectives the things that could be improved, practices that aren’t quite best, or assumptions that need to be challenged. It is a kind of pastoral role: guiding boards and search committees through a strange and threatening process, but always driving purposefully to a successful conclusion. The blessings are abundant and often arrive by surprise.

As for that Catholic school in the mid-Atlantic? I will confess that although there is still no consensus around the table regarding the definition of a “practicing Catholic,” we have learned as a search committee to honor its importance and have agreed on a probative process to mitigate against getting it wrong. Interested in what that probative process looks like? Check back here for my next post.

Bob Regan is the leader of the CS&A Search Group’s Catholic Schools Practice.  He can be reached at bob.regan@carneysandoe.com.

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