How Trustees Can Support the Head of School Transition
You've heard that onboarding and transition are important with a change in the Head of School. You are saying goodbye to the old Head of School, whose working style you have come to understand and from whom you have come to know what to expect, and you are welcoming a new Head of School. Perhaps you have read about this individual in their materials, heard about them from members of the search committee, or even met them during their search process. So the question is, now what?
While the change in school leadership is a visible shift, underlying the process is the unseen transition, a process that takes much longer than simply naming a new Head of School. Many Trustees have become accustomed to the ways the former Head of School led the organization, how that individual interacted and responded to different situations. When the leadership changes, there is a transition that encompasses letting go of the way things used to be and embracing new ideas and ways of interacting as they emerge. William Bridges, an authority in the field of change and transition, noted that change happens in a moment, whereas transition is more gradual and happens over time. Bridges also noted that embracing transition involves recognizing and naming the loss that has occurred with the change (some possible types of losses include a loss of identity, position, status, structure, or relationship). Even when a change is positive, for example new school leadership, it comes with a loss of the familiarity of relationship with the former Head of School. Transition with Headship changes occurs as each Trustee considers what is happening, reorients themself to the change that has occurred, and becomes acclimated to a new way of doing things. It is essential for Trustees to understand that each individual within the school and on the Board moves through this transition at a different pace: some are ready for the change and adapt quickly, others want to hold onto the past and resist the transition. No matter what, Trustees will all eventually enter what Bridges refers to as the “neutral zone”: a place where they let go of the past and work to fully adapt to the new future of the school.
As a Trustee, and as a Board as a whole, your role in this transition is significant. Your number one priority is to support the new Head of School. To do this, you need to reorient yourself to best practices for governance and serve as a behind-the-scenes trusted advisor for the new Head, the Board Chair, and the Executive Committee of the Board. You may sense an anxiety, maybe even a frustration, among the faculty and parents as people want the new Head of School to act more quickly. You can expect to hear criticism of the new Head, and it is important to recognize that it takes time and patience for new leadership to earn trust. It is, and will be, important for you as an individual Trustee, and for the full Board of Trustees, to demonstrate enthusiasm and support of your new Head of School in every possible moment, both within the school and out in the community. Here are some simple, yet meaningful, ways you and the Board can support your new Head of School during their, and the school’s, transition into a new leadership. In general, you as a full Board of Trustees want to:
It is important to remember that change starts with an outcome, a new Head of School. Transition starts wherever a person is, and more often than not, it is a different place for each person. Some may want the new Head to drive educational innovation, add a new athletic team, create conditions for stronger fundraising, raise admissions standards, or make the school more like another school they know. All too often, Trustees believe that change is the transition and it can happen in a 100 days, with the new Head and Board simply stating some goals. Schools are human organizations with a variety of outcomes, many unique to each student and their family. A leadership transition is one where it is important for the leaders of the school to have the awareness that everyone moves at their own pace through the transition to the new beginning. You can truly support the new Head of School and the school through the transition by demonstrating both care and concern for others. Here are some actions that each individual Trustee can do to ensure a smooth transition process:
By following the steps outlined above, schools can assure a durable transition and increase the chances of a stable and productive head tenure.
Dr. Jerry Larson is managing partner at Educational Directions, a head of school and executive search consultancy. Jerry also serves as an executive coach and trusted advisor to heads, trustees, and school leadership teams.