Independent school education is facing a leadership crisis. The median tenure of a head at his or her present schools is less than six years (Mitchell). Abrupt departures of heads within two months of the end of the school year are increasing at an alarming rate according to ISACS Executive Director Claudia Daggett. These dismissals disrupt the school community, often creating long-lasting fissures, distracting teachers and administrators from the important work of implementing the school’s mission and resulting in the time-consuming search for the next school leader.
The popular response to this leadership crisis, and more specifically head turnover, is a cry for more governance training. Independent school boards need professional consultants to teach them about their proper roles and responsibilities. Schools need more “Trusteeship 101” sessions with boards so that they don’t stray from their lanes and become embroiled in the management of the school. In short, there is a leadership crisis because boards are behaving badly. Heads reinforce this narrative as they share horror stories of boards going rogue.
But what problem should we be trying to solve—bad governance or leadership unprepared to meet the complex challenges independent schools are facing? Blaming trustees for violating proper procedure might assuage the pain and/or fear heads are feeling, but it does not mean that board training will provide a panacea for the ills so many schools are facing. Do we really believe that a four-hour workshop can fortify proper trustee behavior when friends in the parent community are complaining vociferously about the school and the head? Is it realistic to expect trustees to stop fielding emotional complaints from veteran faculty, sometimes former beloved teachers, just because the trustees attended a workshop on good governance? How are trustees supposed to respond to declining enrollments and subsequent deficit budgets? Indeed, these are rhetorical questions, but their purpose is to demonstrate the impotence of governance training as an effective mechanism for addressing the challenges of a school. Don’t get me wrong—good governance is vital for schools to thrive—but its power to overcome leadership is poorly equipped to deal with the myriad of challenges facing schools today and is limited at best.
Rather than spending money on a consultant workshop with trustees, independent schools should invest money in helping their heads become better learners, leaders, and managers, and at the same time, establish real accountability that can be a model for the entire school. If independent schools want to become better and win in the market, their leaders have to become better at addressing complex problems that many have rarely had to face. And one important way this happens is if trustees invest in the evaluation of their respective heads and see it as an opportunity for the heads to learn and grow. This improvement, in turn, will only happen if a strong and knowledgeable consultant is working directly with the appropriate trustee committee (Head Support and Evaluation Committee) to establish and implement a head evaluation process that will address the specific issues the school and the head are facing. The stakes are too high and the opportunities too great to leave this job in the hands of those who, in all likelihood, lack expertise.
The consultant and the appropriate board committee can determine roles and responsibilities, but critical to the success of this approach are seven elements:
- The consultant interviewing key stakeholders, including the head, and using the results of those interviews to inform the evaluation; stakeholders will often be candid with a neutral party;
- The thoughtful establishment of head of school goals that are thoroughly vetted and justified in light of the aspirations of the school; at times these goals have to be foundational; in other words, they are the initial steps in a multi-step design that will lead to the desired results;
- The consultant helping the trustee committee interpret the feedback, focusing on broad themes and assigning a level of importance to these themes based on the aspirations of the school;
- The consultant coaching the trustee committee on the communication of the evaluation results to the head in order to ensure that the conversation strikes the right balance of supportive and direct, and will be understood by the head;
- On-going follow-up between the trustee committee and the head to ensure leadership growth to include targeted professional development; again, the consultant should be available to coach the committee on its communication with the head;
- Counsel on the recruitment of trustees who can advise the head in critical business domains that are linked to desired results;
- An unswerving commitment to school-related results, both realistic and meaningful.
Implicit in this approach is a belief that real leverage to improve the school lies more with the head’s growth than the board’s growth. This belief in no way obviates the need for good governance, but the head is the real catalyst for change in schools. Hiring a consultant to facilitate the head of school evaluation signals to the community the importance the board places on leadership and learning in order to achieve the aspirations of the school. It also acknowledges that many of the big issues that schools are facing today are business challenges, ones that many first-time heads are poorly equipped to handle.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the state of head evaluations is poor at best. Many schools don’t even conduct an evaluation, and others do a simple survey of trustees that provides little in the way of meaningful feedback. In an effort to incentivize the head, some schools provide bonuses to their heads for meeting certain goals as if the real reason that heads don’t achieve results is that they lack motivation. Other schools are reluctant to conduct full evaluations for fear of crossing that proverbial line between governance and management.
Independent schools, like all businesses, need talent in order to be successful. They need to recruit talent, grow talent, and retain talent. Anecdotal evidence indicates that when it comes to the head of school’s growth, independent schools are falling woefully short and thus, missing an opportunity to make a real difference. Real learning that makes a difference happens when a head is dealing with authentic challenges—Immediate and critical to the well-being of the school. A first-rate evaluation system makes learning compelling for the head, which in turn, helps the school thrive. Einstein said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” The same can be said for many independent schools and their heads.