Our Perspectives - Dr Linda Bendikson

The UACEL Perspectives are opinion pieces that highlight current and topical educational leadership matters. Linda Bendikson writes candidly about her views and offers a fresh perspective on today’s educational leadership challenges.  Occasionally, other faculty / team members contribute to this Newsletter is published four times a year.

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Common Sense Leadership - Taking Care When Employing Staff

Resourcing strategically is one of the most undervalued leadership behaviours, probably because it is not classed as ‘instructional leadership’ in that it is not directly related to the quality of teaching.  It is of course, indirectly related to the quality of teaching.  The directness or indirectness of the effects of leadership behaviours on student outcomes is irrelevant.  What is important is the ultimate impact of leadership behaviours.  When decisions are made by leaders, they impact on the students sooner or later. Thus, I get frustrated by the often cited calls for visionary leaders, instructional leaders, servant leaders or any other kind of leader you care to name – all of these terms imply some lofty role.   More common-sense leadership would be good.  Leaders make an impact through every- day actions that are, often, none too glamorous.

Perhaps, the least glamorous and most important decision relates to who we employ. The most important job a board has to do is to appoint a principal, and similarly, one of the most important roles for principals and senior leaders, is to appoint good staff. In my view, however, not enough quality and efficiency is evident in these processes sometimes – yet, a good teacher or principal appointment is likely to do more for improving results than a 100 classroom observations and feedback, even by the most competent of observers. Everyone involved in these processes needs to be treated with respect – the applicants and the referees.

My guidelines:

  1. Have clear criteria for the competencies, qualifications and experience of the person you are seeking – and put the criteria in the applicant pack and make it clear you expect candidates to write an application letter addressing those factors. 
  2. Have a declaration for potential applicants to sign – that you can seek information from any potential source to assist with your shortlisting.  This protects you against claims that you should not have looked at a candidate’s on-line profile, for example, and it allows you to talk to a past principal if you consider such actions wise in weighing up who should be short listed. 
  3. Write a clear timeline taking into account all parts of the process, starting with when you hope to have someone start in the position and working backwards to provide generous amounts of time for each part of the process, and put this timeline in the pack.  An example is included here.


    DATE ACTIVITY
    Late August/September Advertise for at least one month via local papers and Gazette on-line, calling for covering letter addressing the criteria and CV.  Put the pack on-line so it is easily downloaded by anyone.  Have your current strategic plan in the pack.
    October 7th Applications close 4pm.  Hardcopies to the school office or emailed copies to xxxxxxx email will be considered if received prior to 4pm only.
    October 14th Final day for shortlisted applicants and those not shortlisted to be notified of outcome.  Shortlisted applicants are welcome to make a school visit by appointment at this point.
    November 5th Interviews
    November 6 - 7 Verbal referee check
    November 8 Outcomes notified to all shortlisted candidates
    Beginning 2016 or Start Date
  4. Advertise widely by informal networks and formal methods, and allow a decent amount of time from the first advertisement to the closing date.  This allows time for people to consider whether they want to apply, then to update their CV and write a letter.  It all takes time and many people miss out on good applicants because they try to rush this process.
  5. Create a grid with your criteria along the top and names down the side (or vice versa).  Review the CVs and covering letter and check them against your basic criteria – does the applicant have the right qualifications and experiential background to be considered?  Further, for me, if they cannot write (e.g., spell, punctuate, express themselves clearly and concisely), their CV goes in the reject pile – after all we do not need another teacher/principal who cannot write.  If they do not have the right experience and qualifications, their CV goes in the reject pile – step one is quickly done.  Send the ‘sorry you were not shortlisted letter’ as soon as possible; people want to know where they stand and you now have a ‘long short-list’.
  6. Review the candidates’ espoused skill set and the evidence they put forward in support of those claims against your criteria – this is only their espousal of their own skills and at this point, non-verifiable.  At this stage I suggest you take people at their word and use your criteria to judge who looks like the best candidates largely based on background experience and qualifications that match what you are seeking or seek verbal feedback from people whose judgement you trust and who know the candidate regarding their skills. 
  7. Increasingly I see schools or consultants asking for written referee reports at this stage.  Personally, I think this is unnecessarily intrusive on a lot of people and a poor use of resources.  Being asked to fill in lengthy forms for someone that a school has not even decided to interview is an imposition that I do not believe adds much, if any, value. Not many referees are going to write something like ‘ I wouldn’t interview this person for this position because…” otherwise, why would they agree to be the person’s referee?
  8. Once you have your ‘long short-list’ of possible candidates (if you are lucky enough to be able to do so) you may want to include one more step to take it to a short list.  Many colleagues recommend asking if you can visit candidates on the long list in their own school and see them teaching for 30 minutes as a very good strategy for making the next cut to a short list.   Alternatively, you could ask them to teach a lesson in your school with a group or class of students.  This allows you to analyse the type of questions they ask before they teach, shows how they deal with pressure, and gives you a sense of how they will connect and form relationships with your students.
  9. From that create a short list, ideally of no more than three people to interview and be absolutely clear on what you want to know. 
  10. If you invite shortlisted candidates to visit the school – do it properly.  Have someone ready to walk them around and answer their questions – you will learn a lot from this interaction.
  11. If you want people to give a short presentation on a topic, give it to them early and make it clear that you will stop them after ten minutes – you don’t want a lecture, you want to see their ability to analyse the situation, respond to it, and to communicate to an audience – all important skills. 
  12. Arrange interviews so there is little chance of one candidate seeing another; people are entitled to privacy.  For example, have them come in by one entrance to wait and leave by another.
  13. Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, so ask questions that are behavioural e.g., “Tell us about a time when you were upset with the behaviour of a colleague and talk us through what you did and what the outcome was”.  People reveal their real thinking in these kinds of interviews – the words people use are very important. 
  14. Most people judge a person in the first 90 seconds because it is not just what people say that is revealing, but how they dress, how they talk, how they interact with the panel – it is this information that sways panels as much as the content of answers.  People get a feeling for someone and can either see them in the job or not.  In my experience, often the strongest person on paper does not win the job.
  15. Leave a space for applicants to ask you a question – that can be very revealing. 
  16. Tell them when you will let them know the outcome and that you MAY contact their referees and check you have their numbers.   I insist on the last principal as one of the referees. 
  17. Then after the interviews, eliminate any candidates that you know you are not interested in employing and phone referees of others seeking answers to areas where you have any doubts that have arisen in the interview.  In my view, oral reports are far superior to written reports because you can pick up on the tone of people or any hesitation and ask – “You seemed to hesitate there; what were you thinking about?”.
  18. Then advise people of the outcome on time, as per your timeline.
  19. If in doubt about the candidates, do not employ them – re-advertise and try again.  You pay a long time for making the wrong decision.

This may all sound very basic, but employing people is the most important leadership task you will perform – don’t take shortcuts.  Give it the value it deserves.  A good appointment will raise achievement for students.  A bad appointment will create a lot of grief for years to come, for you and the students. (Caveat – I am not an HR expert – this is what I have learnt from experience).

The bottom line here is – employment decisions are the most crucial resourcing decision you will make and they can have a very large impact on students, and on the overall culture of a school because high expectations from each teacher contribute to a culture where that is the norm, and it is that organisational effect that makes a difference for students.

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