Updated: Jun 28
Each year on the first day of practice, my high school football coach would use the Fram oil filter slogan to signal the end of summer dissolution and to call us to the altar of football. "You can pay me now, or you can pay me later," he'd intone, and after a little elucidation for the guys who'd lead the season in false start penalties, we'd head out to the fields for the trifecta of 70s high school football two-a-days: full contact, nausea-inducing conditioning, water rationing.
I loved the guy. Part of it surely was the vision of Spartan brotherhood that is so intoxicating to many adolescent boys, but the bigger part of it for me was the introduction to proactivity. At 14, I made a few efforts at cross-applying this "think ahead, work ahead" strategy, and a miracle occurred. Doors in the adult world flew open. I was given the benefit of the doubt. My buddies--still tap dancing curfew excuses and stacking time in detention--thought I was a wizard.
Proactivity in adult life becomes much more complex, of course, and people who make their way into positions of leadership in schools (or any other endeavor, for that matter) have in large part gotten there because of their excellence at it. And yet, when one reviews how new heads are transitioned into their schools, a curious thing often happens. The Board engages in the fantasy of the arrival of the all-knowing wizard and minimizes or even abandons the proactive, scrappy rationality that brought them successfully along the journey of identifying a new leader. Left without mentoring, new heads and, in particular, first-time heads, feel much less Gandalf, much more Oz.
In an earlier piece, I outlined some Board driven activities to support new heads. Here, I recommend a more elemental effort: the Board's investment in dedicated mentoring for the new head throughout the first year.
I asked some veteran head friends recently for their first-year recollections and the areas for which they felt least prepared. Most mentioned initially discrete activities like strategic planning, facility master planning, capital campaigns, board succession planning. Several used the same allusion to describe the emotional impact of these experiences: the nightmare of sitting an exam for a class they'd never attended. The conversation then turned to big picture skills they lacked--negotiation, reading financial documents, managing Board relationships, stewarding donors--and to contextual realities of headship--the super-public nature of the position, the loneliness. Most were fortunate to have mentors from their past to call on, and many had the luxury of heading schools in cities with large numbers of independent schools, but all of these sources came with major limitations. Although always eager to help, mentor heads had their own intense school lives, and there was the perceived danger of revealing weakness to a local competitor or receiving school head.
All of which argues strongly for dedicated mentoring during the first year for heads, experienced or first-time. Simple math also makes a strong argument for it. Imagine a year-long, 50 hour structure at $100/hr. for a mentor consultant. Posed against median head salaries, the sum amounts to an insurance policy at 2% or less of the head's salary. Compare this with the discrete cost of another head search ($50K and rising) and the much greater and longer-lasting cultural cost to the community of a brief head tenure and another transition. These are the "pay me later" propositions, greater by multiples in their real cost to the school's budget and exponentially greater in their lasting effect on the community of the school.