Originally Published in School Administrator – November 2020
“Please unmute yourself” has replaced “Please raise your hand” in COVID-era classrooms. It’s also become the most frequent request during formal superintendent searches.
Having recently led or supported more than a dozen searches for school boards seeking new executive leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, I have returned to my classroom teaching roots when it comes to monitoring group behavior. My role now involves teaching both consultants and school boards that conducting online focus groups, town halls and community forums increases community participation and yields more useful, candid feedback.
In preparation for searches, I’ve been mentoring associates in the vagaries of videoconferencing platforms — yes, you use Chrome and not Firefox to screen share in Google Meet; Zoom webinars and Zoom meetings are different; and Microsoft Teams appears to have more tech glitches than Webex. As executive search consultants, we have become unlikely experts on the use of all these platforms. We find ourselves teaching community members how to unmute and how to “Raise Hands,” post anonymous questions or comments to a search committee or candidate finalists, and how to use the chat function to ensure their voices are heard.
As in classroom teaching, the greatest rewards are when students succeed. Seeing the faces of retired administrators now working as consultants light up when they master a videoconferencing tool or board members admire their newfound tech acumen is enormously gratifying. Most rewarding is the depth and breadth of feedback collected during virtual community engagement sessions, a key factor in any successful search.
Virtual searches have their upsides. Community members appreciate opportunities to be heard and to contribute anonymously, which can generate exceptionally useful information. With most people home-based, forums and focus groups can be scheduled any day and time.
In one recent search, our consultants left Zoom open for 13 hours so folks could check in at any time with their thoughts about the district’s strengths and challenges as well as the characteristics sought in their next leader. Alumni focus groups have become more frequent, too.
Our firm recently served a small district whose board was down to two finalists. For the final community forums, each candidate was given an hour to make a brief presentation, answer three curated questions and respond to community members’ questions — all with a Spanish translator. As the director of these Zoom sessions, Q&As, chats and raise hand functions, I felt I was conducting a symphony. The board was thrilled with the community participation, and the candidates appreciated the chance to address hard issues in a more thoughtful setting than on their feet at community meetings too often dominated by a few.
The downsides of staging a superintendent search remotely range from frustrating to funny. One district needed 50 minutes to start a meeting because of audio malfunctions. Another’s open forum had more reverberation than a 1950s public address system. The most humbling moment, however, came during our firm’s proposal before a board that was interviewing search firms. As the lead presenter, I had our team rehearse twice before the big meeting. We had a slide emphasizing our expertise in conducting virtual forums dating back 10 months pre-COVID, but when the presenter began, the unmute button proved elusive. Twenty seconds of silence felt like hours. We did not get the job.
The funniest have been the inadvertent open microphones and background distractions. We have dealt with barking dogs, arguing kids, chastising spouses, assorted “damns” and even camp songs. While my wife and I do our best to work at far ends of our home, her virtual summer camp for students from Chicago’s under-resourced neighborhoods brought a daily round of high-energy, rousing camp songs like “Boom Chicka Boom” and “Bazooka Zooka Bubble Gum” that entertained more than one focus group.
While the virtual search process still has challenges, it is here to stay and will serve school boards well. Boards will get more extensive, candid community feedback. They will save significant travel money for both candidates and consultants. They will gain insight into candidates’ technological expertise and communication skills. They will find scheduling of candidate interviews much easier. This new normal is a better normal.
Boards are busier, and the search business is booming. We get RFPs daily as superintendents decide to retire early, overwhelmed with COVID concerns and no-win reopening decisions, quarantined students or staff or the rising mental health challenges from isolation and economic pressures. Other superintendents have decided that the pandemic has shattered the once perfect position and choose to move on. Still others are opting for better quality-of-life leadership opportunities, including moves to smaller districts or even principalships.
Without question, these are some of the most stressful and uncertain times current and aspiring superintendents face. Our best advice: “Unmute yourself” and lead with your best.