leadership, transition, senior admin, senior administration, head of school, consultant, leaders, education, title, strategy

Expanded Senior Administrative Search Timeline

Like all aspects of the world disrupted by the pandemic, the timeline for senior administrative searches, particularly for Assistant Head of School and Division Director positions, have been affected. Previously, it was common for larger, complex schools to initiate searches for their next senior leaders in late summer or early fall, with a second wave of searches taking place in the new year. However, announcements for these searches are now being made in the spring, up to 14-16 months before the new Assistant Head or Division Director is set to join the school. I believe this change is not solely pandemic-related, but accelerated by the pandemic. Over the past few years, the timeline for Head searches has expanded, and the number of first-time Head appointments has significantly increased, which means there is more churn in the senior administrative ranks with talented leaders in demand.

This change first emerged as a deviation from the norm in Spring 2022 and has evolved into a full-fledged trend worth considering in 2023—and strategically planning for as school leaders look to the future. 

For educational leaders aspiring to advanced or expanded roles in new communities, this means the search cycle is nearly continuous. Just as one cycle of searches concludes around spring break, the next cycle is already underway. Moreover, candidates must juggle their current leadership responsibilities while engaging in interviews with potential schools. It is advisable for candidates to consistently update their resumes with new experiences and consider feedback from search communities to enhance their presentation. 

For a group of candidates, this timeline change demands a strategic and thoughtful approach to the search process. The early wave of senior administrative searches primarily comprises opportunities in robust, complex schools. In most cases, this overlaps with searches for Heads of School in smaller, more intimate communities. Previously, candidates would largely need to consider factors such as school location, community/cultural fit, and personal circumstances. Now, they are also being asked to weigh the value of an "advanced title" against (what might appear to be) a "lateral move." 

Without strategic, agile, and creative planning on the school's part, this change can be disruptive for the community. As I meet with senior administrators in communities affected by the extended timeline for Head of School searches, they express concerns about stagnation under interim leadership or confusion regarding decision-making when the outgoing head serves a final year alongside the incoming appointee. An opening in the senior leadership team can introduce disruption and potential confusion among educators and staff members on a broad scale. 

Heads who have cultivated highly skilled and high-potential team members, especially those who aspire to assume more significant roles and may need to seek opportunities elsewhere to realize their ambitions, must consider succession planning earlier in the year. Building strong relationships with leadership-team members, based on open and clear communication, will be essential for managing needs and expectations. 

Just as candidates now face additional considerations in their searches, Heads must explore new pathways. Is there a way to retain a talented leader by expanding their role and acknowledging their value to the school through a new, appropriate title? If the community is likely to lose a member of the leadership team, the Head would be wise to identify individuals within the community who can step up temporarily or on a trial basis as an interim replacement. While there may be time to conduct a comprehensive, national search for a new administrator during the winter, many schools have been opting for the interim route. In such cases, Heads often discover that the best person to fill the role is already a part of their team. The chaos brought about by the pandemic offered an opportunity for community members to step up and serve in new and interesting ways. Aspiring internal leaders often face the challenge of demonstrating their capabilities beyond their current title. During these disruptive years, Technology Directors developed COVID tracking tools, Arts Department Chairs creatively initiated community programming initiatives, and junior members of the leadership team supervised COVID protocol enforcement and coordinated communication. With an expanded understanding of the team's potential, Heads can now recognize the demonstrated potential in individuals to rise through the ranks and lead the community forward. 

The Head of School search cycle seems to have settled into its extended timeline. While this new trend for senior administrative searches has recently emerged, there is a valid reason to anticipate its continued growth in volume and regularity going forward. Rising school administrators will need to stay vigilant and monitor the search market for promising opportunities, even as they conclude the school year and transition into the summer workload. School Heads will be wise to maintain open conversations with talented team members while also developing a succession plan to avoid unforeseen transitions.