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First-year heads need thought partners. In fact, all heads need thought partners.

What is a thought partner? They are the head’s key administrators who show signs of intelligence, imagination, and buy-in to the head’s emerging vision for the school. As new heads develop their political capital, engender confidence in their leadership, and develop a deep understanding of the landscape of reality, they need to seek these key people out, consciously testing over time their suitability to engage in thoughtful, meaningful strategic conversations about the “what” and the “how” of change. If the senior administrator oversees an area of vital importance to the school’s future, the head must determine as soon as possible if that person rises to the status of thought partner.

In order for thought partners to be effective, there must be trust and honesty in the relationship. It is the head’s responsibility to create this atmosphere of trust, by making it clear to the administrator that the goal is not to impress the head, but rather to create and achieve a great goal together. Despite the best efforts of heads, some administrators simply cannot engage in meaningful discussions. Their deep-seated view of power makes it impossible to have authentic conversations with the “boss.” Equally ineffective are negative administrators who always see the glass half empty, and bring little to the table because of their “fixed mindset.” Effective thought partners use their knowledge and imagination to poke, prod, question, and test, along with the head, for the purpose of establishing transformative and realizable goals. More often than not, they are curious and enjoy using conversation to arrive at a deeper understanding.

Thought partners are great strategic thinkers. They see the connection between the achievement of goals in their respective areas and the transformation of the school. Because of their deep contextual understanding, they can quickly determine if proposed pathways are worthy of further consideration or are futile. In addition, their conversations with the head do not focus on the typical narrow, somewhat bureaucratic wish list of programs and materials desired; rather these conversations connect to broader goals, such as:

  • How does the school carve out a niche in the market?

  • How does the school attract more mission-appropriate students?

  • How does the school strengthen its position for a capital campaign?

  • How does the school demonstrate that it is living the mission?

  • How does the school gain more confidence?

The alternative to thought partners is an isolated head, often operating from untested assumptions and susceptible to the mindset that “whatever worked at my old school should work here.” This, indeed, is a prescription for a failed headship.

As new heads of school spend their first year gaining deep insight into the school culture, the quality of the program, and the school’s place in the market, it is imperative they seek out those curious and creative administrators with whom they can test theories and verify impressions. David Burkus writes, “Great leaders don’t innovate the products; they innovate the factory.” Part of the head’s job is to create conditions that ultimately lead to talented educators advancing the school—in essence, innovating the factory. Essential in this effort is the head’s need to have honest and meaningful conversations with knowledgeable and dedicated administrators. Identifying these individuals sets the stage for a leader’s success and should be a top priority for any new head of school.