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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 schools world, 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 in 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 boards 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. How else do trustees have a first hand look at the possible internal candidates?

Boarding schools are an exception to the institutional memory pattern. Most great boarding schools have alumni who stay on for multiple terms and thus have a better handle on history. It is often in boarding schools where internal succession planning occurs most frequently, at least in part because boards know the senior administrative team.

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 in order 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.

Most heads, at least the great ones, tend to be characterized as “control freaks.” Truly, the greatest heads this consultant has ever known or seen, and there have been hundreds, are those who leave the most powerful long term legacy. Almost always, they were micro managers themselves, 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 highly controlling heads can also be the ones who consciously or subconsciously do not hire strong senior administrators who might succeed them. This is often a major problem with “founding” heads who understandably are highly protective of their legacies. This can be a problem with other powerful and capable leaders as well.

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. A search takes on a life of its own.

Another reason boards do not hire internally is that they suspect that an internal candidate may be captured by the existing faculty culture and may not be able to make the unpopular personnel 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 so many of them fired in the first place, along with the loss of board institutional memory.

Boards have retained this Firm to help them ascertain whether they have any internal candidates of such strength so as to outweigh the benefits of undertaking a national search. In the case of one non profit school a long term founder 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 and his legacy highly but they were trying behind the scenes to tip the selection to one of the internal candidates. The Head, however, favored the other internal candidate who was in fact the riskier choice due to leadership style issues that had surfaced in interactions with some parents and staff.

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 full blown national search. In a national search, the two internal staff could be candidates if they desired.

However, when there are factions within a board search committee, even the new outside head begins, in fact, at a disadvantage. The split on the Board that began with the search shows up at the first crisis or public incident.

In this instance, since each candidate had his or her own internal supporters, choosing either might be a problem. Thus this consultant recommended conducting a national search and counseling both inside candidates to withdraw from consideration as the creating divisions within the entire School community and the risk of losing at least one key administrator were high.

This Board did allow both internal candidates to be included in a national search. The Board ultimately chose an outsider. The two internal candidates were somewhat bitter but remained at least for a period of time. One decided to leave as soon as the opportunity arose.

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, assuming the internal candidate remains on staff. All savvy outside contenders know this, and many will not pursue an opportunity once they know that internal candidates(s) are in the mix.

A disgruntled leader 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 outside choice was a mistake.

On the other hand, an internal candidate may in fact represent the staff or board’s favored choice by a wide margin and the search may be nothing more than an act of due diligence. This happened a few years ago in a nationally known prominent boarding school where the long term head retired and where an internal candidate ran and was selected. Most of the School knew that the internal man was the Head’s pick and the right person to maintain the integrity of the mission.

Thus even 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 and undermining to the new head.

III. Using an Interim Along with Careful Succession Planning

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

Immediate external succession to a popular long term head almost always leads to a “sacrificial” lamb or “middle man” 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 an “interim” or a breathing period before the next longer term head has a chance to succeed.

IV Choosing an Internal Candidate: A Success Story

A School launched a search after a thirteen year successful headship. The Board began the process by asking the long-term and highly regarded Assistant Head if he wanted to be a candidate. He had been passed over twice before in prior searches despite a strong reputation within the community. This time he demurred indicating that the Board knew him well enough. Rather than “run” again, he would enter into other searches but would commit to assisting in the transition to a new Head.

The Board did not want to lose this valuable administrator but for the sake of transparency and to test the market, several Trustees felt that a national search was necessary despite the $50,000 to $100,000 possible total cost. Others felt that it did not make sense to lose a proven leader with institutional memory in favor of an unknown quantity.

The Board retained Littleford & Associates to interview every trustee and a cross section of over 100 faculty, students, parents, and alumni. The goal was to ascertain the constituencies’ views on the School’s search options, and more indirectly the status and support that the community felt for the Assistant Head.

After the interviews, the Consultant conveyed strongly to the Board the very high level of community support for the Assistant Head and response if he took another headship, possibly in the same state. The Consultant recommended that the Board appoint the Assistant Head and forego a national search.

The Head is now in his fourth year, and the transition has been very smooth. He always possessed all of the administrative skills needed to lead a school successfully and has since developed many of the key external skills as well. In this School’s case, internal succession was clearly the right choice, even if there had been no advance planning for it prior to the Board’s decision to retain Littleford & Associates.

V. Why We Need More Internally Groomed Heads

Searches are fun and a 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. Furthermore, internal succession planning can misfire 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 particularly with faculty, students and alumni in a boarding setting and with faculty and parents in a day setting.

Yet it is this consultant’s contention that with more planned internal succession, our schools would be stronger programmatically and financially and our mission statements would be more consistent and carried out effectively by the faculty. Frequent head turnover leads to power vacuums filled by teachers who then follow their own definition of the mission rather than that which the board or the head sets.

Internal succession planning can lead to longer term heads who hire teachers who support the mission over time. Internal succession planning leads to less rapid and less inappropriate internal change that can upset faculty cultures unnecessarily with ill timed and ill conceived changes. These are often ones thrown up by the search process itself. These changes may or may not be needed or fit with the mission but the search process itself forces them upon a newly arrived head who then may pay the price of carrying them out.

The time has come for serious, planned, internal succession planning. Why have we waited so long to consider it seriously? Strong willed micro managing heads are one reason. Board turnover is another. 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. In times of a soft economy that is critical. But even more important is the integrity of the mission over time.

Today so many schools are talking about their mission and its relevance. Mission integrity is key to the health of any school. But having a constantly changing one or the perception of one that is shifting with the wind undermines current and prospective constituents’ confidence in a school.

Internal succession has a further advantage of helping to ensure the continuity of proven programs that support the mission. Programmatic shifts simply for the sake of change are expensive and can be confusing and demoralizing for faculty, students and parents.

Littleford & Associates conducts internal assessments for schools to determine whether or not there is a viable internal candidate. Our Firm is helping more and more schools develop healthy internal succession plans.

The big push should be on building a truly internal succession plan by hiring one obviously very talented individual and grooming that person for possible succession. That is rare in independent and international schools as strong willed heads see it is as threat. Again, the corporate world sees it as normal. If we planned for more appropriate internal succession, and groomed and tested these potential leaders well, giving 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.

John Littleford
Senior Partner