My colleagues and I regularly get called upon to help schools and education organizations find the best candidates to fill key positions in their organizations. We are skilled at combing our extensive nationwide networks and researching prospects in similar roles to identify top candidates. Still, hiring managers sometimes struggle to settle on a final candidate, wanting to hold out for the “unicorn” candidate.


Everybody loves a unicorn. Unicorns are those magical, mystical creatures that have all the most desirable characteristics and traits. The unfortunate truth, though, is that unicorns don’t actually exist. Which might be why some observers of the May 2nd boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao were disappointed.

Hype and anticipation accompanied the weeks and months leading up to the title match in Vegas. Fans and the media excitedly looked for this to be the biggest fight in recent memory, harkening back to the “glory days” of boxers like Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and Sugar Ray. Now that it’s over, fans are complaining that it was boring, lacked excitement, wasn’t worth the hype or the money Pay-Per-View viewers and attendees of the live event paid to see it. They’d hoped to see the kind of dramatic moments in boxing that die hard fans never forget, those magical, mystical moments that get replayed for generations to come.

What they got instead were two accomplished boxers who put in exceptional effort and followed the rules. Arguably, Mayweather was victorious because of his precision, consistency, and tenacity. Nothing about either boxer was spectacular, extraordinary, or exceptional, yet both have excelled in their field and won the adoration of legions of fans as a result of what Mayweather would call “hardwork and dedication”. It’s clear they’ve both been successful.

Aren’t these the qualities we all want in a good employee - someone who can be counted on to deliver consistent and dependable results? Is it actually necessary to hold out for someone with almost supernatural talents and abilities rather than hiring the person we can rely on to do their job well and follow the rules? In other words, what really is the allure of the unicorn candidate who seems to have so many strengths that failure seems impossible? We can all agree that our kids need great people leading their schools and the organizations that support them. Yet maybe it’s time for search teams and hiring managers to prioritize consistent, knowledgeable, and dependable talent over the hunt for the seemingly impossible-to-find unicorn candidates. After all, though some might think Floyd Mayweather’s technique lacks dynamism, it has led him to an almost flawless record and recognition as a stand out in his field. 

“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they'd make up their minds.”                                                                                                                                                                     - Winston Churchill

My seven year old recently started playing piano. After the first lesson, his teacher gave him a binder and a sheet to record his assignments for each week and how long he practiced. At first, the practicing was a point of friction for us. My son was resistant to play a series of “C’s” in a particular pattern rather than playing around to figure out “Monster” by Eminem, which he had learned in a class at school. For me, having spent most of my childhood and teenage years as a pretty serious musician, I knew that the only way to really excel was to learn technique and music theory (notes and rhythm) but when I tried to nudge him to play, it came off too strong and he bristled. Luckily, after a month or two, he started to be able to play more interesting songs and feel a sense of pride in his progress and I stopped being so concerned he wouldn’t put in the proper effort, so the conflict has resolved itself.

This experience reminded me of the importance of rote practice, something that is not always fun or pleasant but a key to getting better – if not always becoming “perfect” – at most things. I know that in my family we happen to be pretty musical so it comes relatively easily to my son and me. I also know, though, that I would not be half the musician I was at age 18 if I hadn’t put in hours and hours of practice in the preceding years. Similarly, I was also a pretty serious swimmer for a few years and although I did not have any particular talent or skill for it, I was able to be an above average competitor because of all the early morning dives into the pool and evening practices in which I participated. With our kids, my husband and I focus a lot on “growth mindset” and the importance of hard work (our five year old actually used to think our last name was synonymous with “works hard”) but what about for us as grownups?

Something I spend a lot of time doing professionally is interviewing candidates for leadership roles, assessing their ability to meet a particular standard and move forward in a client’s hiring process. Thinking about Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours” theory from Outliers (although I have to admit that my mind automatically goes to the Macklemore song – I mean, who else talks about Gladwell, David Bowie and Kanye in the same phrase?) I am not sure I literally have spent 10,000 hours interviewing people over the past decade, but if not I think I am getting close. Conducting interviews and hiring people is a skill, just like piano playing or swimming. And yet many of us approach hiring as if we are naturally gifted at it, or automatically know what we are looking for and how to assess it in the brief interactions we have with candidates during a selection process.

To me, this feels a bit like Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” statement about pornography – we assume we will just know which candidates are great when we talk with them whether we have taken the time to practice our technique or prep for how to rate candidates' responses in advance. However, unlike Justice Stewart, thousands of hours of interviewing have shown me that our snap judgments are often wrong – even biased in a whole range of troublesome ways - and we usually don’t “know it when we see it” unless we spend time practicing our interviewing techniques and thinking ahead to what we want to get out of each interview before it begins.

When I first started interviewing aspiring principal candidates in my work at New Leaders for New Schools a decade ago, I did not have a clear picture of what I was looking for or how to identify it in an interview process. It was only through conducting rounds of interviews with more experienced colleagues who gave me targeted feedback and rote practice (asking the same questions and listening for the same kinds of responses over and over again) that I became competent in interviewing school leaders. Over the years I have refined my skills, getting better at listening for key pieces of evidence that fit into the competency buckets we are testing and recognizing when a candidate is qualified – and when they are just talking around the answers to my questions, using jargon or saying what they think I want to hear.

One of my favorite kinds of engagements with clients is to support the development of their leader hiring process, facilitating conversations about their priorities for the role, competencies that will lead someone to be successful, and ways of testing candidates’ ability to meet these standards during the selection phase. And then we get to the part where we practice the interviews themselves. It strikes me at these moments how often this is the first time these close colleagues have ever sat together and practiced what they will say to candidates, how they will say it, and what they are looking for in the responses they receive. For me, this is the moment when the magic starts to happen – folks find themselves practicing interview questions and scoring responses relative to a competency framework and they realize together how much more confident they are in their ability to evaluate candidates and make high-quality hiring decisions, feeling better about the whole hiring process in the bargain.

A few weeks ago, my son’s piano teacher asked us to work on a duet to perform at his recital in May. As a result, instead of me calling out to him to practice from the other room, the two of us are sitting down at the piano together almost every night, working through our parts in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” We both get excited when we nail a particular phrase, laugh at ourselves when we mess up, and support each other when we are struggling. My husband likes to come by and just watch us work together on something that used to drive us apart. I can’t guarantee that we will nail every note perfectly when we perform next month, but I do know that our collective practice will set us up for success. And hopefully by modeling my own need to work hard to get something right – and my failures along the way – my seven year old will understand that even grownups need to practice things sometimes to ultimately get them right.

AuthorChristina Greenberg
CategoriesHiring, Working

If you're a fan of The Walking Dead, this blog on connecting career seeking lessons to the show will get you as excited as Rick's reunion with his baby Judith.  

I can a show about the zombie apocalypse possibly have ANY lessons for career seekers?  Well, I've got three nuggets for you:  

"But I need your help. 'Cause I can't do it by myself. And even if I catch up to Bob, we can't do it alone."  Maggie Greene knew that even in times of survival, she couldn't find Glenn without help.  Finding your next career move is the same thing - you can't do it alone, so NETWORK!  Who are the top three to five people you can count on in your network?  Talk to them immediately to help you reflect on your strengths, growth areas, and how other people perceive you.  Don't wait for a zombie to come up behind you to let you know.  :)

"Get one thing straight. You're staying? This isn't a democracy anymore."  Rick Grimes knew that in times of crisis, waiting to get consensus when zombies are attacking you at all hours isn't the way to keep the group alive.  Leadership is contextual.  As a leader, what kind of work culture are you looking for?  Then based on your strengths and growth areas, are you the kind of leader to match what that culture needs to move forward?

"Sanctuary for all. Community for all. Those who arrive, survive."  This was the broadcast from Terminus, the supposed sanctuary for The Walking Dead group.  They were welcomed with open arms, but once inside, they soon learned that the Terminus group didn't have their best interests at heart.  Do your research.  When researching organizations, ask around to people who currently work there, and have worked there recently.  It's important to not just hear the good...but the not so good.  Come up with a list of questions to ask each person.  

I'd love to hear if you've gathered leadership lessons from any other shows!  As you watch your next show on DVR, think about what leadership do's and don'ts you're viewing!

AuthorRon Rapatalo

When I first started working in ed reform a decade ago, everyone around me was focused on the needs of low-income students in urban communities. And understandably so. Living in coastal California, in a city (Oakland) that is both the 3rd most diverse in America and also has such a stark divide in the achievement levels of the public school my children attend in the hills and many other schools a few miles away in the city's flatlands, I totally buy into and believe urgently in the need to improve our failing urban schools.  

At the same time, I have been spending more time as of late in rural communities, where the needs are similarly urgent and the children also in need of high-quality school options.  These experiences have made me think a lot about our assumptions of where we should focus our efforts around changing school culture and increasing innovative instructional practices, and what we can do to most move the needle of achievement for all low-income students, regardless of where they live.

Ceiba College Preparatory Academy in Watsonville, CA

Ceiba College Preparatory Academy in Watsonville, CA

Our team is fortunate to be working with a couple of great CA charter schools working in our state’s farming communities this fall. Like their urban counterparts, they are battling the factors of poverty, institutional discrimination, bureaucratic systems that are slow to change, and a general environment that lacks any sense of urgency around improving schools and achievement. They also have the added challenge of isolation from other innovative schools and school systems, a struggle to attract the best talent to live in rural environments, and a less robust support structure for the kinds of services their students and teachers most need. 

However, it would be a mistake to think that these schools are necessarily limited in their ability to thrive and impact student achievement for their local communities. Their leaders are often scrappy and motivated, taking long drives or airplane drives to visit other successful schools and learn about their effective practices. Rural communities’ small size and relative isolation also means they are often places where people look out for one another and work together to ensure everyone succeeds. I have seen some of the most innovative, creative, rigorous things happening at these schools we have been to in the past month and as such, it has led me to be bullish on the fate of rural schools.

Grimmway Academy's Edible Schoolyard, Arvin CA

Grimmway Academy's Edible Schoolyard, Arvin CA

What can those of us in urban locations learn from our rural friends? I think we can learn to maximize our resources, call on others for help as much as we can, work to build thriving school communities that support and nurture one another, and not take for granted the advantages we have living in such proximity to so many other great innovators and resources. And maybe we can remind ourselves to be more generous, thinking of not just the needs of urban students when we take up the cause of education reform, but ALL students in need, regardless of where they live. 

AuthorChristina Greenberg

Salary Transparency and the Modern Workplace

One morning this summer, I was doing one of my neighborhood runs with the dog listening to a Planet Money podcast (yes, I am a not-so-secret economic policy nerd) and the topic of the show that morning piqued my interest. I was drawn to it in part because it was closely related to something our team spent a lot of time working on last year – how organizations structure and share out information about their compensation systems. [For more info, I highly recommend listening to Planet Money Episode 550: “When Salaries Aren’t a Secret.”]

Now even if you are not someone who specializes in HR or compensation policy, please keep reading! I know this topic sounds dry and uninteresting to most people but it actually relates to something that is really important to all of us employed in the traditional economy – how much money we make each year and how open our organizations are (or should be) about not only our salary and benefits package but that of all of our colleagues, including your boss, her boss, and so on. Unless we work in a traditional union environment, most of us take it for granted that individuals’ salaries are generally private matters and although many of us are comfortable walking up to the new neighbor and asking how much they paid for their house, few of us would feel brazen enough to ask that same person how much income they declared on their W2 last year.

And yet, what I found so great about this podcast – and it lined up well with research our team did in the past year around compensation practices and strategies, including interviews Alicia Robinson and I conducted with a number of different education organization employees – was it gave examples of companies who decided to go against tradition and open up their “books” so that their salary decisions were open to every person working there.  The reason this so appealed to me was that, during our conversations with employees of different education reform organizations, experts in the field, and our review of the literature, we came to a similar conclusion that much of people’s dissatisfaction with their salary and benefits comes from a feeling of uncertainty: uncertainty about what they are paid compared to their colleagues; uncertainty about how salary decisions are made; uncertainty about what to do to improve their situation if they do have a concern. 

One of the start-up leaders profiled in the piece said that earlier management experiences around salary led him to institute a completely open policy around compensation from the time he started his company.  In this example, every position at the company had a dollar range associated with it and each person was given a salary within that range when they were hired (standard practice for most places these days), but then – and this is what was revolutionary – there was a published excel spreadsheet that every employee had access to with the details of each person’s compensation. Each person, from the least experienced admin assistant to the CEO. And what happened? Did employees rebel or flee en masse? Was there upset and discomfort about having these things in the public eye? Actually, overall the leaders of this organization found that when they opened things up and created a system of total transparency, it had overwhelmingly positive effects.

By making salary public, management made a statement that nothing was hidden behind closed doors while also dramatically decreasing that natural level of uncertainty experienced by employees.  In this scenario, people knew where they stood compared with others. With that information out in the open, they felt comfortable approaching their superiors to ask how salaries were assigned and so direct conversations about compensation became more commonplace. Managers made salary decisions knowing they would have to be able to justify them to everyone so they were more deliberate and systematic in placing people on the salary scale. And as a result, managers and employees reported higher satisfaction with their compensation package and workplace culture and climate as a whole.

This kind of transparency may not be the right fit for every organization, and the reporters and experts interviewed agreed that it is more challenging to convert a salary system from being private to public than to launch a company with a public compensation ethos from the start.  But for me, it provides an interesting example and food for thought for talent managers as we try to reward, incent, and retain the best people. And maybe a potential new solution to discuss with clients and colleagues as we continue this work in the year ahead.

AuthorChristina Greenberg
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I have been a working professional for over 17 years and realized that my sense of the elusive work/life balance has evolved as my priorities have shifted.  When I was first out of college, work/life balance meant catching up on sleep during weekends and soaking up every waking hour (work hard, play hard!).  Once my jobs got progressively more challenging, staying out late nights when having to lead a training or interview all day wasn't a good idea, even with two Starbucks Venti Lattes.  I learned to cut back on my partying to save my energy.  I was also getting into my late 20s/early 30s so the work hard/play hard mantra was getting in the way of working and playing with any satisfaction.  Now that I'm married and have a daughter, I no longer stay out late (and no, watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report don't count as staying out!).  Being a father requires a different level of energy altogether, and so I've had to re-adjust my work/life balance yet again.

So why am I sharing all of this?   As a talent professional over the last ten years, I've watched people and organizations either thrive or fall apart because its employees haven't been able to adjust their work and life priorities together.  Now that I talk to many candidates for a number of leadership searches, conversations inevitably end up about "What kind of hours do I have to work?  How well does that organization prioritize its employees' work/life balance?"

I'm a big believer in shaping your own destiny, so no matter what sector you're in, here are some lessons I've learned over the years to find my center:

1 - There's no such thing as work/life balance!  Work and life aren't going to be 50/50 for most of us.  Harmony has always made sense to me - think of your work and life like an orchestra with many instruments and many sounds.  Ultimately, you want your orchestra to be in sync for YOU.

2 - Schedule your priorities - Google calendar is my best friend!  Like a budget reflects fiscal priorities, your calendar should reflect your work and life priorities.  I use green for personal time and blue for work time.  

3-  Meditation - Meditation has allowed me to be more present, so when I'm working or not working, I can fully enjoy what I'm doing.  I'm always more focused because there is less clutter in my head.  There is so much good research about the benefits of meditation that I won't go into here.   I use the app Simply Being on my Android. 

I believe these lessons will help you find your center!  On that note, I'm off to meditate.  Namaste. :)

AuthorRon Rapatalo