head of school, interim, leadership, candidates, opportunities, search, board of trustees, governance, decisions, search committee,

The Virtues of an Interim Headship

Without warning, the Head of School has died or become permanently incapacitated.

The Head of School has done something egregious and is being fired for cause.

The Head of School has unexpectedly announced acceptance of a position elsewhere.

These situations are rare, but they do happen. When there is simply no time to conduct a thoughtful search, boards have no choice other than the appointment of an interim head of school. Sometimes, a capable and willing candidate is available within the school’s senior leadership team. Increasingly, my colleagues at RG175 and I also are seeing a growing cadre of experienced and skillful “retired” heads who are eager to take on a brief “encore” leadership position. 

Aside from extreme circumstances like the ones referenced above, it has been my observation that opportunities associated with the appointment of an interim head are underappreciated in the world of independent schools. Understandably, schools value continuity. Understandably, boards are risk averse. In more typical circumstances, when a current head of school announces plans well in advance to depart at the conclusion of the following academic year, the rush is on to find the “just right” next school leader. Schools rarely slow down enough to really think about where they are and what it’s going to take to facilitate a successful leadership transition. 

I’m sure there are others, but I’d like to cite three scenarios where it might be wise for boards to proactively consider the appointment of an interim head, prior to undertaking a search for their next “permanent” head of school.  

The first scenario is well-documented in the world of organizational development: A highly regarded, long-time leader is retiring, and no one can imagine anyone being able to effectively fill her/his big shoes. In spite of everyone’s best efforts, the faculty and community may not be ready to let go, and it’s going to be difficult for anyone to measure up to the accumulated trust and respect attributed to the departing head of school. The board doesn’t want the school to lose momentum. The directors of admission and development are worried about how a leadership transition will impact enrollment and fundraising. The school is strong, and there is good reason to be confident that it should be able to attract top talent. Yet maybe those business school folks are right, and there will be a greater likelihood of success for the next ongoing head of school, if she/he follows a transitional interim head? 

In the second scenario, increasingly familiar in 2022, everyone at the school is exhausted. Tensions around COVID decision-making and tensions around the pace and importance of DEI initiatives have resulted in serious issues of divisiveness and reduced faculty morale. Furthermore, well-intended board members have been regularly violating boundaries of good governance. The school retains “strong bones,” but there is major healing to be done and there are difficult decisions to be made before it can move forward. It’s “magical thinking” to assume that a new head of school will be able to step in seamlessly under these conditions. In fact, there’s work to be done “preparing the soil” before a successful leadership transition is likely to take place. Here, an interim head could be critical in calming the waters, reestablishing a healthy relationship with the board, and making some hard calls regarding personnel. An interim head could “buy time,” while making the school more welcoming and appealing to prospective leadership candidates. Too often, I see boards fearing that this will be wasted time, rather than understanding the potential appointment of an interim head to be an investment in the school’s long-term success. 

A third challenging scenario can emerge toward the end of a long, intentional search process. For whatever reason—a weaker than expected candidate pool, the sudden withdrawal of a finalist, the emergence of an unanticipated priority—a search committee now realizes that it does not have a “just right” next head of school to recommend to its board. Does the search committee settle for the best available option, or does it acknowledge a failed search, recommend the appointment of an interim head, and start over? There can be significant forces working against the latter outcome. In addition to not wanting to accept that all of the time and expense invested in the initial search has been for naught, a search committee (and search consultants) can be too proud (or arrogant) to embrace a perception of failure. Yet, three years later, when the new head of school’s contract is not renewed, everyone will say that they knew they probably didn’t have the right person when they recommended him/her. 

Why not have the courage, before taking the school through the trauma of a failed headship, to appoint an interim head and begin again? 

Underlying all of these scenarios, there needs to be an understanding that the role of an interim head is distinctly different from the role of an ongoing head of school. From the outset, it is less about relationships and more about outcomes. I have had the privilege of serving as an interim head, and I can tell you that it is liberating to realize that one is not running for reelection. As a wise and experienced interim head has said, there are “three buckets” for an interim head of school to consider: “issues that needed to be dealt with yesterday; issues that realistically can be addressed during a year of interim leadership; and issues that can be dug into, learned about, analyzed, and teed-up for next long-term head of school.” 

Interim headships...not for everyone...more work for search consultants like me...but a tool well worth considering by a board as potentially critical to a successful long-term leadership transition in their school.