Head Transition/Entry Plans: Risks And Opportunities

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Head Transition/Entry Plans: Risks And Opportunities

Increasingly, newly appointed heads are devising elaborate and interesting “entry plans” for their move to a new school. These may be first time heads or experienced heads changing jobs. The entry plans outline the head’s sense of where and how he or she will spend the first 30, 90, 180 days and into a full year. The plans reflect the school’s goals and perceived needs. These plans are interesting and indicate to a board something about a head’s leadership, but they do not replace a “transition committee” or a “transition plan.”

I. How the Outgoing Head Departs

The most important part of transition or entry is to ensure a healthy succession for the outgoing head and a healthy transition for the incoming one. This Consultant recommends a very carefully constituted Transition Committee made up of about three board members, all of whom were on the search committee.

It is important to remember that part of succession and transition planning is how the OUTGOING head is treated and what that head is saying or implying as he or she departs. An outgoing head with too much power and clout may use it inappropriately to undermine the new head. This can occur when a sitting head is leaving under pressure or when a sitting head simply fears the loss of his or her legacy.

A departing head might say to the incoming head: “Although I would like to stay, the Board has moved me out to bring in someone who will do more of what they direct him to do.” That is more than a subtle hint that the board may be difficult. Another departing head, feeling well treated and leaving on his or her own terms might say: “I want to have another life. It was my decision to leave and this has been a great School and a great Board.” Thus, boards need to ensure that this outgoing head is honored, financially well treated, and given an incentive to stay away for at least one full year and not staying local and holding court with potentially disgruntled or unsettled staff or parents.

Part of succession and transition planning is also how the board treats the outgoing head who was removed, no matter how subtly or publicly, to ensure as little hard feelings and as much good will as possible. This is a small world within independent and international schools and what goes around comes around. The way a board treats its outgoing head is a clear message to the incoming one.

II. Internal Candidates

It is also important to remember that internal candidates complicate a search especially if the internal candidate is a potentially strong one and favored by the outgoing head. That scenario can make it especially challenging for the head arriving from the outside. While this Consultant does recommend internal succession planning in many cases, often there is no likely internal successor, one has left for another headship or one is not appealing enough to the board. That makes transition planning even more important.

III. The Patterns

Boards almost always hire a head who is the polar opposite of the one who is leaving and this Consultant means a contrast of temperament, background, style, etc. The longer the prior head has been in place, the more “polar opposite” the successor is likely to be. That makes a transition plan critical as the school seldom wishes to reject entirely the style of the predecessor. The Transition Committee has to watch for the potential of a backlash effect from choosing someone so different.

The average tenure of an international school head is 3.5 years and that of a US independent school head is shy of 6 years. Most of these heads who do not survive the first five years were derailed by one of the following challenges:

  1. Loss of institutional memory on the board and loss of the key individuals and search leaders who hired the head
  2. Managing the pace or type of change too quickly
  3. The development of a crisis or incident which is perceived as not well handled by the new head

A Transition Committee can help avoid all three of these pitfalls. However, some boards form Transition Committees which have the risk of becoming “super boards,” micromanaging the head’s early days or into the first year or two.

IV. Chair Transition and the Makeup of the Committee

This Committee should ensure a healthy board chair succession plan. Ideally, the chair of the board who hired the head remains chair at least for the next two years OR the chair of the search committee takes over the role as chair of the board and remains in that role at least two years. We all remember the message that it is the third (international) or fourth (US and Canada) board chair that fires that head. Institutional stability and the successful transition of the head depend heavily on the early stages of development of the head/chair partnership.

Remember as well that 80% of all governance problems stem from the lack of a healthy head/chair partnership but about 20% of governance issues stem from a feeling on the board as a whole that the head/chair partnership is too close and excludes consultation with the rest of the board. This can happen in tightly controlled governance models aimed at keeping board members out of micromanagement but which can lead to an uprising of board sentiment against the head and also the chair.

Many heads come in with a sense of security about his or her chair only to find the individual is leaving the next year and that perhaps the next chair is an individual with whom the head-elect has had no close contact or where the chemistry may not work. This is where the Committee on Trustees comes into play and works with the Transition Committee to ensure a smooth succession to a trusted new chair.

The makeup of the Transition Committee is crucial as it must have the trust of the board as a whole. Transition Committees need individuals with power, clout, and insights as well as nurturing instincts. It is important that the chair and search chair put together such a committee with individuals who cover that terrain of nurture, organization and influence.

The Committee can report back periodically to the Executive Committee and/or the board as a whole with generic updates but it should not share unnecessary details. Some of the advice which the Committee members give to the head should not be revealed to the full board in any case due to reasons of confidentiality.

V. Roles of the Transition Committee

  1. The first role of the Committee is to ensure a healthy landing for the head and family including appropriate housing, schooling for the children, a job for the spouse if desired, and assistance with moving to a new area, including recommending doctors and recreational options/clubs. This entire first part of the Committee’s role is the “care and feeding” of the new head and his or her family. A board that fails here has basically failed a critical test of trust with the new head of school. School heads who are unhappy upon arrival or have unhappy children or spouses are unlikely to be engaged successfully in the nurturing of the staff, students and parents.
  2. The second role is guiding the head to understand the important personalities on the board, including former board members, key faculty players, donors and community leaders, i.e., all key individuals who mean a great deal to the school. The head needs to be careful not to step on their toes or alienate them in early meetings or through lack of engagement. The head needs to meet and cultivate these individuals and needs guidance from the Transition Committee to do this.
  3. This Committee also explains the school’s history, background, “incidents”, lore, buried bodies (so to speak), possible political risks to the new head and topics of change or pace of change that must be managed carefully. Ambitious heads or those who have been heads elsewhere may come to this new culture without fully understanding the sensibilities of it. I am thinking of one who tried to change an insensitive protrayal of the School mascot. He almost lost his job because he underestimated the negative repercussions throughout the entire community that such a well-intentioned and seemingly small change generated.
  4. The Committee must also protect the new head when the first mistakes are made, and they will be made. While the board chair is the first line of protection, in that first year the Transition Committee must be the wagon train that circles the head for protection when the first misunderstandings or attacks occur for some decision made or not made. The Transition Committee should disband after one year. That is not categorical but a committee lasting three months is not enough and more than a year is too much.

VI. Transition Is as Important as the Search

Boards spend a great deal of time and money on searches. Searches generate excitement. But the transition may seem less exciting. It is the grunt work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that the efforts to find the right new head are not for naught by overlooking all the key transition issues mentioned above. Let us never forget one of the things that trips up heads often: prickly personalities on the board, on the faculty, or in the parent community. Transition Committees can warn heads about these individuals and to a certain extent, protect the heads from them, at least in the early days of getting to know the community.

John C. Littleford
Senior Partner