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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Identifying talent
Why challenging systems is critical in hiring
By Don Austin | September | October 2022
It is possible that traditional systems and mindsets are to blame for some of the issues school districts face in filling critical administrative positions. Most organizations have statements that capture their beliefs around hiring. The Palo Alto Unified School District strives to attract, develop and retain best-in-class talent of difference-makers who add value through a relentless commitment to our dynamic school district. We spent time crafting our message with attention given to the precision of each word. Like most school districts, we continued using the same practices and protocols that fell short historically. Until we didn’t.
Employees were historically told that if they wanted to be a principal in PAUSD, they needed to go somewhere else to get experience. Why would an organization tell their best employees to leave? The district also had a written memorandum of understanding stating that all administrative positions required posting and interviews with panels. Some of those reading this article may be confused. How else would a school district select leaders? Keep reading!
What is the purpose of a 20-minute interview for a person you have seen in action for five years? I am surprised by how many people are held back because panels decide a candidate was too nervous or didn’t answer a scripted question directly. Why does a panel carry more weight than work history and personal observations? It shouldn’t. In the last four years, PAUSD has made 41 administrative selections. Despite more than a year stuck in the “old” system, 68 percent of our positions have been filled internally. Of the 27 internal placements, 17 (or 62 percent) were selected without panels based on work history. Our diversity has also increased significantly, and 77 percent of our appointments have been women. Of the 17 appointments without a panel, all remain in the district.
The talent is there. It is now a matter of challenging systems that disproportionately reward attributes that may not align with stated values and are often tainted by bias. We are “all in” for identifying talent, developing our own people, and appointing based on work-ethic and performance. At a minimum, it is worth taking a moment to evaluate current systems to assess if they are getting the desired results. Are the best people in your organization in power seats or waiting for their next interview panel?

Don Austin is the superintendent of Palo Alto Unified School District.
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