I Feel a Change Comin' On

I am reminded of Bob Dylan's refrain as I write this morning's blog. (Yes, dating myself once again.) It will come as no surprise that this is a time of significant change and uncertainty for independent schools. Across the country, the conversations and questions are the same – how to do more with less while ensuring the quality of the educational program is not diminished. Whether the challenge is maintaining enrollment, increasing fundraising, retaining expert faculty, or recruiting committed trustees, all schools are trying to balance meeting everyday operational needs with keeping an eye on the long-term vision and stability of the institution. 

Regarding leadership transitions and head searches, I would offer the following observations:

  • The ability of a Head to work collaboratively with the Board is crucial. No longer can a Head – or a Board – go it alone. It must be a highly functioning and supportive partnership.
  • There is no honeymoon period – a new Head must hit the ground running. One year of “treading water” can significantly impact enrollment, fundraising, parent satisfaction or faculty confidence.
  • Strong, experienced candidates for Head of School positions are difficult to find and need to be courted. The job has become so demanding, and requires such a depth and breadth of skills, that educators scrutinize the potential quality of life trade-offs more than ever before.
  • The first year of a new Head – that transition period – is the key to success. Boards need to plan carefully and provide their new leader with support and guidance to ensure a stable and successful change in leadership.

These observations underscore the importance of approaching the Head search from a comprehensive vantage. With our combined experience of more than 50 years working in and with over 150 independent schools nationwide, we have observed innumerable transitions in the Head of School position. Some are thoughtfully planned and well executed, while others are unexpected and traumatic. Regardless of how it occurs, change is difficult for school communities. Faculty, staff, parents and students enjoy the measured predictability of the school day, the academic calendar, and the unique traditions that develop over time.

The nature of our work at ISA leads to deep and trusting relationships with clients, giving us an inside yet objective look at how schools manage – or fail to manage – the critical period of change that comes when a Head departs. This is not about simply conducting a search. We believe it is much more, and have identified the key areas in which schools need guidance and planning to best ensure a smooth and successful transition in leadership:

  • Status of the Strategic Plan
  • Capacity of the Senior Administrative Team
  • Strength of Board Leadership
  • Fundraising Campaign Cycle
  • Sustainability of Enrollment Planning
  • Health of School Culture and Climate

By assessing the “state of the school” in these fundamental areas, we can develop a comprehensive transition plan to guide the Board, the Head and his or her leadership team, and the entire community through a period of change that can, from start to finish, can span 24 months or longer. The actual Head search is a primary component of this plan, but by no means the only task before the school. Making certain the school is well-prepared, or at least recognizes the areas in which it is not, will not only position the school to find the right individual, but go a long way to ensuring the new Head’s success.

As Winston Churchill wrote, "There's nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction." Managing leadership change through a comprehensive look at the entire institution will result in not only a successful search but a better, stronger school.

~ Tracy