There are serious problems in the structure of our boards and our schools that damage their long-term financial and emotional health. This is caused by the too frequent turnover of trustees and heads. This letter focuses on board structure and behavior, the leadership styles of heads, and other factors that assist in ensuring a longer term as a head of the same school.
THE KEY QUESTIONS:
How do longer terms heads survive? What do they know that other heads do not? What are the qualities of leadership, character, and style that tend to lead to a greater and more significant legacy?
What elements are present in a school’s culture and board structure/make up that enable a good head to become an effective long-term leader and builder? What are the forces at work that lead to the frequent and often unpleasant departure of heads?
THE SAD STATE OF HEAD TURNOVER
Almost eighty percent of all heads of schools are fired. They do not leave of their own volition. Thirty years ago many heads served long terms of office and most left under their own steam. While the job today is more complicated and pressured, and while parents, boards, students, alumni, faculty and community are all more demanding than thirty years ago, there appear to be a number of specific factors which have led to the early termination of heads.
THE BEGINNING AND OFTEN THE END
New heads are cautioned to “lay low in the weeds”, observe, and make no sudden or controversial moves in their first year. This is good advice.
The second year the knowledgeable head begins to move on pressure points from the board and faculty and, depending on the head’s leadership style, amount of political good will available, and needs of the school, the head begins to make decisions. In so doing, the head also begins to create friction and “push back” from the constituents, mainly the faculty.
By the end of the third year, the head will generally have crossed the Rubicon and may reasonably expect another two or three years of service, OR may find the contract terminated effective at the end of year three or four.
By year five, most school heads have begun to make a difference in the life of the school. But this depends on leadership style. “Amiables”, and “Expressives”, will not have accomplished as much as “Drivers” or “Analyticals.” However, they tend to be survivors, up to about 10 years. These four leadership styles are easy “handles” to identify distinctive behavior of heads.
THE HEAD’S IMPACT
The head’s long term impact on the school only begins to occur after years 8-10 when parents, past parents, board members and alumni begin to feel a debt to the current head for the success of their children and the fund raising potential begins to pay off. The years of substantive contribution are often 8-15.
THERE IS NO SET NUMBER OF YEARS THAT SHOULD SERVE AS A MAXIMUM FOR A HEAD’S TENURE
Some have written there should be a limit of 15 years to any head’s term. Our firm strongly disagrees with this sentiment. The question rests totally on the culture of the school, the structure of the board and the energy, leadership and wisdom of the head.
Some of the greatest legacies have been left by heads who stayed long beyond 15 years. Of course there was only one Frank Boyden. He served 67 years as Head of Deerfield.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF LONG TERM HEADS
In the past thirty years long-term trustees have disappeared and with them, long term heads. Count the number of heads today who are in their mid 60’s. Count the number who have been heads at the same school for over 20 years. There are very few of them.
Littleford & Associates has conducted interviews with over 2,000 trustees in the past 10 years through the process we use in helping boards set the compensation and evaluation structure for heads. We have been retained by over 600 schools worldwide to assist with this assessment.
From the interviews with the leadership of the boards of these 600 plus schools come clear patterns and signals of how and where school heads are in trouble and how the long term ones are able to hold on, and generally make a greater contribution.
One recent head retired after 38 years on the job. He remained a respected and strong leader to the end of his term. How did he manage that?
THE PENDULUM HAS SWUNG TOO FAR
School boards were advised in the 1960’s that our trustees were serving terms that were too long. Schools needed “fresh blood”; boards were becoming stale and inactive. Parents were insufficiently involved.
The advice was taken too much to heart. The pendulum has swung far too wide in the other direction today.
Most boards of independent schools today have two three-year terms a trustee can serve. After that, the trustee must depart for a year. Most do not return after that year off.
THERE IS A DIRECT CORRELATION BETWEEN THE LONGEVITY OF SERVICE OF TRUSTEES AND THE LONGEVITY OF SERVICE OF HEADS
Heads generally cannot survive their fourth board chair. So the length of service of each chair has enormous power to affect the health of the school and the tenure of heads.
The more stable and strong schools, with the longer serving heads, have trustees who serve for longer periods and chairs who serve at least 3 years and often 5 or more. Yet the typical independent school board chair today serves only a two-year term.
BOARD MEMBERS MAY BE TOO INVOLVED
Today the job of board chair is considered too demanding for a term longer than 1-3 years. Why is that? How could schools have allowed the chair’s time demands to soar so high that a two year stint exhausts the chair? Perhaps the answer lies in what we ask today of boards and chairs.
One of our school clients has a female head whose contract was on the point of not being renewed. The Chair felt overwhelmed with his duties and leading a board of individuals, all of whom were extensively involved in the education and long range planning and similar committees. The trustees were interviewing teachers for many different purposes. The trustees were tired, burned out and yet accused the head of not leading. The head was numb, frozen into inaction by trustee intrusion and criticism.
Following a restructuring of the board, the Head’s contract was renewed; the Chair is staying on; several committees were disbanded; and the board once again is turning to the head for leadership. She has been newly empowered.
Many schools have suffered from similar board exhaustion, intrusion, and unintended over involvement. The key is to know when it has happened to your own school, and before the intrusion leads to a major crisis.
THERE IS A DIRECT LINK BETWEEN LENGTH OF SERVICE OF THE BOARD CHAIR AND THE TERM AND SUCCESS OF THE HEAD.
Schools with longer serving trustees tend have longer serving board chairs and longer serving heads. The culture of one nationally known school is to preserve the best of the best, to celebrate the School’s culture and history and to regard it as family. While a certain amount of parochialism can occur from such stability, the culture of the school is likely to be much healthier by almost any definition.
At least in modern times heads at this school have served 25-year terms, and the trustees on average have served a 15-18 year term. Several have served 25 years or more. This school is really a community where a quarter of the faculty are graduates, more then 60% have now or had children attending the school, and the chair is the fourth generation of his family to serve on the board. Stability is a hallmark of the school. From that stability of the board flows a desire for no sudden or hysterical responses to outside parent, alumni or faculty pressures.
THE FREQUENT TURNOVER OF HEADS CREATES A POWER VACUUM
Frequent turnover of trustees almost always leads to a frequent turnover of heads. The turnover of heads at elementary day schools tends to be the highest.
The turnover at boys’ boarding schools (the ones that are left) tends to be the lowest. Head turnover is higher in schools with all parent boards and lowest in schools where a majority of trustees are community leaders, past parents and/or alumni. The non-parent constituents have a longer-term view of the school and its mission and less of an hysterical reaction to what news a child brings home from school each day about a specific teacher.
Frequent turnover of trustees, and thus shorter terms for board chairs leads to shorter terms for school heads. This turnover of heads leads to a power vacuum into which the faculty naturally moves. Every turnover of head creates insecurity for teachers, except where it happens so often that they have become cynical about it.
Then such turnover accentuates teacher tenure and security because the school’s institutional memory lies not with the board and administration but with the faculty.
Littleford & Associates has interviewed thousands of independent school teachers as part of school climate, compensation and evaluation reviews. Schools with frequent head turnover tend to be those where the faculty is most resistant to change. As a number of teachers have relayed “We have outlasted previous heads and we will outlive this one”.
When boards sense that there is a power vacuum with no clear leadership, they tend to move in on the head and thereby begin to confront faculty behaviors directly. Search committees in such situations often instruct the new head to “clean out the dead wood” referring to longer-term teachers.
In this prescription lies the kiss of death for the head. Long term teachers in such settings are the reservoirs of memory, history and culture. They must be won over and not fired. But they cannot be won over if they believe they are under attack or if they believe they can outlive yet another head. After all, why change focus if the next head will have a whole new set of agendas?
When a school has had weak leadership the power vacuum is filled by teachers, trustees and sometimes parent groups. Yet the board, in selecting a new head, recognizes the need for leadership. The board says it wants to back off and empower the head. But this same board often gives very firm directions to the head for change.
The new head stirs up a hornet’s next. He is fired. A new power vacuum is created. The board changes again and no one remembers this pattern–except the senior faculty who remember it all too well.
HEALTHY SCHOOL CULTURES ARE DAMAGED BY HEAD TURNOVER
While incompetent heads certainly need to be removed, few fit that definition. Anxiety of staff, resistance to change, insecurity of constituents, the crossing of boundaries both lead to and result from frequent head turnover.
Boundary crossing alone can lead to disaster. One recent client experienced a kind of faculty revolution. The head, backed by a board somewhat out of touch with parent sentiment, made a mistake in contract letters relating to a salary scale. The Head apologized for the mistake.
Pent up faculty anger and hurt about perceived past errors and hurt feelings led the faculty to petition the board for action. The board felt out of touch and brought onto the board some of the newer, critical parents. These parents had been contacted by faculty, some of whom wanted to have the head fired.
The outcome was near termination of the head and the inappropriate crossing of boundaries by every constituency except the students. The board began to micro manage. The teachers began to resist every decision of the head and to leverage for every small advantage. The parents demanded more involvement including some power over who should be retained or fired. The board split into factions.
The School has since stabilized but not without immense pain all around. The head has announced an earlier than planned retirement. Trustees are rebuilding their relationships after some unpleasant attacks on one another.
While the first board may have been somewhat out of touch, it had provided 10 years of stable backing for the head, who was able to put the school on a healthy educational and fiscal footing. The board overreacted and provided several public meetings for attacks on the head by both teachers and parents. Having thus undercut the head’s position, the board and head have since tried to reestablish appropriate boundaries, which constituent groups should not cross.
LONG TERM HEADS KNOW HOW TO MANAGE THE BOARD
In the distant past heads did not have to spend much time cultivating and managing their entire board. Today they ignore such cultivation at their peril. Boards today can range up to 50 trustees. How does a head cultivate and manage 50 bosses?
Long term heads have an important partnership with the board chair. But their management of the board does not take the 40% of time that many heads today spend on board related activities.
SMALL BOARDS TEND TO BE MORE STABLE THAN LARGE BOARDS
The most effective size seems to be between 10-20. Larger boards tend to lead to powerful executive committees that become, in effect, the real board. That will work as long as the rest of the board members understand that their role is really rather advisory and peripheral.
THE POWER AND THE DANGER OF THE HEAD/CHAIR PARTNERSHIP
One of the greatest successes of NAIS in recent years has been the annual retreat for heads and board chairs, referred to as Governorship Through Partnership. Many chairs have spoken of benefitting from these sessions. Board chair/head partnerships have probably reduced the number of head firings, though the total number fired each year is still dramatic.
However, some heads and chairs find that the very closeness of their partnership can lead other trustees to feel that the chair is too close to the head, and too likely to defend the head at every turn. This can lead to other trustees distancing themselves from BOTH the head and the chair. This is dangerous as it undermines the one safety mechanism the head has: the respect the chair commands to deflect excessive or inappropriate attacks on the head.
FOR GREATER BOARD STABILITY THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE MEMBERS SHOULD BE EVALUATED AND HAVE THE OPTION TO BE REELECTED ANNUALLY.
This provides for greater stability and institutional memory. It is one way to reinstate logic and sanity in decision making, particularly when the head or school is under fire.
Institutional memory and generosity of giving often comes from these longer-term trustees who serve on executive committees, and do not have fixed term limits.
KEEP THE PAST CHAIR ON THE BOARD FOR AT LEAST TWO MORE YEARS
Assuming the outgoing chair was reasonably effective and respected by the board, it is too great a loss to allow this person to leave the board to make room for the new chair. The new chair needs to be magnanimous and secure enough to seek the wisdom of the former chair. Former chairs can assist the board in avoiding precipitous decision making that may lead to a head’s resignation or dismissal.
The head you know (and the board for that matter) is often better than the one you don’t know. Boards and heads should not believe that a change will necessarily result in a better relationship. It may be worse.
<p>LONG TERM HEADS ARE NOT JOINERS: AND IT DOES NOT SEEM TO HURT
While participation on NAIS committees and other regional activities is a feather in the cap for many heads, the longer-term heads seem not to be obsessed by the pursuit of this particular form of status or participation. That is not to say long term heads avoid professional growth. They tend to be quite savvy or they would not still be in the saddle. But they understand the need to know and cultivate the home market more than the regional or national one. They tend to mind the business of the school. Too much absence from the home front can be dangerous.
LONG TERM HEADS ARE VISIONARIES AND FERVENT ABOUT IT
If one thinks of famous long-term heads this axiom becomes obvious. If a head is a “founder” type, someone who has created the school, or breathed new life into a moribund school, he is generally given enormous rein by trustees who are in awe of the work undertaken, the success of the mission, and the change in the lives of their children.
This is not to say a palace coup could not occur. There are many examples of long term heads who thought all was well, when a new chair moved into the role and regarded the head’s leadership style as arrogant. These new chairs sometimes see these long-term heads as impediments to change. More often than not, these new chairs have a real concern about power, and who exercises it.
Long term heads generally have the preponderance of power. Some new chairs want a larger piece of that game for themselves and/or for the board as a whole. Recently a well-known school was written up in national newspapers over this issue.
LONG TERM HEADS HAVE STABLE FAMILIES AND SUPPORTIVE SPOUSES.
From our conversations it appears as though the longer term and more successful heads are still married, often to the same man or woman they began with. They find stability and support at home and not a culture of tension. This is not a simplistic explanation. It simply reveals that heads who are strong on the home front can concentrate their energies on the school, take time away when needed, and still have the support of a loving spouse and family.
LONG TERM HEADS TEND NOT TO BE AMIABLES AND EXPRESSIVES
This may seem too simplistic. But it does appear as though heads who are “charmers” often are able to mask weaknesses and the inability to confront problems and make tough decisions. These heads are usually “found out” but it can take up to 10 years.
“Drivers” can be outstanding heads if they can survive the first three to five years of turmoil that their style may engender.
“Analyticals” tend to be the long term heads, the survivors. These heads are not bombastic. They reveal little. They are poker players. They do not reflect anger and emotional instability. They “get even” rather than get mad. They are predictable in that they make no sudden moves. They wait for some issues to resolve themselves rather than always wading into a mess to try to solve it personally.
But analyticals, as the name implies, also have the ability to see the hand writing, to test the waters, to understand and manipulate the culture.
They are not always “control freaks” but they do have a high need for information control and “channeling”. “Out of channel” communication is strictly taboo to these heads.
Analyticals are able to lead effectively and accomplish a great deal because they keep crises to a minimum, have little need to talk too much, and appear at times to be “god like” because they are so mysterious. Most of us know at least one such head. And usually he or she is successful and has been around for a while. They may seem an enigma to some or just “hard to read” to others.
LONG TERM SUCCESSFUL HEADS TEND TO HIRE NUMBER ONES
The saying goes that people with real leadership strength are “number ones”, and they tend to hire similarly strong people for leadership positions. Number “two’s” or leaders who are more insecure about competition hire “number threes”, i.e. much less capable people.
Long term heads seem to recruit talented leadership whom the parents and faculty respect and can follow. While these leaders follow the head and take his or her lead in almost all things, they also want to leave and try out their own wings as heads. Many successful long-term heads have launched other successful heads.
LONG TERM HEADS MAKE THEIR MANAGEMENT PATTERN CLEAR
One well-known head has been in his position for 16 years. He makes it very clear to the faculty every fall that he is not the inside academic leader of the school. He makes it clear to the faculty who those internal leaders area. He focuses on the external fund raising and building issues and board development. Yet there is never a question among the faculty or Board of who is in charge. The head is. Few significant decisions are made without his input and approval.
However, as with other long-term heads, the others in the leadership team are quite aware of the head’s goals, style and structure of decision making. They know when they can and cannot exercise their own discretion. Long term heads make the mission clear, and make clear as well what that head believes are the limits and boundaries of constituent behaviors.
LONG TERM HEADS DO NOT BEND IN THE WIND
Long term heads are clear about the mission and goal when speaking to the parents. In one metro area with three prominent day schools, one school has far more support from its community of parents than the heads of the other two major schools in town. The head of this school is clear about the school’s mission and clear to prospective families that if they do not “buy into” this mission, they should look elsewhere. There is no urge to shift the mission of the school to meet the needs of each new influential family or new neighborhood clique of parents.
Parents do not want other parents telling the head how to run the school. They want to know that the head has a clear and firm vision. When heads convey that they will shift with the shifting tides of parent opinion and influence, rather than hanging on and making a difference, they are often swept away with that changing tide.
It has been said that in one large urban area there are several heads who personify their schools, have a strong public posture, and have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to parents who have influence, money and power. If they did not, they might find themselves buffeted by parents who perceived weakness. Another type of head might not survive in this highly competitive environment where perception of strength is as vital as is the strength itself.
While long term heads DO listen to the voices of parents, they do not convey panic under pressure or a sense of doubt in their own understanding of the school’s mission.
LONG TERM HEADS ARE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT THE HIRING OF FACULTY
One new school head began to hire a number of young, bright and ambitious faculty. Over the years he noticed that his faculty lacked loyalty and a sense of community and pursued their own ambitions, often at the expense of the school.
From this understanding came the realization that in hiring faculty, one needs to be conscious of qualities other than simply academic ability, and subject matter skills. Long term heads recognize their are hiring the future culture of the school.
LONG TERM HEADS KNOW THE POWER OF THE COMMITTEE ON TRUSTEES
The Nominating Committee or Committee on Trustees is often inactive or moribund. Potentially it is and should be the most powerful committee on the board. Its rule should include the evaluation of the head, the board and the board chair as well as the cultivation, recruitment, training and evaluation of all trustees. Few heads pay much attention to this committee and many heads allow their boards to nominate trustees with whom the head is uncomfortable. These trustees may not share the head’s mission. Therein lie the seeds of the head’s dismissal.
Long term heads know the need to influence the selection of new trustees. Therein lies their ultimate insurance policy. This is not to say there is anything wrong about this. It is manipulative. But long term successful heads are manipulative. They just are more subtle about it than others. Leadership is often the ability to move others in a certain direction and to do so with the other person’s consent and support. That often takes a degree of manipulation of the environment.
LONG TERM HEADS USUALLY KNOW WHEN TO QUIT
This is a tricky one as some long-term heads believe they are irreplaceable. They say they are not. And they believe it in theory. But many succumb to the mantra that they will know when it is time to quit or retire, long before the board has to tell them. While this is not always true, it usually is.
If a long-term head retains good health and feels financially secure, they will generally plan their departure with adequate notice to the school.
LONG TERM HEADS ARE NEEDED
Too many independent schools today are revolving doors for heads. The fallout from this turnover is often very damaging. Heads need to learn how to manage the culture of a school to ensure they will have the ability to make a long-term difference to the quality of education for children.
Excessive turnover takes a toll on the schools, the constituents and on the heads and their families. The long-term impact of such turnover on opportunities missed is probably immense.