leadership transition, leadership, transition, anxiety, communication, change, Covid-19, school, leaders, on boarding, mission,

Transition Leadership in the Age of COVID-19

New heads were hired over the course of the last eight months all over the country and around the world with great fanfare and excitement for the future. When done well, a search is structured around a strong mission and an open, inclusive process, yielding the person best suited to lead the school forward with passion and vision. Change in leadership is also accompanied by excitement, hope, and usually some small measure of anxiety. Accordingly, schools typically set up a thoughtful and orderly transition process, intended to maximize the potential and minimize the worries, and no doubt most schools had the process well in hand until COVID-19 struck. Now, with campuses closed, community members confined to their homes, teachers and students trying to figure out distance learning, and a date for a return to “normal” unknown, those emotions around transition have likely been reordered for both the school and the head-elect. It might now look more like anxiety, anxiety, and more anxiety, with a little glimmer of hope holding it all together. In this new environment, how should schools and leaders think about transition to ensure success? 

Traditionally, transition follows a fairly well-established protocol in order to get the new head up to speed—regular conversations with the outgoing head and board chair (separately and maybe all together on occasion), less frequent in-person meetings with a transition committee and perhaps the full board, some bonding with the administrative team, opportunities for faculty and parents to get to meet the new head—all aimed at allowing for a smooth entry in July, with knowledge about the school’s most pressing issues and where to turn to learn more about decisions that will need to be made in the short term. Generally, by this time of year hiring is done, budgets are set, enrollment is known (or can be guessed at with reasonable certainty), and the community is getting ready to celebrate the departing head and the graduating class. Transition is orderly. There is time for the new head to settle in, focus is on establishing relationships, and if the stars align, there’s a honeymoon period where few big decisions need to be made, and everyone is excited for the future with new leadership. 

Well, 2020 and the post-COVID reality presents schools with a slightly altered and still unsettled picture.

Transition this year is fraught with uncertainty and exhaustion. Every school has dived headlong into a real-time experiment in distance learning and no one knows what any of it means for the future. It’s safe to say you can forget about a honeymoon! That said, it is possible—indeed crucial—to think about transition in a way that accomplishes similar goals as in a more typical year: onboarding a new head so she/he is ready to lead, and the community is excited for the future. In fact, leadership matters more than ever, so it’s critical to get it right.

The truth is that the same things that were important in past years will be important now, especially mission and communication. While it may be cliché to say that it all starts it with the mission, it has in fact never been truer. A strong mission speaks directly to a schools’ values and how those values lead to desired outcomes. What better place to ground the transition? Simply put, the mission cannot be overused as a school’s guide star. Make sure the new head and the entire community stays focused on what makes the school special, unique, successful, and necessary. Similarly, in times of crisis, there is no such thing as too much communication among leadership and with all constituents. The incoming and outgoing heads should certainly be speaking often at this point, at least weekly and perhaps more. In addition to helping the new head understand the big picture around budget, enrollment, personnel, fundraising, facilities, etc., the conversations should include the current situation and all the decisions that are being made now that affect future commitments. While a newly appointed head might not typically weigh in on much prior to starting, there are likely to be many decisions this year about which they should have some say. Regular communications with the directors of finance, admissions, and development are also critical so the new head has a full and accurate picture of the challenges that are presenting themselves now and will likely impact 2020/2021 and future years. Solidifying those relationships now, before July, will allow for more seamless lines of communication once the new head takes the helm.

While easy to be mired in the difficult road ahead, the current challenges to schools as a result of COVID-19 also present unique opportunities for innovation and leadership. The incoming head should be sure to ask about the good news that has resulted from this disruptive change to routine. Who is stepping up? What teams have come together and experienced real success? What innovation will lead to future opportunities for students and the school? How might this experience with distance learning be leveraged for future success? The new head of school will want to be armed with these stories in order to recognize outstanding teachers, strong internal leadership, opportunities for improvement, and to promote the value of the school to internal and external constituents. 

The school engaged in a thorough and thoughtful process to choose the right new head of school to lead it into the future. Even if that future looks slightly different or murkier than was what imagined many months ago, trust the process, prepare for success, and whether one is on the board, faculty, administration, or staff, do your job especially well in support of your school’s mission and students. The new head will appreciate the support and the school will benefit through the transition and beyond.