Being a successful Head of School is akin to being part-CEO and part-politician. On one hand, the head is clearly the “boss” with all the requisite responsibilities of managing people. On the other, the Head has to be responsive to numerous constituencies such as trustees, parents, alumni, students, and yes, even faculty. Falling out of favor with any one of these groups can spell disaster for a new Head. In reality, the successful Head is always part-CEO and part-politician. Even as she contemplates making a major personnel decision, a Head has to be mindful of how it will “play in Peoria.” But there are times when the balance of power needs to favor the Head as politician as opposed to the Head as CEO. And except in rare situations, nowhere is this maxim more important than at the beginning of a Head’s tenure. Developing a well thought-out entry plan designed to build political capital, engender trust and respect, and demonstrate that she is, indeed, worth following should be the highest priority for a new Head of School.
An entry plan is designed to provide structure to the new Head’s introduction to the community. It can take any of several forms, but the underlying goals of such a plan should be the same for each new Head:
1. Develop deep insight into the nature of the school, its culture, how the mission is lived on a daily basis, and the school’s place in the market. This deep understanding is central to developing a vision, a “winning aspiration” that is perceived by stakeholders as legitimate, not just a product of the Head “shooting from the hip.” A vision grounded in deep insight about what the school can truly be, leads to credibility and that, in turn, results in political capital for the new Head. In effect, by demonstrating that she has done her homework, the new Head is consolidating power, which has been inevitably diffused during the transition from one Head to another. By taking the time to gain deep insights into the nature of the school, the new Head is also forging relationships based on mutual trust and respect, yet another way to gain political capital.
2. Understand where the pockets of power are, who the major influencers will be, and determine if they will be barriers or supporters of change. Power in a school may have little to do with an official position or a title. In order for a new Head to fulfill a vision, she has to identify the power brokers and begin to formulate a plan to neutralize the naysayers and enlist the “early adopters.” A new Head should act as if her only power on the first day of the job is the capacity to earn political capital. That’s it, nothing more!
3. Introduce oneself to the community by speaking at gatherings of various stakeholders. These brief speeches need to reveal who the new Head is, what she believes about education, and why she chose this school. In essence, the new Head is building capital by demonstrating that she “gets” the school and that she is approachable with more than a fair share of emotional intelligence.
4. Identify potential personnel moves that may be critical to realizing the vision. Vision is worthless if the new Head cannot execute, and make no mistake, she will not be able to execute without a group of talented administrators, teachers and trustees.
Throughout my career I have too often seen the seeds of failure sown in the first year of a headship. That failure is often the result of a new Head not understanding the particular nature of power associated with the job. It is well worth the time and effort to think systematically about how a new Head of School will enter a school community and what she hopes to accomplish in the first several months of her tenure. Independent schools advance most dramatically when they have strong Heads of School who embody the respective values of those schools, use their power to help the schools be their best, and at the same time, never forget that they are accountable despite the power they have so assiduously earned.