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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Head-Elect in Transition

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

You've conducted a long, successful head search, offering multiple opportunities for all of the school's constituencies to participate in the process, and, to be honest, you've spent a bloody fortune doing it. The Head-Elect's school is sad to be losing a key leader but proud of her next opportunity and so generous in providing her with the time to explore and ultimately consummate this search. Goodbye activities are in motion for the outgoing head, and everyone is looking to the transition with optimism. The race is over, the search committee is collapsing from exhaustion on the other side of the finish line, and the whole community is grateful for the seven months ahead when they can return to business as usual before the new head arrives in July.

Before their final goodbye, the search consultants provide a primer on forming a Transition Committee to assist the head-elect with her movement into the school, everything from the practical to the political and cultural, even suggest consultants who help schools with leadership transitions, but surely this can go on the back burner for a month or two. Plus, it's time to turn off the consulting fee taps which flowed so freely for the last year.

As leadership transition author, professor and consultant, Michael D. Watkins, notes in his research, just about every industry falls short in helping its new C-level leaders integrate into their roles and the political and cultural landscape of the institution/company. It's a truth that runs through virtually every variable: size of organization, depth of resources, institutional EQ, for-profit/non-profit. The peculiar nature of independent head searches, most of which strive to appoint the new leader six months or more before she will take over, provides ample time for integration efforts, or a blank preface onto which anyone can write the opening lines. . . . or some groovy graffiti. New heads often discover that their new employer has opted for the latter approach when they receive a flood of hopeful invitations to return to campus for the admission open house, the yearly gala, the spring fair, the April Board meeting, the final interviews for the new Director of Advancement. And, with no clear goals established between Head and Board much less related publicly, the new head risks being "captured by the wrong group" (Michael D. Watkins, The First 90 Days) during the summer-long transparency tour with all of the school's constituencies, and left to play "guess what's in my head" with the Board in the early part of the fall.

Heads of school who report successful transitions note the following key elements of their integration into their new schools:

  • A Transition Committee, an ad hoc committee of the Board, is already in place upon Head-Elect's appointment.

  • The operations team is informed that any requests for the Head-Elect's return to campus or engagement with any current school efforts must come to the Transition Committee for consideration.

  • Soon after appointment, the Head-Elect and Board Chair (or better, Head Evaluation and Compensation Sub-Committee) begin collaborating to form Head of School goals. Board approves those goals before Head-Elect's tenure begins so that she can use those goals as a framework to build context out of the multitude of voices she encounters in the first months.

  • Head's goals are communicated to the school community as a buffer to the hopeful fantasies all are projecting onto their new leader.

  • The new school prioritizes and protects a modest but reasonable chunk of time during the summer for the new Head and family to be truly on vacation. Seems less strategic than the other bullets, but what's more strategic than the Head's long term health and well-being?

Efforts like these help new heads of school move into their tenure with momentum and purpose. They require little true capital but rely on a rallying burst of energy from the tired troops who've served on the front line of the search. From the Board's perspective, identifying the Transition Committee Chair is an excellent time to entrust an emerging leader, a future Board Chair, with a great leadership opportunity. As for the new Head, speaking with one voice with the Board and feeling their support from the very outset feels like the firm first steps in a long journey together.

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