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Succession Planning: The Time Has Come

In the corporate world, succession planning is the norm. Boards expect the business leaders who are accountable to them to plan for the succession of the CEO and other key executives. Boards evaluate corporate leadership on how well they do this.  

In the independent school world, our research and experience show that we hire externally 90% of the time and “fire” about 80% of those heads within the first five years. On the other hand, when we hire internally and develop an internal succession plan, the internal candidate is fired within the first five years only 10% of the time. Given these overwhelming statistics, why are we still turning externally for so many searches in the independent and international school realms? 

I. How Does a Great Head Spot and Cultivate Talent? Or Do They?

The loss of institutional memory on boards is endemic. Thus, most board members have little knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of potential internal candidates. Often truly fine internal talent is not even sitting at the board table along with the current head and trustees. Usually, the CFO and division heads attend for only a small portion of a board meeting if at all.  How else do trustees get a firsthand look at the possible internal candidates without meddling into the head of school’s role of personnel management or hanging unnecessarily around the school campus? They may only have interacted with the division head  to whom their children’s teachers report.

Boarding schools are an exception to the institutional memory pattern. Most boarding schools have alumni who stay on for multiple terms and thus have better knowledge of the school’s history. In boarding schools, internal succession planning occurs more frequently, in part because boards know the senior administrative team and because many boarding school heads are long-term and cultivate their potential successors to sustain their own legacy.

Worldwide, there are certainly many heads who know how to hire great talent, delegate to them, groom them, give them adequate exposure, provide key leadership opportunities, and monitor their progress to nurture and allow that talent to grow. It has been said that one of the indices of success for an independent school is the number of administrators over time who are recruited away to become successful heads of another school even though parents and trustees may find that loss disconcerting. 

In this Consultant’s experience, the heads who are most successful over time tend to be micro managers ensuring that the mission, as they know and believe it, is carried out in minute detail. That is not to say great heads cannot delegate ultimately. But they do so only after being absolutely assured that the administrators are reliable, skilled, on the same mission page and are sensitive to the same issues that the leader focuses upon.

Therefore, the very same heads can also be the ones who consciously or subconsciously do not hire strong and ambitious senior administrators who might succeed them. This is especially a major problem with founding heads who understandably are highly protective of their legacies. 

II. How the System Can Work Against Internal Candidates

National searches are not without risk as they are costly in terms of both real dollars spent and the intangible costs of time and energy expended, not to mention the fact that well over half of the time the one chosen does not turn out to be a long-term head prospect. Yet few boards can resist the temptation and excitement of a national search with the hope and prospect of finding a star and savior, i.e., “God on a good day”.  The hunt always mobilizes the constituencies, and not always in a good way as it can be destabilizing and divisive. A search takes on a life of its own.

Another reason boards do not hire internally is that they suspect that an inside candidate may be captured by the existing faculty culture and may not be able to make the unpopular personnel decisions and other changes that the board feels may need to happen when the current head departs. Of course, it is the very nature and pace of change that new heads undertake that get 80% of them fired in the first place. That is, of course, also due to the loss of board institutional memory. 

Boards have retained this Consultant to help them determine whether they have such strong and suitable internal candidates that a national search is potentially unnecessary. In the case of one nonprofit school a long-term founding Head dominated the Board. There were two internal candidates, both favored by the Head, but one more than the other. The Board did not know whether to invite one or both to be candidates as part of a national search; to exclude both; or to pick one and avoid a national search. On the other hand, the Board wanted to flex its muscles as some members realized this was a unique opportunity to take charge.

This Consultant was asked to assess the community support for the two internal candidates before the Board launched a search.  The on-site interviews revealed that constituents regarded the Head highly and that he was leaving a great legacy, but he was also trying behind the scenes to control the selection and tip it to his favored choice.

The Board was clearly split.  One faction wanted to choose one internal candidate; another faction wanted the other; and a third wanted to do a national search that included both insiders. 

In this instance, since each candidate had his or her own internal supporters, choosing either might be a problem. The internal candidate whom the Head favored was in fact the riskier choice due to leadership style issues that had surfaced in interactions with some parents and staff. 

This Consultant recommended conducting a national search and counseling both inside candidates to withdraw as candidates because the risks of factions within the entire School community and the disappointing loss of at least one administrator were high. 

However, this Board did allow both to be included officially in a national search. The Board ultimately chose an outsider. The two internal candidates were somewhat bitter but remained at least for some time. One ultimately decided to leave. 

In allowing an internal candidate to surface publicly the search committee must be very sure that the person is a viable candidate. Otherwise, the candidate’s feelings can be hurt, his or her involvement appears to be just for “show” and hard feelings can be long lasting.  One risk of including internal candidates is that if one has legitimate overwhelming support and is overlooked, that individual can be a serious threat to the success of the new outside head.  A disgruntled administrator who remains always has a reservoir of political capital with parents, faculty, and students while the new head begins with none. The first time the new head makes a misstep, the bypassed candidate may draw on that capital and remind the community in subtle (and perhaps not so subtle) ways that the choice was a mistake. All savvy outside contenders know this, and many will avoid throwing a hat into the ring once they know that internal candidates(s) is part of the search. 

On the other hand, an internal candidate may in fact represent the staff or board’s first and favored choice by a wide margin and the search may be nothing more than an act of due diligence. 

III. Choosing an Internal Candidate: A Success Story

A large US K-12 day school had an Assistant Head who had worked her way up the ranks and earned more and more authority. She was highly respected and much beloved by the community.  For the third time a search was announced to replace the Head and she was told she could apply (again) for the position. She notified the Board she would be looking for a headship elsewhere.  She was not threatening the Board. She simply was not trying a fourth time. 

The Board contacted our Firm to do an “executive assessment” either in place of a search or possibly followed by a full national search. The board wanted to know if the Assistant Head had the community support and range of skills so that a national search might not be needed but even more important, might result in the loss of a highly valued long-term administrator.

The assessment involved speaking to about 150 stakeholders.  This Consultant reported back to the Board that this person could land a job almost anywhere; was beloved by the community, and if she left for another school, there would be major reputational and political damage. 

The Board unanimously picked the Assistant Head as the new Head who had a very successful tenure.

IV. Using an Interim Along with Careful Succession Planning 

Following long term heads, it is almost always a good idea to have an interim come for one year. This allows the truth of the previous leader’s strengths and weaknesses to surface so that any problems can be addressed and known to the board before the new head arrives.

Immediate external succession to a popular long-term head almost always leads to a “sacrificial” lamb or middleman of 3 to 5 years, who is basically fired, no matter what spin is put on the departure. Long term heads leave powerful legacies, and that is to be desired. They are a product of healthy and long serving boards. However, their very legacy and power often requires a breathing period before the next longer-term head has a chance to succeed.

V. Why We Need More Internally Groomed Heads

Searches are an exciting challenge and give the school an opportunity to test the waters with all constituents and to develop support for the school at an even higher level. On the other hand, internal succession planning can misfire under the following conditions: if it is accidental; if there are too many candidates in play; or if the board is miscalculating the support for the candidacy of an insider with faculty, students, and alumni in a boarding setting and with faculty and parents in a day setting. 

But there are many instances where internal succession is very appropriate and effective.

Internal succession planning can lead to longer term heads who hire teachers who support the mission over time.  Succession planning leads to less internal change that can upset faculty cultures unnecessarily with poorly timed and ill-conceived changes. These changes may or may not be needed or appropriate to the mission, but the search process forces them upon a newly arrived head who then may pay the price for carrying them out.

The time has come for serious, thoughtful, internal succession planning. Why have we waited so many years to consider it seriously? Strong willed micromanaging heads are one reason. Board turnover is another reason. It appears that with some wise guidance and direction to even the most powerful heads along with greater stability and memory on our boards, we could build in much more internal succession planning. 

Again, the corporate world sees all of this as normal. If we planned for more appropriate internal succession, and groomed and tested these potential leaders well, gave them a seat at the board table along with the head, we would reduce the firing of heads dramatically and greatly increase internal school stability. The time has come for a review of our search practices and behaviors in independent schools.