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Is It "The End"? And If So, Then What?

The lifespan of a head at any one independent school is relatively short. According to research by Littleford & Associates, an inordinately high percentage of all heads are fired, even though the public message about a head’s departure is usually a different one. On a positive note, this high turnover of headships means that the majority of heads have a “second life” as a leader of another independent school. In preserving future options, however, heads need a good sense of intuition about the “drift” of things, a good contract and a board willing to negotiate a flexible and fair separation, whether that separation occurs unexpectedly or with notice.

  1. The First Step: Ensure Longevity in the Position

    Completely aside from the important ANNUAL head evaluation process, a successful school head should also do the following:

    1. Spend a significant amount of his or her time working with and cultivating EACH member of the board. The most effective way to do this is to visit with each trustee at least once or twice a year to gather:
      • informal feedback on how that trustee views the head’s performance;
      • input as to how the trustee feels about his or her own service as a board member and how the head may be able to enhance the satisfaction of that service; and
      • feedback on how the trustee’s children are doing in school if the trustee is a current parent.
    2. This may seem like a large expenditure of time and effort, but it is one of the keys to longevity in any headship position. Some schools heads may feel they have little time to undertake this task. However, it is important to do so to whatever extent your time allows. The investment pays off in better rapport with the board.
    3. Communicate regularly and directly and develop a positive, working partnership with the board chair. Be sensitive to the demands of his or her personal and professional schedule while ensuring that your communication needs are met.
    4. Help to ensure open and effective dialogue between the chair and the rest of the board, making other trustees feel valued and invested in the School. A minority of troubled boards encounters difficulty because the partnership of the head/chair is perceived as too close and insufficiently critical of the head.
    5. Create opportunities for board members to become better acquainted with one another, trust one another and have a fairly high degree of unity. Thus when a crisis does occur, the board is more likely to support the head fully without breaking into factions. An annual retreat for strengthening good governance and unity is a “must.” These are very important investments of time.
    6. Undertake change carefully, analytically, and with the support of key administrators and faculty.
    7. Avoid terminating a long term or “longer term” teacher unless you have already established a reservoir of substantial good will among the teaching staff and have been the head for at least three to five years. Otherwise, if such a termination is necessary, the head will need to prepare the board very well, beginning first at the executive committee level. International school heads will feel pressure to move more quickly and generally may be able to do so.
    8. Keep a watchful eye, not only upon the level of support emanating from key trustees (including the chair), but from the “invisible board” of outsiders, parents, past parents, alumni or other prominent school supporters. Such individuals, if irritated sufficiently, can maneuver a head’s dismissal quite effectively.
    9. Understand the importance of the loyalty of your own key, second tier administrators such as the business manager and division heads or deputy heads. A powerful and popular division head who gives public support but private disapproval about a new head, for example, can undermine that head sufficiently for the head to be fired.
  2. How Do the Signals Emerge?

    Warning signals emanate most commonly from the board chair in the form of distancing behavior, visible frustration and/or frequent stated or implied criticism. Any board meeting, or meeting of the executive committee or small groups of trustees, without the head, is an almost certain sign of an impending termination.

    A lengthy delay in contract renewal or getting the contract signed and delivered MAY be a sign of loss of support. The head may mistakenly assume the contract is harmlessly buried in a pile at the lawyer’s office.

    Any public protest, “town meeting” or “open forum,” in which the head comes under attack or serious criticism and board members do not publicly and firmly support the head, is another signal of a weakening of board resolve.

    Heads who are absent too much for professional or personal reasons, seem isolated or appear consistently defensive about criticism, may also be courting trouble.

  3. III. How May A Dismissal Be Conveyed?
    1. The Civil Approach

      In some schools, the head is given sufficient notice to allow time for a reasonable search and departure. The board leadership is also willing to articulate support to head hunters and potential employers. In these cases, the outside world may not really see a “dismissal.”

      If the contract stipulates 18 months or more notice of non-renewal, and the head’s contract is not renewed, this termination usually will end with “honor”. Unfortunately, in our experience only about half of all terminations occur with this kind of professionalism.

      In order for this more graceful ending to occur, there must be a contract in place, the stipulations of termination “without cause” must be clear and fair, and the board must have sufficient goodwill not to force the head out without honoring the terms of the contract. Boards learn these important behaviors from good governance training. These are boards where the committee on trustees has done careful screening and selected trustees of high moral character with a sense of “fair play.”

      This form of separation allows both parties to remain “whole”, to acknowledge the positive aspects of the head’s performance internally and externally and to minimize rancor and disruption within the school community.

      However, there are two other very unpleasant forms of dismissal.

    2. Immediate Termination, No Legal Cause

      In our firm’s experience, this form of termination occurs in about a quarter of all dismissals. In mid winter, early or late spring, the head is notified that even with the contract still in force, he or she must depart by late June. This presents grave difficulties for the head since finding a new position on such short notice is nearly impossible. The head’s reputation and livelihood are also likely to be severely damaged from these actions. The head may need to seek legal counsel since an implied breach of contract may have taken place.

      Boards generally make this move only if they have already lined up someone-usually an insider, division head or another school head who has been solicited “off the record”- to accept the new headship on either an interim or permanent basis. International schools need a shorter time frame in which to find a new head as many of their candidates come from US public schools or other international schools.

      In these cases, most boards have decided they will pay the sometimes considerable severance stipulated in the contract. In a few cases, unscrupulous boards will rely on the head’s lack of personal resources and “stomach” for pursuing legal rights and not pay the compensation due under the contract.

    3. Immediate Termination: “Cause” Attempted

      In this case, either the head may have no written contract or no contract in force currently. The contract may have expired, and perhaps the head just assumed it would be renewed or felt it would be gauche to press to have a formal contract review. Perhaps the board’s attorney wrote the contract, and the definition of “cause” (no severance for dismissal) was broadened. The head either did not notice or did not have his or her own attorney check the contract language carefully.

      In this case, dismissal for “cause” might be stated to include: “insubordination”, lack of meeting the board’s goals, or a number of other softly worded indications that the contract can be terminated without compensation and without great legal or financial risk to the board.

      Often, very honorable trustees allow the school’s attorney to put in the head’s contract language terms that will leave the head helpless in case of dismissal for “cause.” The attorney believes that he/she is operating in the best interests of the school (the client), and the trustees are unaware of the potentially harmful implications of that language to the head’s future.

      The situation does not become dangerous until the board feels that the relationship is no longer working and wants out, but does not have the resources called for in the contract. Boards will sometimes then “reach” for a provision within the contract to push the head to leave and force him or her to take whatever settlement is offered.

      In most cases, boards should not agree to contracts of more than three years duration, with an “evergreen” clause. Contracts of greater length, if a separation occurs, may further press the board to consider breaking the contract, often hunting for reasons to do so to save the school the specified large pay out.

      Clearly, the board has the right and the need to terminate a head for lack of performance. In the world of independent schools, however, we have seen many instances in which terminations have been launched by political forces, fed by disgruntlement over a particular policy or administrative decision. This may not represent poor leadership on the head’s part. Such political actions often follow the departure of one or more staff members.

      When heads are terminated precipitously and without the opportunity to move successfully to a new position, they suffer real harm. Heads hope to avoid this latter situation by allowing issues to be resolved before they come to a crisis and by having an appropriate contract in place. Female heads, in particular, should not make the mistake of not wanting to appear too “aggressive” or “confrontational” and thus not insist upon a fair, well-executed and current contract.

  4. What To Do Next?

    Once word reaches the head, or suspicions are very high, that a termination is possible, the head should contact a few treasured friends and legal counsel. Legal counsel should not be someone connected to the School. While seeking an attorney may anger some powerful trustees, it is our experience that negotiations and dialogue tend to be unfair without legal counsel on both sides of the matter.

    When it is clear to the head that he or she is about to be dismissed, the first concerns are about one’s spouse, the children, their education, the school owned home, one’s reputation, and the ability credibly to seek another headship, once the “word” gets out.

    If the head is well connected, has built relationships with multiple head hunters over the years and key board members are willing to provide written and verbal support, then life will move on in a positive direction.

    A wise man once said: “Always have options.” Heads of school are wise to keep acquaintanceship active with several head hunters and to be seen by them as viable members of their “stable” of potential candidates. Active head participation in regional or national organizations may also keep channels open for search options.

    The most difficult scenario is one where the head receives notification in late spring, will lose occupancy of the school owned house, and where the children may be not be allowed to return in the fall. Even if the children are allowed to remain, and the house occupancy is extended for one more year, the head will live with discomfort and embarrassment. In our experience it is far better, therefore, for a head in such circumstances to negotiate a severance package that provides coverage for housing and for the education of the children elsewhere in the upcoming year.

    Most heads will try to keep the situation amicable, even if faced with a resignation letter placed suddenly before them. This unexpected scenario unfortunately occurs every year in some of the world’s most prestigious independent and international schools.

    No board should do this. No head should become passive and tolerate it. When the board simply wants the head “gone” as soon as possible for perceived poor performance and demands a signed letter of resignation, the head should ask for the reasons for the dismissal, in writing, and for time to consider them. Most often the recent evaluation process contained no clue of what may be occurring now. No discussion should occur in these circumstances no matter how hard pressed the head feels, unless that head is being accused of a legal violation. In that case, legal counsel is essential in any case.

    If the head involves an attorney, it is better NOT to put that attorney face to face with the Board leaders. It may be that no such discussion may need to take place. Thoughtful, analytical, legal counsel for the head may be enough.

    Boards are advised NOT to corner a head without options. If that occurs, a head worried about his or her future and family security may resort to actions that could damage both the school and the head’s own future options.

    No head, when evaluating a new position, should fail to explore at length and in depth under what circumstances the previous head left and how that head was treated in the departure.

  5. What Options To Consider If There is No Headship?

    Heads may not NEED to have another headship or highly compensated leadership roles unless they WANT them. Many school heads these days have set enough money aside in deferred compensation accounts so that they do not NEED to work again after age 58-60. Deferred compensation plans, when in place long enough, will provide a comfortable retirement. The standard retirement plan alone will not provide this cushion.

    Most heads, who do not want or cannot obtain another headship after being fired from a previous one, try consulting. Most do not succeed. Heads may have excellent skills as administrators and analysts, but they often underestimate the sheer volume of hours and energy which must be expended on marketing. Most heads, even if articulate, well liked and connected, mistakenly presume that their experience will put their services in sufficient and steady demand.

    Many other former heads, especially those who have led prominent schools, try their hand at “head hunting.” The success rate is low here as well because success is highly dependent upon influential connections. There are an extremely small number of ex heads serving in this capacity. Furthermore, many head hunters today are professional, corporate search firms which include non profit head hunting in their line of work.

    What else is available? Most heads do not want to hire ex heads as subordinates. The fear is that the former head may be so accustomed to power that he or she will not be able to serve in a capacity less than a headship. This is not true for most ex heads, who might actually be content and very effective as admissions directors, deputy or assistant heads, development directors, division heads or college placement directors. It can be quite a relief to move off the firing line, yet it remains difficult to reassure current heads of this reality. Former heads of school, however, represent a largely untapped reservoir of very skilled talent, and current heads might well consider hiring them.

    Very few business or foundation opportunities are available although a few ex heads with powerful connections do land foundation assignments.

    It is important to keep in mind that age discrimination is powerful in this business, as it is in many occupations. This is particularly so against males especially once a head reaches his mid to late 50’s. Women heads tend to come later to headships than men and face far less age discrimination when seeking new positions.

  6. Concluding Advice

    The key for all successful heads, who want to lead successful happy lives AFTER being a head, are simple:

    1. Do not let the job consume your life. You NEVER define the school’s identity.
    2. Always have options as a head of school and possibly in related fields. Always explore them carefully but discreetly on a regular basis and maintain your visibility with search firms.
    3. Ensure that if you have a spouse, he or she is securely employed, assuming that is possible and desirable within your family.
    4. Negotiate a solid contract with the appropriate legal safeguards and provisions in place. If possible, encourage the board chair to hire an independent consultant to oversee the design and approval of the compensation package to the benefit of all parties involved.
    5. Request a generous deferred compensation plan as part of the package. Deferred compensation has become one of the most important tools for retaining, rewarding and attracting heads. This is true worldwide.
    6. Remain optimistic. Keep in mind that the vast majority of “fired” heads land on their feet and find another headship, one where often they are happier than in the previous position.
    7. Remember that headship, while a risky profession, can also be a very rewarding one.

Littleford & Associates provides mentoring and coaching services to new heads, as well as executive counseling to experienced heads, in order to avoid the pitfalls and difficulties described in the article above.

On the topic of head compensation, Littleford & Associates has been retained by the board chairs of over 1350 schools worldwide to assist boards with the design, content and structure of head compensation packages and to benchmark these packages with comparable schools. The Firm works ONLY for boards on this matter and CANNOT be retained by a head of school for consultation or advice.

John Littleford
Senior Partner