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Hire the education leader you want or develop the one you need?

6/15/2017 Joseph C. Haberman, Larry Oberfeld and Ryan Pastrovich
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 Education Leaders

In a survey of more than 300 senior executives across the education industry,1 Heidrick & Struggles discovered that many companies are led by CEOs with a distinctly different leadership style than what is consistent with the company’s culture. This gap in the continuity of leadership styles between senior management and their teams can have significant consequences on future growth, particularly when it is time to hire a new CEO. When deciding whether to promote internally or hire externally, our study suggests that, as a long-term talent strategy, education companies would be well served by cultivating leaders from their existing talent pool to sustainably bridge the company’s commercial objectives and its mission orientation.

The Leadership Signature survey

Using our proprietary Leadership Signature assessment,2 Heidrick & Struggles extensively studied how the strengths, opportunities, and “blind spots” of individual leaders contribute to their effectiveness. The results highlight a professional’s primary leadership style as well as his or her access to seven other distinct styles identified in our research. While most participants will invariably have some degree of access to each of these styles, our experience suggests that leaders tend to gravitate to a default style they find most comfortable. Figure 1 defines the primary Leadership Signature styles.

Education Leaders 

Implications for education markets

Our assessment found that education professionals have a higher average Harmonizer score than that of executives in many other global industries we’ve studied. The prevalence of Harmonizers in education is not entirely surprising, given the industry’s focus on human development and quality-driven outcomes. Similar to these common characteristics associated with education’s culture, Harmonizers create positive and stable environments, inspire loyalty, and tend to be inherently mission-oriented.

However, when the Leadership Signature results were segmented by role, surveyed education companies were found to be frequently led by Forecaster CEOs with a commercial/business mind-set (Figure 2). Additionally, the percentage of Forecasters employed becomes higher, relative to other leadership styles, at senior professional levels, steadily increasing from the concentration of Harmonizers found at the manager level. In essence, we observed that the prevalence of Forecasters increased as we examined higher management levels in the organization, while the proportion of Harmonizers decreased. In education’s “mission-oriented” culture that focuses on development and collaboration, a gap in the continuity of leadership styles between senior executives and their teams has the potential to misalign interests and jeopardize their ability to achieve strategic growth objectives.

Education Leaders

The change in primary leadership style is particularly evident once the vice president/senior vice president level is reached. At that point, the number of Harmonizers drops off, while Forecasters become dominant, implying either that Harmonizers have developed more of a business-oriented mind-set during their career progression and tapped into their Forecaster leadership skills or that education companies are actively recruiting Forecasters for senior roles in anticipation of future challenges. While it is possible that people can change over time and adapt to new roles and responsibilities, they often gravitate to a particular leadership style, so an influx of external hires more likely explains the difference in leadership styles between senior executives and their teams.

Choosing a CEO 

When hiring a CEO, companies have the option of either promoting internal talent that has grown within the industry or recruiting external talent for fresh perspectives, sometimes from outside the company’s industry. In terms of picking a leadership style for CEOs of education companies, our findings suggest that this is largely a decision between pursuing a leader with a Harmonizer mind-set who embodies the industry’s mission-oriented culture or a Forecaster with a business-strategy mentality.

CEOs whose career progressed within the industry deeply value education’s mission orientation and tend to apply it to all facets of their decision making. However, it takes business acumen to translate a company’s mission into action and profitable growth. Additionally, professionals with deep industry knowledge and history can favor the status quo, resisting outside innovation and—at times—limiting growth opportunities.

Conversely, externally hired CEOs from other industries need to adapt quickly to their new environment and connect with their teams to successfully implement changes that support their growth plan and drive results. For CEOs transitioning into education, adapting to an industry that is generally perceived to operate at a slower pace can prove frustrating. These leaders frequently lack a firsthand appreciation for the nuances associated with education, which can obstruct performance-enhancing initiatives and reduce their ability to drive results. Moreover, Forecaster CEOs may end up leading teams that are resistant to shifting their focus away from people and toward financial statements and growth projections.

Making the right choice

A successful education CEO is able to focus on business performance while simultaneously supporting the company’s mission of helping schools and students achieve better educational outcomes. These CEOs are able to bridge the leadership style gap between Forecaster senior executive teams who decide strategy and Harmonizer management teams who are responsible for implementation and execution. In order for education companies to ensure leadership continuity and achieve results, they can either recruit a CEO whose skill set overlaps both leadership styles or develop Forecaster skills in their existing Harmonizer talent.

When recruiting from the outside, many education companies search for a hybrid CEO who can lead as both Forecaster and Harmonizer. The talent pool for such a specific type of leader, however, is very limited. Indeed, our research finds that Forecaster–Harmonizer hybrids are extremely rare among senior leaders. Of the more than 13,000 executives who have participated in the research to date, only 3.7% fit a Forecaster–Harmonizer profile, and just 1.6% were identified as a Harmonizer–Forecaster. While these hybrids are well suited to the education sector, when narrowing our results by industry, we found that only 20 of the 503 Forecaster–Harmonizers and 3 of the 220 Harmonizer–Forecasters are employed in education.

Given the limited talent pool of senior education executives who bridge both Harmonizer and Forecaster styles, there is a strong case to develop talent internally and support leadership style continuity. This long-term strategy should assess the strengths and weaknesses of each leadership style identified in our research and find the right balance that complements the company’s current situation, growth plan, and available talent. For education companies looking to promote both financial growth and their mission-oriented culture, there are a number of options available. For example, these companies can hire Forecasters for junior positions and cultivate a mission-driven mind-set as their careers progress, or they can train their existing Harmonizers in business. With a long-term focus on developing talent, education companies will be well positioned to either fill senior positions from their own ranks or have teams ready to seamlessly execute a CEO’s strategic plan.

It is important to remember that education companies are complex businesses to run and have a broad mix of employees who are business professionals, educators, or even both. Successful CEOs lead the entire company and engage with employees at all levels while appealing to everyone’s sense of accountability. For CEOs of education companies, this means that they need to remain mindful of the industry’s mission-oriented culture when crafting their business strategy and effectively articulate their plan to the teams they manage. Given the industry’s evolving nature and the characteristics of executive talent, education companies are best positioned for growth and leadership continuity when they broadly invest in the long-term development of existing talent and are prepared for the complexities of externally recruiting senior executives from a limited candidate pool.

About the authors

Sally Beatty is an alumna of Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office.

Joe Haberman ( is a partner in the Washington, DC, office; he leads the Education Markets Sector.

Larry Oberfeld ( is an associate in the New York office and a member of the Private Equity Practice.

Ryan Pastrovich ( is a consultant in the Chicago office and a member of the Enterprise Product Development team.


1 Education companies include for-profit entities in pre-K, K–12, post-secondary, adult/corporate education, and EdTech.

2 Our psychometric survey examines three important aspects of leadership: a thriving mind-set; a leader’s combination of self, social, and situational awareness; and essential leadership values such as ethical integrity and openness to change. Our statistical analysis of more than 1,000 of these assessments identified the eight leadership styles discussed in this article. For more about the research, see Karen Rosa West, “What’s your leadership signature?

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Joseph C. Haberman Partner +1 202 3314900

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