board chairs, heads, heads of school, salary, support, NAIS, compensation, compassion, independent schools

A Letter to Board Chairs Regarding Head Turnover

We are seeing an uptick in unexpected and unplanned turnover among independent school Heads resulting in a decrease in years that a Head is serving a school.

We know that turnover and new leadership can be a healthy thing—productive and invigorating, while bringing fresh thinking. The issue here is unexpected turnover, what NAIS defines as nonrenewal or termination of Heads, or Heads departing within three years of their hire.

According to NAIS, about 35-40 schools per year (2%) fit this definition. Two-hundred-fifty schools within the past nine years. The current research also tells us that one in five new Heads will leave their schools after three years or less. 

These brief tenures are alarming. A leader who leaves their school too quickly isn’t given the time to understand a school community, or build connections, take ownership, or forge a shared vision among stakeholders to create enduring change. A sudden departure or an unexpected change of leadership can create uncertainty, weaken trust, cause faculty turnover, impact student enrollment and fundraising, and ultimately impact the quality of learning. 

A deeper story is equally concerning. According to a survey of NAIS school Heads in the spring of 2021, over half of the Heads polled said that they plan to leave their current position within the next five years. We already know that the average Head of an NAIS school today will not remain in their school long enough to complete their second five-year plan. 

What then are some strategies for a Board to support, nurture, and sustain their Head of School they want to keep? 

• Most importantly, commit to a formal and continuous process that gives each other clear expectations and candid feedback about specific and achievable goals. According to a recent University of Pennsylvania study, 95% of board chairs agreed or strongly agreed that the board has set achievable goals for the Head—and that the board and Head collaborated on priorities. Yet only 75% of the Heads agreed. This significant gap reveals misunderstanding or disagreement between many Heads and their boards on what the Head’s role entails, as well as what the board’s role is in helping the Head to succeed. Left unchecked, this discord can lead to a Head’s unexpected departure, either voluntary or involuntarily. 

• Minimize Board Chair transitions: NAIS research tells us that this is the time during which Heads are most vulnerable, especially during their first three years.

• Address the differing personal and professional needs of School Heads at different ages across the lifespan. Examples include personal finances, professional learning and growth needs, family dynamics and transitions, and retirement planning.

• Understand the vital importance of time off, rest, and renewal for the Head of School.

• Compensate your Head of School competitively and fairly. The job of the Head of School is harder and riskier than ever before. The board needs to be aware of and address a Head’s market replacement costs.

• Express appreciation for the work of the Head of School and their spouse/partner as often as possible. 

Head of School stress and burnout have been exacerbated during Covid and amid the recent focus on school DEIJ issues. Stressors have been amplified such as work-life balance, feelings of isolation, unpredictability, lack of support, constant change, and community polarization and anger.

Coming out of Covid, your Head of School is looking to thrive in a school community that is looking up and out beyond the day to day. They want to lead a school inspired by a renewed and bigger vision, and to work in partnership with a supportive board that is aligned with that shared vision. This is how you can inspire, sustain, and keep your Head engaged. 

Although challenging work, leading a school can be an enormously fulfilling and joyful calling helping a school to reach its full promise so that students and adults within it can reach their promise. This requires longevity and continuity of leadership. Excellent boards take the long view with long-term board chairs who can support long-term Heads who can leave powerful legacies.