Six steps to choosing a new leader

It’s easy to focus on the wrong attributes, says the head of a leading independent girls’ school

The scene might be an oak-panelled drawing room in an ancient college or a gleaming plate glass office in a high-rise building. Whatever the setting, when a board meets to begin the task of finding a new leader, those around the table know it will be the most important decision they make together.

Having been involved in several such appointments on both sides of the fence, here are six areas  I believe individuals should focus on.

  1. The board must decide what kind of leader it wants

If the current one has done a good job, there will be a tendency to look for more of the same, but this may be precisely the moment when there is the opportunity (and need) for a change. So ask the people who worked for them: what will the organisation miss most (and least) when today’s man or woman moves on? What would they like to see more (and less) of? Different stakeholder groups will have different perspectives, so ask them all. When the shape of the gap becomes clearer, it will be easier to see the risks to be covered and the potential for growth.

  1. Be clear on process

Relying only on interviewing can be risky; most senior people know what a panel wants to hear and can easily deliver answers that sound convincing, whether about vision or achieving business objectives. But leaders need to be effective on bad days as well as a good, so consider using psychometric testing, which adds objective data and can also explore, for example, how an individual will behave under pressure.

  1. Interview panels must be chosen for their diversity to avoid the dangers of ‘groupthink’

The chair should ensure independent judgement but it’s good to include an outsider – perhaps a CEO from a similar organisation – who understands the nature of the executive role and can probe the suitability of the candidates from the employee perspective. What will they be like to work for? Will they be a tough decision-maker? Will they be the kind of boss who can get others to go the extra mile? Will they lead by example? Whatever the line-up, multiple perspectives are vital if there is to be the right level of challenge – both for the candidates and for those making the all-important decision.

  1. Shaping the interview well can make the difference…

…between an encounter that is merely interesting and one that enables the panel to make a decision. Asking candidates to make a short presentation at the start gives them the chance to demonstrate how they will manage an audience, while also providing material for discussion. The less this presentation uses technology, the more the panel will learn about the candidate’s ability to communicate and persuade. Questions should then be short and open-ended, allowing for the development of a line of thinking. It’s also important that candidates can put their own questions to the panel. What they choose to ask can say much about the aspects of the job they think are most important.

  1. Review and confirm

Ideally, if there is enough comparable information and the process has been thorough, the right candidate will emerge from the pool and there will be wide consensus (if not unanimity) about who it is. If there is dissent, this is the moment to look back at what everyone agreed they were looking for in the first place: it’s surprisingly easy for a panel to be so captivated by a charismatic personality that they completely forget about the other skills and attributes they had decided they wanted.

  1. Recruitment doesn’t end after an interview

Finally, when the appointment is made, this is not the end, it’s the beginning. There is no value in choosing the right leader unless the board commits itself to the continued growth and development of that individual’s capability. This starts with a relationship of trust between the CEO and the chair, but should also include the provision of a coach or mentor: a sounding board outside the organisation who the new leader can use to test ideas and to think aloud about whatever might be on their mind at the time. A confident, well-supported leader is one empowered to direct the work of others and deliver benefit for the organisation – both its profits and its people.

Parker J Palmer says in an article entitled ‘Leading from Within’: “A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project onto other people his or her shadow or his or her light.” In finding the person who will use that power well, the non-executive directors are unlikely to perform any task that will be more transformational for the organisation for which they are responsible, or, in my experience, more personally rewarding for them.

Clarissa Farr is high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School in London


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