BEING A HEAD OF SCHOOL

The Santa Fe Leadership Center set out recently to explore some of the dynamics of being a new head of an independent, private school, partly in preparation for one of our Seminars and partly to find out what people in these positions were experiencing that we might be able to address in a thoughtful, systematic and helpful manner. Sixty people in their first ten years responded to our questions and gave us an enormous amount of information which we have summarized and which we are glad to share with our colleagues.  We are indebted to Educational Directions, Incorporated, a national consulting firm (www.edu-directions.com) for sharing information from their publication, The Head’s Letter, which includes a monthly announcement of all known head appointments. We are also especially grateful to those who have responded so generously to our questions.
This is not about getting ahead (or getting a head) but it could be about being ahead, meaning what it takes to be in the pro-active stance rather than the re-active one. There will inevitably be times when one must respond quickly and intelligently to unpredictable events beyond what we might have planned or even imagined.  In fact, that need gave rise in many places to a crisis management plan that enables an entire organization to follow certain protocols designed to protect and preserve order, ensure safety and avoid chaos to the extent possible. 
If you are the head, whether head of a school or even the head of a division or department, think of one or two big surprises that you may have encountered during your early tenure.  There is almost always one or more.  Expect the unexpected is a fair maxim to remember.  Being prepared and equipped to deal with whatever comes up and demonstrate capable and competent leadership are tremendous assets.
The sample was fairly representative of heads of independent schools, about 70% men, 30% women; 75% day schools, 25% boarding/day or day/boarding combinations;  35% PreK/K-12,  35% K-6/8. 15% 9-12, and 15% other combinations of grades such as 6-12 or K-3/5.  The number of  years completed as head ranged from 1 year, 40%; 2-5 years, 35%; 6-10 years, 20% and 5% other.  Over 65% of first-time heads came directly from either a division head, assistant head, or a principal’s position.
Among the many reasons given why people sought to become a head of 
school, the primary ones were the desire to have a positive impact on schools and to be able to make a difference as a leader who could help set the agenda and work toward beneficial changes and improvements.  Many felt ready to take on more and greater challenges and saw this opportunity as the next logical step in their career if they were going to advance.  This seemed to be a critical time of making such an important decision. When one decided to take on the blessings and burdens of being a head may be the result of accumulated experience, maturity and related to where one was in terms of stage of life.  If there is an average age of first time heads, it would appear to be in the late thirties, early forties although there are many exceptions on either end of the age spectrum.
What I have observed as one becomes a head of school is what I call the three year spectrum.  The first year is spent listening, learning and figuring out the players, the politics and what needs immediate attention.  Some people are smart enough to make a statement by making some necessary changes in the first year that are easy and not too costly.  The second year is often characterized by making plans and either updating a strategic plan or crafting a new one and in year three, the head takes ownership and begins to implement more desired changes and improvements in areas that have been defined as greatest needs and challenges. 
 Here is one person’s list of objectives and needs the first six years: Administrative departments and their processes – admissions, development, finance etc. -student achievement -curriculum -instruction -assessment -hiring/firing -managing -admissions -sustainability efforts -development -capital fund gains -relationship building -community engagement -professional development -scheduling -problem solving –futuring.  Those constituents that required most time and attention included the administrative team, the Board, parents, faculty and students, somewhat in that order for most people.  Fortunate are those heads with administrative colleagues to whom a lot of responsibility can be delegated.
The following scheme was created by Lee Burns, completing his 14th year as a school head and in his last year as head at Presbyterian Day School in Memphis.  He has been called to be the next head of his alma mater, McCallie, in Chattanooga, beginning in July, 2014.  We are grateful to Lee for his recent leadership in our November Seminar for Heads of School in Santa Fe.
Ages/Stages of Headship
I. Infancy/Beginning
          There is personal excitement and institutional excitement.
          It’s important to ask questions, listen and learn and to build relationships.
          That summer, had parent focus groups and met with group of students. Had met with teachers in grade level groups prior spring.
          You have an “excuse” not to have to make decisions or act yet.
          It’s a strategic time to gather “capital” that can be spent later.
          Little things you do or say can send big message. Be mindful of that.
          Enjoy this season. Bask in the glow of excitement and accolades. Remember it when tougher seasons come down the road.
          Had my office upstairs in the middle of everything.
          Popped in classes often.
          Ate lunch with the students most days.
II. Early Lessons Learned
          The honeymoon ends. Hopefully, you’ve collected a lot of good will/capital that can be spent.
          You’re getting a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the institution, including a sense of who may not be a fit or even who may offer resistance (Associate Head)
          Set up structures (committees, task forces, etc.) and processes that created more conversations about teaching and learning than had existed before.
          Initiated strategic planning process, facilitated by consultant Bill Weary.
          Many faculty, especially some long-tenured ones, had an unrealistic picture of our school, especially ignoring some weaknesses. They loved the school, and I needed to validate their love and investment while pushing/asking them to consider ways we could get better.
          To the extent that our faculty could see my commitment to the students and how hard I was working, they cut me some slack as I started to make clear that we need to think about making some changes.
          Outside validation was important. I visited schools in New York, Silicon Valley and started to network nationally. This gave us confidence and made it harder to resisters to make a case for status quo.
III. Taking Charge/Exercising Authority
          This is a hard season.
          It’s obvious by now that some people need to go. It’s a critical moment and test of leadership. Faculty will be watching to see if we as school heads really will insist that faculty align themselves with new agenda/vision/etc. I did not renew a handful of teachers.
          We added programs and personnel, had a new schedule, and began implementing our new strategic plan.
          I hired some very talented new teachers and administrators. We restructured some positions.
          An old-guard vs. new guard dynamic emerged.
          Some teachers complained to the Board. During a season of change, which can be risky for school heads, it is particularly important to communicate well with the Board and know of their backing.
          I felt attacked and sometimes alone. (Seek colleagues out for support and perspective)
          Maintain a posture of strength, boldness and optimism. More than anyone else, we set the tone for the school.
          Take the high road, especially publically, in terms of being gracious in thanking departing faculty and staff.
          Ride out the storm (two years).
IV. Learning What Works and What Doesn’t
          By being strong and staying the course during a tough season enables us to emerge as stronger leaders on the back side of that season.
          By talking more about faithfulness, loyalty and traditions, it freed us up to be more forward-leaning and progressive.
          Faculty and staff need more affirmation from me than I initially realized.
          Provide significant professional development. We started sending our teachers in teams to Project Zero at Harvard.
          With a strategic plan in place, “my team” in place internally, and having developed relationships with key constituents, it was a good time to start planning for a capital campaign.
          It’s better to have 7-8 direct reports instead of 12-15. I shrunk that number.
          As I came to have less frequent direct contact with our faculty, I carved out time to teach for a day in each of our nine grade levels. It was fun, but it sent the message to our faculty that I value their work and want to be able to empathize with them. Some of them still talk about my doing that.
V. Adapting to Change (Adolescence)
          Acknowledge that change is messy and hard and involves grief and courage. Talk about this as a faculty.
          Remember to communicate the need and urgency for change.
          We did a lot of work around Carol Dweck’s growth mindset work during this time. We talked a lot about the need to be flexible and nimble.
          We increased the reading/viewing of books/videos beyond the field of education.
          We as a school studied Google and their principles of innovation.
          Remind people that we’ve built some strong “can-do” muscles from previous hard things we’ve done.
          As Head of School, I began investing more in coaching up members of our administrative team.
          I began blogging and tweeting as a means to share with our broad school community what I believe about learning in today’s world and why we are changing as a school.
          I began teaching a class as a means of staying more directly connected to our students and the classroom.
VI. Maturity and Judgment
          Culture matters more than policies, resources, etc. I see myself as a guardian and promoter of our school’s culture. I often speak about our mission, core values, and how we do life together.
          Spending more time leading and less time managing as I did in my early years at school.
          I spend more time trying to recruit/hire the key right people
          I see one of my key roles now as modeling lifelong learning, especially assuring that we have a growth mindset. I pose questions and try to create/agitate a healthy tension/discomfort around the topic of learning in today’s world.
          I empower/support others rather than trying or needing to make as many decisions.
VII. Sit, Stay or Leave/Advance
          This stage is involving the establishment of partnerships and work beyond the campus.
          We’ve created a teaching institute that has served over 2,500 educators.
          We have established a partnership with a school in Buenos Aires
          We are partnering with Harvard to host their Project Zero teacher training program.
          We are wrapping up a $26 million capital campaign.
          We are in the midst of a new strategic planning process.
          The time is right for me to leave.
VIII. Pre-Retirement Planning
          Not there yet.
The challenges and rewards of serving as a head of an independent school in 2014 are many and have grown increasingly complex.    Lee Burn’s summary touches upon some of the highlights familiar to many of us who have enjoyed leading a school through growth and change while monitoring our own personal and professional growth as well.   It seems to me that much of what we do as school heads centers around being an agent of change.
How we plan and design that change, what the Board expects of the head and to what extent the Board and head work together in a productive partnership can make a big difference in the life of any school community.  Strategic plans often set the agenda for several years as do some accreditation reports with specific recommendations.
How the head connects with and leads all seven constituencies is another important variable in the successful heads’ repertoire.  These stakeholders are those human components of this dynamic and organic institution that we call a school.  They are those who make up the structure and systems that give the school its identity, its reputation and its vitality.  That is why it is so important that heads pay close attention to each of these and recognize their value to the school.  Each of these groups (and numerous individuals within the groups) will have somewhat different needs from the head and a savvy head will know where to invest time, energy and effort to best advantage and still achieve a healthy balance between work and a personal life.  Heads also report achieving and maintaining that balance to be another challenge!
For those who may be reading this and are not a head of school, here are the seven constituencies, not in any order of priority.  Why each one is important and how they all contribute to the life of the school should be apparent by who they are.  The seven groups are:  the Board of Trustees; faculty and staff; students; the administrative team; parents; alumni; and the larger community consisting of prospective families, other organizations and institutions and potential partners and contributors.
To our colleagues who share in this endeavor we extend our hearty congratulations and deep appreciation for accepting the invitation to lead a school.  As you know well, it is many things but it is seldom dull.  For many of us who thrive on doing many different things, it is the ideal job from that perspective.  And for those who really like interacting with others on many levels, being a school head fulfills that requirement to a high degree.
Whether you are in the first ten years, the middle ten or twenty or the last ten years, we trust you have found what works for you and how to make the most of your journey along the way.
 

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