Interview with John Magagna
Search Associates Recruiting Fair, Cambridge
John Magagna is Founding Director of Search Associates. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he also holds a master of arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania and completed additional post-graduate work at both Dartmouth College and Harvard University.
Thanks to a Fulbright grant, John began his overseas teaching career at The American School of Tangier in Morocco, where he went on to serve as Headmaster. He served in the same capacity at the Community School in Teheran and Jakarta International School.
Meadow Hilley spoke with John at Search Associate's Cambridge fair, held 26–28 January.
Meadow: I'm told you have 412 candidates here in Cambridge hoping to land a position with one of the 121 international schools represented. Can you describe the scene back when Search Associates was first founded in 1990?
John: The first fair I ever organized was in Sydney, Australia. There were 77 candidates and 11 schools. It was very successful, as 67 of the candidates got placed.
Meadow: What prompted you to create Search Associates at the outset?
John: That's a long story.
Meadow: We could sit.
John: When I was a youth—a wayward youth, badly in need of direction—my mother put me in a private school, which I begged her to do because it had the only tennis team in the county. The school was called Wyoming Seminary, but it was neither in Wyoming nor was it a seminary. I did not find a world-class tennis program, but I found a group of unbelievable teachers, and they had a profound effect on me.
When I finished college, I felt I owed them something, so I went back there to teach for a year or two and got hooked. Then I got a Fulbright grant to teach in Morocco. Eventually, I ended up serving as Headmaster at Jakarta International School.
What I liked most about my job was the opportunity to go out in the world with nothing but my bare hands and come back with a cadre of really good teachers. That was a real turn-on for me. So I asked myself, "Why not just let somebody else run this school and make a profession of going out and finding good teachers?" So that's what I did.
Meadow: What does it take to find a good teacher?
John: Hard work, patience, a strong intuition, and the ability to recognize talent when you see it. I don't pay much attention to certification. I don't stipulate that a candidate must have a lot of experience. What I always ask myself is, "Do I want this person to teach my own children?" Then I go a level deeper. "Do I want this teacher to influence my children?" When you interview a candidate and sense that you'd like them to have a deep influence on your kid, that's the gold standard.
Meadow: Essentially, it boils down to values and worldview?
John: It does. Naturally, a certain degree of intelligence and competence are a given. Beyond that, though, what matters most is not a candidate's experience or degrees, it's the values. Bottom line, what I'm looking for is someone who is hard working, intelligent, and nice.
Meadow: Since you started this company, there has been a major explosion in the field of international education. It's an exciting time, no doubt. Does anything about this rapid proliferation of schools concern you?
John: Yes, all of the above. First off, our goal is not to make Search Associates bigger. I'd prefer not to lose 50 percent of my business, but I don't care whether or not we grow. What I'm interested in is the quality of the teachers. Likewise, we have lots of schools applying to join Search Associates, but we screen them very carefully, putting them through a lot of paces. We could easily bring in 200 new schools very quickly; I don't want to do that. What we want are quality schools that treat their teachers well. Consequently, we end up declining about half of those that inquire.
Meadow: Are you encouraged by the quality of the educators that you see emerging on the scene?
John: It's getting harder to find stellar candidates. For one, there's a lot more competition among placement firms now than there was 20 years ago. There are a lot of candidates, too, but not everyone is qualified to do the job. We tread a very fine line when we turn people down, but if candidates don't meet our standards, we don't want to accept them. I'll often have to tell a teacher, "Look, when you send us US$225, you're going to expect us to do something for you. But I don't think we can. The market is really competitive. Come back in five years."
Meadow: Your business model seems to rely on your ability to acquire good information—how do you get it?
John: About the schools, we elicit confidential information from the teachers working there. As for candidates, we require confidential references from the supervising principal and three other administrators.
Meadow: When I talk to the candidates here at Search, they consistently say what a wonderful fair this is. They talk about the character of the event, the pervasive feeling of community. They say everyone they meet is very nice. Is the fair's character something you have worked to develop?
John: Certainly. Without giving away the farm or selling our soul, we want to make sure that the recruiters and the candidates feel supported here. But we also have explicit directions for them as to how to treat one another. For example, we require recruiters to allow ample time for a candidate to decide whether or not to accept an offer. As for candidates, they need to understand that their word is their bond. "Do not commit to a school unless you're ready to do it," I tell them. "And don't renege." They need to know that reneging is the worst thing they could possibly do. We try very hard to make the fair a very positive experience for both candidates and recruiters.
Meadow: Do you have general advice for candidates?
John: When I applied for that Fulbright grant many years ago, I had set my sights on England. My mother told me I was a fool. I think she called up the Fulbright people and threatened them, because they ended up sending me to Morocco.
I like to tell candidates, if there's one thing I'd never change in my life, that's it, right there. Going to Morocco was the watershed event—the most important thing that had ever happened to me. And yet, at the time that country was not even remotely on my radar screen. The more flexible you are, the more likely you are to not only get a job but experience true discovery as well.
Meadow: What are you looking for when recruiting a school head?
John: Our company does about 40 head of school searches every year. I like a candidate that is outside of the box. Not too long ago, I placed an administrator at a good school in Panama; he had never worked a day in his life at a school until he became school head. He did a great job.
Meadow: The creative types and innovators are rarely the ones to take a conventional approach.
John: Ten years ago, I got hired by Oprah Winfrey to do a head of school search for her leadership academy for girls in South Africa. I went to Chicago and met with her before beginning the search. I started to fantasize that I would do such a fantastic job in finding a phenomenal school head for Oprah that she would invite me to be on her show, then Hollywood would discover me, naturally, and I'd go on to become rich and famous. We ended up identifying about 500 candidates, some of whom were really, really good. Needless to say, the fame and fortune thing never happened, alas.
Meadow: How disappointing! But you've clearly had many success stories.
John: I recently placed someone as head of a very good school in Addis Ababa. I believe this man is one of the two or three best educators on the planet. Every school was after him. I told him how glad I was he ultimately chose Addis, even though he could have become head of several other outstanding schools. "How did you make your decision?" I asked. "I think this is a place where I could really make a difference," he told me. That's my definition of a satisfying search.
Meadow: And what about you? What are you searching for at this point in your life?
John: My daughter Jessica, who is now head of the company, has informed me that my services are no longer needed. So I am planning to retire on the 15th of August and will spend my time doing more hunting and fishing.
I am also the family historian; I've got more than 300 years of family records to organize and use to write a family history for my children.
Meadow: That's fantastic. We wish you all the best.