Set the Stage for Success: Preparing for Head of School Transitions

4 min

With many heads of school retiring, independent schools are finding themselves in a transition period as they adjust to building relationships with a new head of school. Searching for a new head of school involves time, effort, and expense on the part of the school community and its leadership. Between search committees, search consultants, and interviews, among other things, independent schools invest significant time and energy in finding the individual who will take the helm. To ensure that these efforts are not wasted, it is important to remember that the work does not end once the announcement is made – in creating a transition plan, independent schools can best lay the groundwork for a successful leadership transition. To do so, consider the following.

Establish a Search Committee and the Search Process

A thorough search process is the first component of setting the stage for a successful leadership transition. This starts with the creation of a search committee that represents the school and can include such individuals as the board chair, other school administrators, department heads, and other community members as appropriate, depending on the school's culture. The search committee, often working with a search firm, then evaluates the school's needs with regard to an incoming head, advertises the position, evaluates candidates, and conducts interviews.

Sometimes it may be that appointing an interim head is an appropriate route, allowing the school and its search committee additional time to identify and vet appropriate candidates to ensure that the final placement is the right one for the school.

Form a Transition Plan

A well-crafted transition plan will help both the head of school and their family become acclimated to the school community. It is important that the incoming head learn about the school – that they are provided with important information about the school's mission, its enrollment and finances, its bylaws and governance, and its operations. Consider establishing a required retreat where the incoming head and the board can outline goals and expectations and plan for how they may be communicated to the community. In addition, the incoming head should begin learning about and meeting the community itself, for example, by having listening sessions or campus visits with different members of the community. These listening sessions not only help the head begin to understand community members' individual priorities, but also begin the process of building relationships beyond those individuals on the search committee. It is also important that the head begin building relationships with the board chair and other members of the board.

In making a transition plan for the head, it is important to remember the head's family. They are also joining the community and would benefit from having a welcome committee help them begin building relationships as well.

Consider Offering an Executive Coach

Executive coaches are valuable to incoming heads of school, particularly for those who may be new to a leadership position. Even an informal mentoring arrangement can add immense value in aiding the incoming head in acclimating to their new position. An executive coach or mentor can aid a head by sharing strategies that they have learned along the way, helping the head of school avoid potential pitfalls.

Don't Forget About the Outgoing Head

It is important for independent schools to remember that the outgoing head is still responsible for managing the school until the new head of school formally begins their term. Depending on the circumstances, schools may consider involving the outgoing head of school in the transition process and asking for their feedback along the way. The outgoing head can be available to pass along institutional knowledge to the incoming head and may also be able to aide in the transition by bringing outstanding matters to closure or finality. It is important to be mindful of how decisions made by the outgoing head of school may affect the incoming head of school's transition into the community.

Remember the Business Office

Regardless of whether the business officer is on the search committee, they are an important component of the entire transition process. They will generally work with the board chair and/or finance committee to ensure the funding for the head search is within the budget and will be able to gather valuable data for the incoming head's proposed contract, including data on comparable salary and benefits.

The business officer and incoming head of school would also be wise to spend time building their own professional relationship, establishing trust and open communication and ensuring that the incoming head understands how the business officer can support the head's success.

Independent schools with questions are encouraged to contact Caryn Pass, Grace Lee, Janice Gregerson, Ashley Sykes, or Imani Menard.