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The Risks And Stress Of Transition

I received the call two years ago. A Head beginning her second year felt that her relationship with her Chair was strained and on shaky ground. Early signs of factions were developing on the Board: those who were supporting the Chair against the Head and those who were indicating that despite some early signs of worry about the Head’s transition, the Board should back her.

Another call came late this winter from the new Chair of the same school. He had supported the Head fully, but some unhappy trustees were being influenced by powerful senior faculty and were caught up in a stakeholders’ movement. They were issuing demands that the Head be fired or that her contract should not be renewed.

The second Chair is under fire for supporting the Head but does not believe that there is sufficient reason to dismiss her. With the new cries calling for the Head’s departure, a power struggle is evolving with the outside group lobbying for a board voice and having the power to stack a search committee.

While it has been stated many times that almost 80% of heads are fired or do not have their contracts renewed, it may not be as well known that 80% of this number are fired within their FIRST THREE YEARS of service and many others in the following two years.

Research by Littleford & Associates demonstrates a strong correlation between the longevity of heads and the effectiveness of schools. The first five years of service as a school head are the most risky and the time when transition planning is crucial. Transition planning for a new head or chair should occur at least a year before the current leader steps down. For new heads, the search committee should immediately evolve into a transition committee with a roadmap to ensure that the new head survives this dangerous period.

Today more boards are forming such transition committees, but still in less than 10% of independent schools going through a head of school change.

The transition committee should consist of key supporters from the search committee and also a few faculty and parents. These should be individuals who want to help the new head and his or her family to adjust well to the community and avoid pitfalls and clashes with influential personalities. These individuals should be politically astute, aware of the school’s culture and idiosyncrasies, have no personal agendas and respect confidentiality at all times.

This article gives some strategies to navigate the waters of transition in order to achieve leadership stability, the foundation for a healthy, thriving school.

    1. What the Board Should Keep in Mind
      • Remember to cue the new head to the “invisible” board, those who may not be serving on the board currently but are very influential among alumni, parents or past parents. These may be former trustees, or simply those who exercise considerable power.
      • Introduce the new head to the important personalities in both administrative and teaching positions. He or she needs to build political capital with a few seasoned, influential members of the faculty and learn from them how best to build that capital with the entire faculty. Crossing a popular administrator can lead to the early downfall of new heads.
      • Managing the pace and nature of change is critical. No new head, even an experienced one, should launch a strategic plan, a workload review, a curriculum shift, etc. The head mentioned in the opening paragraphs was asked to change the school schedule in her first year. The seeds were sewn then for the faculty to undercut her even though the board saddled her with this goal. Laying low and building a relationship first with the board and then with the faculty is the first priority.
      • Support the head’s spouse and children in every sense of that word such as schooling for the children, the spouse’s role, housing arrangements, “get away” times and introductions into the wider community.
    2. What the Head Should Keep in Mind
      • Work closely with and earn the trust of your first senior class, which is almost always loyal to the outgoing head and his or her traditions. Given a little ammunition from a few disgruntled teachers, the senior class can turn lower classes against the new head as well as lead their own parents to believe the new head should be dumped for tampering with the culture. Changing the graduation ceremony in even the slightest way can create an upset. It is important for the head to build bridges with all constituent groups, but many overlook the power of the student leaders. Teaching a class is one way to do this.
      • Keeping an open door is crucial and easily forgotten as heads become immersed in the task of learning about their new school. Many new heads promote their “open door” policy, but in reality their assistants become guards at the door. Heads should abide by the adage in the “One Minute Manager”, i.e. manage by “walking around.” My secretary once told me I could “touch” the lives of 100 students and adults a day by walking the halls, having one and two minute conversations and learning names even in a school of 1200. She contrasted that to my schedule of eight daily appointments which created an insular world for me and the impression of unavailability.
      • Build on the partnership with the board chair and then with every other board member. While the partnership with the chair is key (and trouble in that partnership leads to about 80% of all governance problems), 20% of governance issues stem from a head/chair partnership that is so close, other board members feel jealous and excluded. That perception hurts the ability of the head to survive and succeed. Meeting annually with each board member individually and getting to know their families can prove crucial to ensuring that the head has a broad base of support on the board.
      • Never speak about your prior school and how you did things there! The constituents, especially the staff, will tolerate a minimum of that for about 6 months.
      • Praise the faculty, acknowledge their contributions, and familiarize yourself with the institutional history of the school. Be careful not to criticize immediately the school’s culture. Avoid in the first three years the common statement by heads, such as “When I first came, enrollment was 300, and now it is 350”, etc. If this is true it will be self evident. Let others sing your praises.
      • Be careful not to place your spouse or children or friends in favored positions. This includes not hiring into the school your colleagues and friends from a prior school, at least not until more than one or two years have gone by, and you have selected and promoted some internal talent first.

While these steps may seem basic, they can prove crucial to the ability of a talented new head to survive and an experienced head to transition successfully.

    1. What If “The Marriage” Cannot Work? What Should Both Parties Do?

Sometimes there is a legitimate need for a change at the top because a “fit” between the head and the school culture cannot be achieved. Assuming that both the head and the board have exhausted all means to save the relationship, including using outside professional assistance, both parties need to take steps to ensure a fair, amicable, and flexible separation. If separation is handled with as little disruption as possible, the integrity and reputation of the school and the head can remain intact.

Littleford & Associates can assist in the development and negotiation of a separation plan and process that leaves the school and the outgoing head with viable options and a healthy future. However, if the above guidelines for the board and for the head are followed, many of the elements of a successful transition will be in place.

Fred Wesson, Superintendent, Colegio Roosevelt (Peru) recently commented:

“You deftly handled the issues of leadership transition. You were able to tell the truth without me or others feeling defensive. The truth included some warnings that if the transition was not carefully handled, there could be serious consequences for the school (not to mention yours truly!) Any school going through the process of planning for the arrival of and then settling in of a new head would be wise to invest in your services. I suspect this is overlooked in most hiring processes.”

John Littleford
Senior Partner