Wednesday May 07 2008
Guest columnist: Take a different approach to finding a new school principal
By: Brad Kearns, guest columnist
A recent Journal editorial properly called to attention it not being OK for Placer High to have a high turnover rate at the leadership position. Many things suffer, especially the students’ and teachers’ sense of security, continuity and tradition. Great programs in academics, sports and business organizations do not have high turnover, period. When I worked in the corporate world, the interview process seemed like a farce to me; a succession of contrived chats where candidates reeled off pat “correct” answers and decorum won out over achieving deep conversation and the ensuing character-revealing insights. Frustrated with the process, I suggested to my co-workers that we should launch booby traps in an attempt to penetrate the veil of the interview game. For example, what if you put the CEO at the reception desk for the candidate’s arrival and then had the CEO purposefully hassle the candidate a little (“I’m sorry, your name again? Here to see whom again?”)? Would the person be dismissive or brusque on the assumption that the receptionist wasn’t important? (This happened to my brother at the start of a long career at his current firm with a dynamic and popular leader.) How would a candidate respond to repeated interruptions while she was talking? Insights gained from behavior in these situations would be more revealing than the typical “tell me about your last position” mumbo jumbo. Back to Placer, I say let’s buff up the staid “interview-committee-to-superintendent-and-trustee interviews-to-board-vote” process as follows: 1. Give the students a real voice and the candidate a real immersion experience: Let’s have the five leading candidates spend a day with Rick Foley’s superstar track team — ride the buses to the league championships, measure long jumps, set high-jump bars, bark out distance race split. Then gather the kids for some group feedback. ... Let’s have the candidates spend a few hours going from class to class to deliver a three-minute speech on the topic of their choice to the kids, then students can cast a vote for their favorite. How about the 10 leading candidates each sit down for a 10-minute interview with ace Youth.Ink editor Elise Travers for a “First Impressions” editorial column? A principal can be cool and still get the job done, but “not cool” will have a very, very difficult time getting it done. 2. Show Me the Money: The cost of executive turnover (for any reason, but magnified for poor performance reasons) far exceeds annual salary for reasons like settlements, litigation, replacement process and most glaringly lost productivity and morale organization-wide. Let’s pony up to get an absolute premium pool of candidates. Placer Union High School District will win in the long run when they operate first class and procure not only the resumés that land in the P.O. box but have the ability to, for hypothetical example, headhunt premium talent like Bear River Principal (and Auburn resident) Jim Nieto, if so inclined. Perhaps bonus money can be offered if the principal is still doing a great job five or 10 years down the line? At the very least the salary range should be in line with or better than neighboring districts. 3. Minimize the importance of experience: The modern economy and educational system present dynamic and unique challenges. As Bart O’Brien said about the principal job, “It’s not the same position as it was.” It’s a common mistake to be wowed by an impressive resume (or disqualify potential stars with soft resumes), while de-emphasizing intangibles like passion, energy, enthusiasm that will quite likely deliver more results than resume experience. If Elise or the track team gives a thumbs down or a candidate can’t be comfortable talking to the kids for three minutes, they’re out! — regardless of how many gold stars are on their paper. 4. Include teachers, boosters, alums and community leaders in the process: How about a roundtable speed date (eight minutes per candidate) with the teaching staff to get some impressions and feedback? Can the top five candidates arrange to have coffee with City Manager Bob Richardson, Police Chief Valerie Harris, E.V. Cain Principal Randy Ittner and other significant parties that they will directly or intangibly interact with during their tenure at Placer? Sure, this sounds like a lot of effort, but so is leading the students at Placer High for years to come. Good luck to all involved with the search. Auburn resident Brad Kearns is a former national champion and No. 3 world-ranked professional triathlete and noted author, speaker and healthy lifestyle coach. He has written several books about fitness and peak performance.