next level, head of school, leadership transition, transition, leadership, vision, strategic plan, transparency, candidate, schools, search committee, growth, teachers, students

The Next Level: Long-Arc Thinking in the Leadership Search Process

In times of leadership transition, Head of School Search Committees invariably express a desire to find a leader who will “take the school to the next level.” When asked to describe the “next level,” the picture gets fuzzy. A search team of a half dozen deeply-committed school community members fill a “next level” basket with “fix it now” challenges like fixing the uneven enrollment in the middle school, stemming last year’s scary faculty attrition, overcoming this season’s Covid-19-impacted spring auction, replacing the shabby pre-school buildings and removing the heavy burden of school debt. The hoped-for “next level leader” is the brilliant player who can shake off these perpetual frustrations, and bring the school community to a place and time where the annual tuition-and compensation-setting discussion is a breeze, lines of diverse, mission-embracing families stand patiently outside the admissions office, and the formerly shabby pre-school has a spanking-new playground and building. 

Leadership transitions can be daunting. To find the right-person for a particular time in the school’s journey, with relevant experience for the challenges ahead and a temperament that feels like a “fit” with the school’s culture can be a tall order. Toss in a few dozen “next level” fantasies fiercely held by trustees, along with some inspiring language about a “visionary” leader, and you have a recipe for disappointment and continued frustration. 

So how might a school create a vision and a series of actions that will take the community to the “next level”? How will the school’s community feel the energy and excitement of forward momentum? And how will the leadership transition help—and not hurt—that momentum? 

The search process itself can serve as a catalyst for “next level” thinking. If trustees take stock of the school’s development over the past five to ten years, and frankly define the current challenges, they’ll be taking an important step in the search for their next level leader. This stock-taking might take the form of revisiting accreditation reports, creating (or dusting off) a school data dashboard and noting patterns and key takeaways. Perhaps the three-year-old Strategic Plan needs to be refreshed and updated, or the plans for the creation of a new strategic plan need to be paused in light of the leadership transition. With these actions, the Board will be helping the Search Committee describe to Head of School candidates the realms in which the school has focused its efforts, the persistent problems that have dogged leadership, and the school’s story over the past several years. This stock-taking exercise sets the stage for defining the “next level” and allows the board to envision how the newly selected Head of School will partner with trustees. One of three possibilities will likely emerge:

    1. The school has an active Strategic Plan in place, the product of a thoughtful and inclusive process. The new Head of School will join the team in executing the plan, within a defined period of time. In a recent search at a prominent southern California school, an ambitious, far-reaching Strategic Plan has mapped out several years of the school’s intense work-plan. The ability to jump onto this fast-moving train became a key leadership requirement and the reference-checking process focused on the ability to execute a complex series of initiatives within tight time constraints and a wide variety of constituents. 

    2. The school does not have a Strategic Plan in place and hopes to work together with the newly selected leader to create a shared vision for the school’s “next level” development. The school-wide challenges that will greet the incoming Head of School are nonetheless defined and clear, even as they may—or may not—become part of the Strategic Plan. For potential Heads of School, the opportunity to be a part of this process could be a key attraction to the school community. What better way to get to know trustees, teachers, parents and alums? What better way to build and deliver a shared vision? 

    3. The school neither has a formal Strategic Plan nor plans to create one. In such cases the “next level” may be more like a “next step”, as simple (and consuming) as “find a permanent home for the school” or “restore and restructure the administrative team to support the school’s growth.” Again, during the search process the Head of School Search Committee must be careful to clarify that beyond the strategic initiative, there is no current agreement on what the “next level” might be; the school is attending to the most urgent matters first. Next level? Not yet. 

A well-run search helps candidates understand exactly where the school is positioned in its market, and how the school community is envisioning its future. Candidates can engage in the match-making process with confidence that if they are offered the headship, they will neither be blindsided nor held to the achievement of an ill-defined or impossible “next level”. In an open, transparent search, the school deepens its understanding of its hopes and dreams, and the candidate is energized by the challenge of working with trustees, teachers, parents and students to bring the school to a rosy and much-anticipated next level, appreciating each step of the journey.