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The Next Generation Of Heads

There appears to be a plethora of ambitious young men and women who have the urge to lead and believe they can head a school as well or better than the current head. Other potential candidates from the business or university realms may be intrigued by the challenge of leading an independent school. The opportunity can seem alluring: the ability to lead change in some of the nation’s best schools.

What skills will the next generation of heads need in order to succeed? In our work worldwide with heads of school, as well as talented division heads and other administrators who aspire to this role, Littleford & Associates sees these areas of needed expertise as constantly changing and expanding. We provide assistance in identifying and addressing the challenges and the risks.

  1. The Skills RequiredThe key will always be a “student head”, someone who relates well to students of all ages but especially to middle and upper school students. Yet, once such a “student” head is hired, he or she will be asked to care for, nurture and support adults on an ongoing basis: faculty, parents, board members, and alumni. Nonetheless, we tend to envision the “ideal” head, who is known to the students and relates well to them. However, knowing the faculty and their families is a key to effective leadership in our schools.

    Stories abound about “great heads” who knew the name of every child and were in close touch with the family needs of their teachers. Knowing and caring about the students creates political “capital” with parents. Knowing and caring about individual teachers builds the same “capital” with the faculty.

    The next generation of heads will be required to have: greater knowledge and expertise in finance, fund raising, risk management, law, supervision, recruitment and replacement of teachers and staff, college and secondary school placement of students, parent relations, values education, organizational behavior and development, curriculum development, and technology.

    1. Financial Management and Legal IssuesIn the area of financial management, heads today need to be more knowledgeable about: accounting practices for non-profits, receivables, payables, managing skyrocketing insurance rates, investment policies, bond financing, building and construction issues, staff benefits, and banking relationships.

      Heads need to take their boards through the important exercise of assessing their “sacred cows”, meaning their treasured financial goals that are often in conflict with one another.

      The “Sacred Cows”, those “preserves” of all that we want, are:

      1. High Faculty and Staff Salaries (at least very competitive with the marketplace).
      2. Strong Program, Curriculum and Technology that is State of the Art
      3. Low to Moderate Class Size
      4. Appropriate Maintenance of the Physical Plant (to avoid deferred maintenance)
      5. A Strong Financial Aid Program to Help Ensure Diversity
      6. Management of Enrollment: Balance to Enhance Income (but Not Too Large)
      7. Moderate Increases in Tuition and Fees
      8. Enhanced Annual Giving, Endowment and other gift Income
      9. More Profit Centers (School Store, Dining Room, Summer Schools etc)

      The key to achieving the school’s goals, and yet balancing the budget and controlling expenses, especially in a time of economic downturn, is to know how to balance the “Sacred Cows.” Schools can do this in a way that the board, faculty and administration support through appropriate education and understanding the trade offs involved.

      In one client school, the health insurance rate increases came in during late August 2002 and caused employees to pay $50.00 a month for the first time for the Preferred Choice Plan as opposed to an HMO for the individual premium. The monthly family premium almost doubled from $360 to $650. No matter what the explanation, the head of school is feeling the heat for these increases. He is expected to know a quick way to heal the pain of a “hit” that made recent salary increases disappear completely in paying for these new premium rates.

      Financial planning is but one piece of the overall strategic planning exercise. Strategic planning experience will be vital in that quiver of arrows of multiple talents for the next generation of heads. HOW do you organize the strategic planning process? It is a process, not an application of a generic formula. Is the school culture really ready for a democratic approach seeking wide opinion and buy in, or will that approach in a particular school polarize opinions, politicize constituents, and create an energy drain for the new head?

      In the legal area, it will be necessary to know more than a modicum about basic labor and employee law. Potential issues are the legal implications of a staff member with AIDS, a child with a contagious disease, an age discrimination lawsuit, sexual harassment or molestation by a current or former employee, and the legal outcome of proven bullying. There are legal repercussions as well to bomb threats and inadequate campus security. The recent tragedy in a client school of a number of students lost in an avalanche while on a cross country ski expedition points up the challenges. The group was well prepared, had the proper beacons for location in deep snow, and the leaders were expertly trained. There was no avalanche warning. Yet children and staff still perished. How this School copes with these challenges will determine whether the community will be divided or strengthened through shared loss and recovery.

    2. Uniting Various Constituencies Behind the MissionIn the area of curriculum development, the new head will be expected to articulate the mission, lead the vision and tie that vision to the past so that it is deeply rooted in tradition. At the same time, the vision must be innovative and relevant to the present. The head must challenge the faculty and parents to make that mission valid for the future. Heads will not be able to turn over curriculum to a coordinator and assume all is well.

      Managing change and school climate is already politically “prickly” and will become a more time consuming and essential element of serving as a school head. Knowing how to change, when and what to change, whom to influence, and with whom to negotiate, will be a required talent. Some schools will feel that it is too risky for the head to acquire this important skill “on the job”.

      Managing the Board will be a vital task. Some successful heads spend up to 40% of their time in board related activities, supervision or cultivation. While this may seem excessive, knowing board members, their children currently enrolled at the School and their present and potential contributions as trustees enables heads to know that their boards are “behind” them, but not far behind! Trust builds confidence. When a crisis occurs, if board members know and trust the head they are more likely to support the leader.

      One new head learned several profound lessons about building relationships with key board members. In his first year, he received a call from the police of a city in the frozen north where the hockey team went for a tournament. Most of the players had been arrested for “streaking”, i.e, running nude through the city center. When the police checked the hotel rooms, they found cheerleaders and alchohol throughout. Upon the team’s return the new head told the popular hockey coach that any touring teams would require a “chaperone” for the coach. The coach said if the head did not trust him to run the trips alone, he would resign. The head said, “I accept your resignation.” Immediately, the coach mentioned to a number of faculty that he had just been “fired.” The next day the front page of the newspaper blared the headline: “New School Head Fires Hockey Coach!”

      That new head learned the power of sport within a school and of strong chairs. At an angry gathering of parents and teachers who were calling for the head’s resignation some two weeks later, the board chair, with whom the head had already built a partnership, stood up to speak. He said: “We hired this head for a purpose. He is doing exactly what the board has asked him to do. I own a construction company, and work in a rough and tough environment. I have learned to wear “iron pants.” If you intend to roust our new head, you will have to go through me and believe me, you won’t get there!” The head has been there a very long time. The chair’s remarks were critical to his survival.

      Managing constituents is a crucial challenge as more and more heads, boards and schools are vulnerable to an “attack” from faculty, alumni and/or parents. These are often unexpected, and the board and head are caught off guard searching for an appropriate measured response. The use of e mail as an organizing tool against school heads and boards has already reached the level of an art form. New heads will need to devise a quick response mode to e mail attacks.

      Some heads are lucky, are some are unlucky in the caliber and greatness of the chairs with whom they serve. One chair of a prominent day school encouraged his mid term head to take a break and apply for a year long sabbatical. While the head was interested, he could not afford the school policy of a full year at half pay. The chair encouraged him to apply to a local foundation for a grant supporting the other half of his salary. Fortunately, the head received both the sabbatical from the school AND the grant from the foundation. He had an outstanding year of learning in a special mid career program at Harvard. Several years later the chair died unexpectedly. The widow met with the head, and both shared stories of their affection for this special husband and chair. The widow then revealed that the foundation “grant” was entirely donated by her husband, the former chair. The current value: $120,000. No pressure here on current board chairs!

    3. Parental ExpectationsBalancing parental expectations of what schools can realistically accomplish requires excellent communication. It requires good negotiation to build partnerships with the home for those goals that should be accomplished together, as well as to refuse to take on assignments that belong in the family unit alone. Yet, it can be risky for a new head to challenge parental demands.

      Addressing, managing and reacting to social issues such as drugs and alcohol, promiscuity, eating disorders, special needs issues, medication issues, etc, will all pose an increasing challenge to that new school head especially in defining the role of family versus school.

      In one recent client school a head was asked in a parent assembly if he believed in an “absolutist” view of no drinking, in line with the state law of no drinking under the age of 21? Or did he believe in a “designated” driver strategy since kids “will drink anyway”? Half the audience in this meeting felt that the absolutist view was the only right answer. The other half felt it was ludicrous to believe that parents or the School could really deter teenagers from drinking. A melee broke out in the audience and pushing and shoving ensued. Those who wish to serve as heads will need strategies for these issues.

      One of the greatest challenges for the new head will be that of protecting his or her integrity from the constant wear of moral “nibbling” around the edges about admissions and fund raising pressures.

      In a recent client case, a board member/donor threatened the head through a series of letters suggesting a coaching change for his son’s team. His $500,000 pledge was never openly put on the line, but the implication was that it would not be paid if the head did not consider the trustee’s wishes.

    4. Marketing Fundraising and OutreachThe development and admissions functions today require a marketing head. This head understands the pros and cons of parent opinion surveys, sells the key “niche”, and builds the centers of excellence that distinguish great schools from average schools.

      The next generation of heads will need to be able to ask for money and succeed in obtaining it. The head will be unable to expect and ask that the trustees alone undertake this role. One head told this consultant: “I don’t do fund raising and the board knows that and supports me in this.” This is not a viable long-term fundraising strategy for any School.

      Heads will need to be international in reach but local in focus. The challenge is to seem “available” and “approachable” in a job where the head cannot really be “all things to all people” while at the same time, meet complex external demands. Independent schools are becoming more global all the time, not just in attracting new students, but in managing diversity, technology, partnerships with other institutions, curricular change and the risks associated with school sponsored travel.

      Many heads already have mastered the majority of these talents and recognize that new and varied challenges are rewards of the profession. The key is that the current generation of heads learned most of these skills on the job, and the next generation may not have time or “space” to do so. This generation will be expected to handle a crisis with wisdom, not by “trial by fire”. The nature of these crises will change dramatically from what they were ten years ago.

  2. How to Train That Aspiring Head?Some heads have sent a legion of administrators out to become heads. One school head known to this consultant counts 10 current or former heads of school who started their careers with him at this or a prior school. What does it take to generate and launch that talent? Obviously, some heads hire talent according to the old adage that “Number ones hire number ones” (and “Number two’s hire number threes”.), and these individuals naturally gravitate to become leaders of their own schools, sooner rather than later. In the interim, they greatly benefit the schools that they serve.

    There is a natural training ground for aspiring school heads who work with inspirational heads. It can be summarized in these words: exploration, delegation, challenge, responsibility, leadership and opportunity.

    Essentially, the current head finds ways for aspiring heads to EXPLORE new realms, DELEGATES to them RESPONSIBILITY by CHALLENGING them to find solutions, and them offering LEADERSHIP niches and OPPORTUNITIES to grow.

    Whether the topic is parent education, a challenge from a constituent group, a new marketing concept, a planned giving idea, a special events concept, a curricular innovation, or a way to improve school climate and staff morale, the aspiring head needs opportunities OUTSIDE his or her current realm of responsibility and assigned leadership. This can be accomplished by serving on committees, sitting in at board meetings, taking charge of specific “out of role” assignments, trouble shooting functions, etc.

    These opportunities are most lacking in the realm of financial management. Yet a skilled head can navigate these waters by ensuring that the chief financial officer helps the aspiring head understand how to deal with key budgeting, building and finance issues.

    How many school heads provide these flexible opportunities for their aspiring heads? Do they even know WHO their aspiring heads are? Some candidates do not share their ambition while others make it clear.

    More open and direct as opposed to accidental mentoring of aspiring school heads will help the independent school movement in this country. The number of “fired” heads, heads who have been unceremoniously removed or whose contracts have not been renewed, is ALSO teaching a lesson and SHOULD teach a lesson to the next generation of school heads. They will need a formal multi year contract, a formal annual evaluation process, and the knowledge that even great heads get fired. Developing an ability to put their families first or risk the stress and pain of family troubles is a lesson learned too late by many school heads.

    There is a workshop for “new heads” every year sponsored by NAIS. There are even budding attempts to build leadership teams and offer workshops for aspiring heads. We are still searching for methods that effectively teach the next generation of heads the core skills necessary not only to survive but to thrive in the role. A “quick course” does not exist about how to know every faculty family, circumstance and child’s name while being a sophisticated business person who understands profit centers and curriculum, bond issues and phonics, labor law and the principles of educating boys versus girls!

    Littleford & Associates provides mentoring to new chairs and heads as well as to experienced ones. Our firm conducts workshops on board governance and transition planning. We assist boards in developing appropriate head compensation packages and in evaluating heads fairly and professionally. We are also working now to help attract, develop and train that new generation of heads and to help ensure that they succeed through ongoing, on the job training.

John Littleford
Senior Partner