From Here to There: A New Model for Leadership Preparation

Pinpointing exactly when being a head of school (HOS) became more complex and challenging may be a foolish pursuit, yet experienced school leaders do talk about that time. What happened? For experienced heads, there seems so much more to do, to know, to consider, to plan and prepare for. Is it any surprise then that a position that once seemed a natural step for an experienced school professional increasingly feels like a step too far? As the variety and relentless demands of the job are ever more apparent (though compensation has certainly risen), the daunting reality of being a head of school seems less an affirmation of a good career than a big personal and professional risk.

Whatever the reasons behind the HOS’s new complexity, the pool of strong, new candidates for heads positions seems to be shrinking, especially from current independent school teachers and administrators. In the event, we now see a trend of boards and search committees having to reach outside of the independent school world to higher education, to other non-profits, even (Lord help us!) to business hoping to find the leadership capable of rising to the challenges and expectations that the current leadership climate entails. In short, independent schools with missions to educate children, adolescents, and young adults were increasingly turning to people whose professional background was working with adults in adult-focused worlds.

Within the experienced heads community, there has been a collective—though not publicly articulated—and growing sense that adequate new head preparation was not being addressed, despite common agreement that the demands of headship had significantly risen. Watching and hearing about new heads’ struggles, discussing with colleagues the challenges of finding strong candidates when a head transition was looming, and feeling the rise of complexity and expectations, many of us began to wonder how schools were going to find candidates ready to step up and smoothly take over the reins from successful heads departing healthy schools. Further, if there was a decline in traditional applicants, why so? Could it be that there was not a clear, comprehensive enough bridge of preparation to raise the odds that their headship would be successful? With nearly 50% of new headships failing—either through choice or not, nearly half of all new heads leave their schools in the first five years—it is little surprise that successful, happy independent school administrators might see the HOS move as an unacceptable professional and personal risk.

There is, to my knowledge, only a single national program designed to prepare new heads of independent schools for their job, and that is the venerable and well-regarded NAIS Institute for New Heads. Run as a week-long, summer conference, usually attracting about new heads from around the country to explore the issues they might face, for decades this program has been almost mandatory for new HOS men and women. During that week of preparation many professional and personal connections emerged from the Institute, relationships which were renewed and kept alive at other conferences or through emails, phone calls, and even social retreats, a testament to the need and desire of heads to have an outlet with others who share their challenges and experiences. In that sense for sure, the NAIS Institute has had, and continues to have, great value. However, to the extent that today a week-long conference, or any such transitional approach regardless of the curriculum, can have a meaningful impact on the success of a new HOS’s transition is arguable. Given the significant increase in complexity and challenge in leading independent schools over the last twenty-five years, my sense—and those of many of my HOS friends and colleagues—is that new independent school heads need a far more comprehensive preparation process and a continued and sustaining involvement through the first 120 days of the their tenure, and longer if they want further support. Greenwich Leadership Partners felt we could address what we (and others) see as an urgent need to prepare new heads for their headship in a more comprehensive and continuous manner. And so, we are in the midst of our inaugural program transitioning new heads of school into their new positions. We named it The Leadership Lab. The genesis of this program, its philosophy and goals, deserve some clarification, and this two-part blog offers not only the background and thinking behind this new project but also the opening for a wider discussion on the current issues facing those “on-boarding,” “ramping up,” and otherwise supporting new heads of independent schools. With perhaps 1,000 new headships opening up in the next five years, meeting this preparation challenge is particularly vital to the independent school world. From that premise, the new GLP Leadership Lab for New Heads has begun and, since early spring, the first cohort is busy working through the program.

As the GLP planning group began to think specifically about a new approach to supporting new HOS transitions, I spent many hours in conversations with other HOS’s (most still in the position but some retired), other educational professionals, and search consultants [note: GLP does not conduct searches] seeking their opinion about the current state of new head preparation. Without exception, these conversations not just suggested, but urged that some new thinking and initiatives be explored to enhance the probability that new heads would be successful. That success would be defined as having thorough knowledge—both factual and operational—of the school the new head was entering; having an open and clear goals alignment with the board chair; analyzing and understanding his/her leadership style and tendencies; being prepared for the political realities and nature of leading a variety of constituencies, each with different expectations of the new head. We also believed that another key component to our approach would be a growing part of leadership preparation and support worldwide: executive coaching. In the end, we came to the conclusion that The Leadership Lab would not be a “one off” sort of experience, but a sustained, comprehensive program of support, valuable content, and interactive focus on each individual’s specific school culture and challenges. True, we could not serve one hundred new HOS, but we could prepare some, and in doing so create a model that could go beyond the initial new heads with whom we worked. If these new HOS could mitigate the possibility of failure and accelerate the transition so that capable leadership could emerge, then we might find ways for expanding the Lab idea. The key, of course, was building that successful model.