To Boards of Trustees: Is It Time for a Head’s Sabbatical?

How Can We Turn the Corner Towards Better Governance Practices?
April 12, 2022
Faculty Anxiety and Disgruntlement Can Be Turned Around
August 18, 2022
Show all

To Boards of Trustees: Is It Time for a Head’s Sabbatical?

My story was unique at the time but no longer the case.  I had a yearlong sabbatical after eight years as head of my school. I returned to campus briefly only twice that year.  My assistant head of school did a brilliant job of running the school in my absence and by serving in that role, she grew professionally.

After eight years of challenges which entailed moving campus sites and growing enrollment from 400 to 1200 students, I confessed to my board chair that I was exhausted.  He was an alum of the school and a current parent of three children. He suggested that I take a sabbatical. The sabbatical policy was a full year at half pay, but while the idea was appealing, I could not afford that pay cut. 

Then he said “Why not put together a proposal for the Board, telling us how our School can benefit from your experience, and then if we approve it, write a proposal to a local area foundation to see if that organization will underwrite the other half of your salary.”

The Board approved it with the understanding that I would return for at least three more years after the sabbatical. I applied to the Harvard Graduate School of Education to earn a Certificate of Advanced Study. I also applied to a local foundation to support my proposal which was to write a book on faculty compensation in independent schools. NAIS told me that if I researched the subject and wrote the book, NAIS would publish it and they did for about 18 years. That book, which I co-authored with a PhD candidate at the Graduate School, changed the trajectory of my career.

What I brought back from my sabbatical was many connections with professors, deans and other leaders in the educational field whom I brought to my school to meet with parents, the Board and the others. The project benefited my school, me, my Assistant Head, and I would like to think a much larger audience of future clients when I later became a consultant.

As far as I knew at the time, I was the first and only head in the country who received a full year sabbatical and came back, i.e., as opposed to a buyout, a severance or a nice “good bye”. It was an eye opener for other heads who learned of my experience. My career as a consultant several years later all began with the sabbatical and the book.

When that board chair passed away, I learned from his widow that he had funded the grant to the foundation to support anonymously my application.

More boards need to think about helping their heads design a sabbatical, especially now given the challenges and stress that heads have experienced during the past few years. It may not be for a full year although many schools now do provide that option. It could be for three months, six months, or even two months each year for five years. 

Periodically, heads need to recharge professionally and personally. Both heads and the school benefit from opportunities for heads to interact with their peers and to continue their education.  If a valued head returns from a sabbatical reenergized and rested, he/she may be more likely to stay especially if the head’s spouse, partner and family are happier as a result. Thus, boards can think of a sabbatical as a retention tool. 

Many heads are reluctant to ask the board chair for a sabbatical. They feel that this might be interpreted as a sign of weakness, but expressing one’s need for professional growth in a different setting and for a brief break from serving in the mentally and physically taxing role as head of school, is actually a show of strength. Heads need to advocate for themselves. Boards do not always nurture their heads or recognize their needs, even though they should. 

Some heads considering a sabbatical may worry that there is no one who will be able to fill their shoes capably in their absence. However, all good heads engage in succession planning and groom those under them for leadership roles. Other heads may fear that the person standing in may attempt to make changes of which they do not approve. But all good heads also make sure that those who serve along side them share their vision and their roadmap for the future. 

Littleford & Associates has thousands of clients on the topic of head compensation. Many think that head compensation refers only to salary and benefits. Our process includes an opportunity for a head to present to the compensation committee of the board a brief statement about his/her most significant professional accomplishments and challenges (including personal ones). This is an opportune time to express a desire for a sabbatical. This Consultant is hearing this more frequently now. 

If granted a sabbatical, heads need to take it. Some postpone it because the time never seems “right”. At the end of their tenure, they may ask for payment in lieu of the sabbatical not taken. That is certainly an acceptable practice, but it is a lost opportunity. There is no perfect time. 

Perhaps a head of school is reading this article and may decide to pose the question of a sabbatical to his/her board chair. Maybe a board chair is reading it, and maybe one will even help fund a head’s sabbatical. Or maybe another donor will step forward do so. Would that not be a great message to send to a head of school?