responsibility, board of trustees, head of school, search committee, search, school, independent school, search process, change, responsibilities, roles, supervisor, leaders, leadership

A Board Chair’s Responsibility in a Head of School Search

The role of the chair of a board of trustees in a head of school search process can seem to be a bit of a conundrum. It is correctly and frequently asserted that the most important job for a board of trustees occurs when a head of school departs from that community and the next head must be identified and appointed. Indeed, that responsibility does not end with that appointment; it continues through the transition and includes the nurturing of the new head to a stable, successful tenure. One of the challenges to manage in the head search process is that, by necessity, boards turn over much of the actual search and subsequent leadership transition to ad hoc committees by those names (search and transition). The chair of the search committee must wrangle the search process with emphasis on confidentiality, and the board’s actual role in the search is reduced to brief meetings with finalists, followed by review of the search committee’s detailed case for a single candidate at the end of the process. Similarly, the details of the transition process may be managed by a transition committee. Overlaying all of this is the understood assumption that the most important relationship in a school is that between the board chair and the head of school. What, then, under these circumstances, is the appropriate and most effective role for the board chair through this critical episode in the life of a school?

The chair of the board is usually the first person to learn officially of the imminent departure of the current head of school. This departure may be planned far in advance, allowing for as much as two years of time between the decision and the start date for a new head. Frequently, however, the departure is sudden, perhaps resulting from a board decision or perhaps from a decision to depart by the head; there are a myriad of possibilities. Whatever the circumstances, the board chair must immediately start to work with other trustees to think and plan about how to manage this shift. Only the board chair can orchestrate this moment because only the board chair has both the authority and fiduciary duty to do so. Trustees need to understand what is happening, and some may be deputized to help think though this delicate stage for the school. Senior administrators must be brought into the loop as necessary and appropriate to manage communications and messaging, as well as to assume internal duties perhaps being vacated by the head. This can be easier and smoother in a planned transition with a long horizon, or it can be immensely pressured under more sudden circumstances.  

One of the first issues after the management of the immediate problems of organizing for and communicating about change, is whether the board chair should have a direct role in the search. More specifically, the board chair will need to decide if they will chair the search. Generally, the answer to this latter question is no, the board chair should not also be the search chair. There are several reasons for this.  

     • The board chair is likely to be busy with many other responsibilities and developments and management of the innumerable details of a search is an unnecessary distraction.

     • Remaining one step removed from running the search allows the board chair to assume a less partisan role in the community, serving instead as source of stability and balance.

     • Board chairs usually have limited terms in office and it is often a wise idea for continuity for the school and support for the new head that the search chair should be the presumptive next chair of the board, thereby deepening both the commitment of the school’s board chair to the new head as well as the strength of the relationship between the board chair and head for a longer period into the future. The board chair may choose to serve on the search committee, and there are good reasons to do so to stay fully informed about the process and its progress; yet staying one step removed from actual orchestration is advisable.

Head of school candidates want to know the board chair; they want to connect with the person who will be their supervisor and supporter, and the forging of that relationship starts in the search process. The sitting board chair also will likely lead the conversation about compensation, establishing the structure that will articulate and secure the material and accountability relationships with the new head. That process can be facilitated by the presence of the board chair on the search committee, where the board chair can gain an intimate understanding of the candidate’s strengths and challenges, as well as all the data and experiences that led to the appointment of the new head. It is legitimizing for the new head, however, if their appointment is perceived by the school community to be as the result of a fair and inclusive process and not simply as the whim of the sitting board chair. 

The most important role of the board chair is to take responsibility for setting the tone for the search process. The board chair needs to take responsibility for ensuring the legitimacy of the new appointment, as well as for establishing fertile ground in the school community for the leadership of the new head to take root and flourish. The board chair needs to assert, often with the advice and support of outside search counsel, the parameters of the search committee’s responsibilities, as well as the limits and imperatives for the involvement of the board of trustees in the process. The board chair must ensure that the search process, as well as the places for input from the broader school community, are communicated and understood by the school community. While the board chair will not likely do all the above on their own, it is the responsibility of the board chair to make sure that it is done well and appropriately by others, and that everyone, including trustees, search committee members, the outgoing head, administrators, and the community, know and remain in their lanes through the process. 

The announcement of the appointment of the new head of school comes from the chair of the board speaking on behalf of the unanimous voice of the full board of trustees. This announcement generally reiterates the principles underpinning a thorough, fair process that provided opportunities for community input and perspective. The board chair also therein reminds the school community that there will be a transition process that will introduce the new head gradually to the school community over a period of months. If a transition committee is appointed to attend to the details and schedule for welcoming and orienting the new head, an advisable step, the board chair is still responsible during this phase for ensuring the transition process is orderly and supportive. In short, the role of the board chair in a search and transition process is to oversee the successful transfer of authority to a new leader, and to do so while effectively distributing responsibility for most of the process and details to others, all while holding others accountable for fulfilling those responsibilities. The board chair has a duty to ensure that the shift in the school is viewed as legitimate, respectful of the culture and norms of the school, and inspiring both stability in the present and hope for the future.