During one of my last years as a headmaster, the school had an interesting topic in our usual Tuesday night speaker series, which we call The Society of Skeptics. This speaker—whose name I cannot recall—was embarked on the goal of becoming a professional golfer by fulfilling the ‘10,000 hour rule’ (the theory of mastery that Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book The Outliers).
At GLP, we are always interested what transitions are taking place in the independent school world, particularly as we are continuing our New Heads Leadership Lab program.
With that slight introduction, I want to report on a recent conversation Greenwich Leadership Partners had with Jim Wickenden, the veteran president of Wickenden Associates and a seasoned expert on the leadership search environment for independent schools. Throughout the independent school world, Jim is held in high regard for the firm’s successful work and his reputation for experience and understanding of the ever-evolving issues of school leadership and governance. I first met Jim as a teacher when he came to The Taft School to scout out early aspirants for leadership. Jim’s commitment to understanding not just his business but also the independent school world was impressive, so after becoming the headmaster at Blair Academy, I made one of my first off campus trips to meet with Jim in Princeton. Going to Wickenden Associates was sort of a pilgrimage both to pay respects and to glean as much as possible about the lay of the land for independent schools in New Jersey. That early venture proved quite valuable, and from that time forward Jim and I have kept in touch.
When do you actually look forward to going to a meeting? One of the biggest complaints we hear from educators is that they are asked to attend too many meetings that waste their time. As facilitators of meetings, we are constantly asking ourselves: what kind of experience do we want people to have; what makes a meeting valuable, productive and enjoyable?
It occurs to me that most meetings in organizations and schools originate from a logical purpose. Most of the time, they are a forum for advancing a work project, disseminating information, discussing an issue or making decisions. So why so many disgruntled meeting goers? I’ll offer three observations for school leaders.
As GLP enters a new year and the start of the 2017 edition of our Leadership Lab, it is a good time to report on the conclusion of our pilot Lab. In the 2016 cohort we worked intensely with first time heads as they prepared to enter headship and begin their work at school. Each new head worked individually with a GLP coach throughout last spring and summer, coming together as a group in July for an intense and productive three-day learning retreat. After returning to their schools for the opening months, supported by executive coaching, these new heads reconvened for the last formal part of the Lab with a December session in Washington, DC. During this final session, the participants gave presentations and discussed their first five months of their new headship, its challenges and joys, what worked and what is a work in progress. Going into the second half of their first year, the cohort members can continue with the coaching part of the Leadership Lab, stay in touch with each other, and will be asked for a report on this first year in June.
This July GLP held its first Leadership Lab workshop, part of a comprehensive transition program to help new boarding school heads prepare for their first year of leadership. We conceived the Leadership Lab as a highly interactive, but deeply personalized entry into headship. Sensing the need for a higher level of new head preparation, we conducted qualitative research and confirmed that a bold, fresh approach---one with small cohorts, beginning preparation months before the new heads start their tenure, and continuing with one-on-one executive coaching and feedback well into their first year on the job—was justified. In fact, our research feedback from current heads confirmed that such a program was necessary.
What happens when you bring five school teams, each comprised of board members, administrators and teachers, together for two days to design strategy for their schools? That’s the question we asked ourselves when we envisioned our Strategic Planning Institute. We had two big hypotheses to test. The first was that schools could design better strategy if they were in an environment that allowed them to support, inspire, question and challenge one another. The second was that if schools experienced this type of collaboration, and were offered helpful tools and structures for the process, they would be equipped to return to school and lead a strategic design process that was entirely their own.
Start this way. Consider that a new school leader is perceived as a bundle of experience, talent, and values who needs the right content added to prepare for the work ahead. The traditional approach would be to bring new heads together, expose them to a curriculum that is full of headship content (that is, full of what the ramp-up designers feel that new school heads should know) and get as much of that infused into the new school leaders as they start their new position. External realities, internal management, board relations, admissions, advancement, and so on creates the “exposure package” new heads are likely to need and knowledge they can use as their week together ends. This model has been the primary new head of school training model for years, and it is not without success. But is it enough?
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.
Sometimes what you don’t plan to learn is what really sticks.
Liz and I just finished our first year working with seven extraordinary school teams in High Tech High’s Education Leadership Academy (ELA). Last week, the program culminated with Presentations of Learning where each team exhibited the leadership project they designed and launched at their schools. All teams shared a goal to strengthen deeper learning and equity in their schools. But every project was profoundly different in design—some represented whole school change, some targeted a particular practice or question—and all had a unique focus aligned with the team’s interests and their students’ needs.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Sarah Goldin, a friend, teacher, and partner to us in innovation received a distinguished teacher award. In this video, she reminds us of why great teachers matter so much, and she pushes us to understand what it means to do this work with students well. No need for me to summarize, because it's all here. Listen closely to this amazing talk celebrating all adults who are willing to be "a little less fish in the bowl, and a little more cat in the hat." Fast-forward to 4:40 for her speech!