Recently I heard about the struggles of two first-time heads of school. Their missteps are a reminder of the importance of a head’s on-going professional development that focuses on the practical skills of leadership.
Within a year and a half of beginning his tenure, a first-time head fired two long-serving senior administrators. Both had served in their positions for almost twenty years. Though a new head certainly has the prerogative to build his team, the disturbing aspect of these particular decisions was that they came about as a result of conversations initiated by the new board chair. In one of the cases, the board chair began the conversation about terminating the senior administrator before the new head even began working at the school.
In another instance, using the school’s cash reserves, a rookie head created new administrative positions that existed at his prestigious previous school in the hope that these additions would reverse a steady decline in enrollment. Although enrollment stabilized, the financial situation of the school grew worse. By his third year, the head’s stature and power began waning among trustees and senior administrators, and the board began to fill this vacuum of power, interjecting itself more into operational decisions.
It is easy to imagine a group of graduates from the NAIS Institute for New Heads discussing these two stories, blaming the boards of trustees and the chairs. In fact, I’ve heard these conversations throughout my career. They fit nicely in a prevailing independent school narrative that casts some boards as “power-hungry vultures” and their heads as “blind-sided victims.” This narrative is tiresome. More importantly, it’s not helpful. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most failed headships are the responsibility of the head, not the board of trustees.
Rookie heads of school need mentors. In a previous blog (“Why First Time Heads Need Executive Mentors, March 2015) I wrote about why mentorship is vital to the success of heads. In particular, I wrote about the two critical tasks of a new head: 1) learning about the landscape of reality and 2) assiduously and thoughtfully filling the vacuum of power, which is the inevitable result of a leadership transition. I usually cringe every time I hear a first-year head say that the board wants her to do something. It signals the beginning of an unhealthy balance of power, one that can weaken the head’s ability to add value to the school.
It is true that trustee workshops with consultants can mitigate improper trustee behavior, however, they are not a substitute for the head taking steps that lay a foundation for future success. At the end of the day, it is the new head’s responsibility to clarify roles and responsibilities through establishing behaviors that become habits and serve the purpose of continually reminding trustees of their proper roles. An experienced and successful former head of school plays a vital role in helping a new head achieve this clarification.
The head/mentor relationship is not a substitute for the head/board president relationship. The latter relationship, often described as the most important in any school community, should be open, authentic and nurtured. But board presidents do not know how to lead a school, and in most cases their counsel about internal school issues and management will be of little value. In fact, it may be harmful. Frequent conversations between president and head, in which the head seeks counsel about internal operations, can easily lead to the erosion of the head’s power to run the school — never a good outcome. Keeping the board president informed about critical internal operations is a primary responsibility of a head and occasionally seeking counsel about operations should not be a problem. But the subtle nuances of the head/board president relationship can influence the balance of power in detrimental ways for the school. Using a mentor for advice as opposed to the board president maintains the integrity of appropriate boundaries between governance and administration.
In order for a mentoring relationship to work, it is imperative that the mentor be a former, successful head of school. Being a head of school is challenging and complex, requiring a depth and breadth of knowledge and skills. Only someone who has done this job can provide the practical counsel to help a new head make good decisions. Moreover, it is critical that the mentor work only for the head of school in order to ensure a foundation of trust. More specifically, the mentor must be willing to challenge the head, albeit in a respectful way. Working with a mentor can be the most important professional development opportunity for a head of school. It can generate real learning about issues that matter right now. The more honest and authentic the relationship is, the deeper the learning and the better the decisions.