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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

First 90 Days

Updated: Jul 3

On the eve of new appointments, I offer my earnest recommendations for independent school heads in new roles.

  • Find your goals

In the best case scenario, you've worked with the board chair in the months since your appointment to establish a first draft of goals for the year and thereby established a context filter through which to sort the torrent of input that you're about to encounter once on site. You've also accomplished two other important tasks with the board: tested how forthright they were in the "opportunities and challenges" section of the position description, and established common ground: this is what we're working on this year, together.

  • Flip the script

Everyone wants to meet you and hear your views, understand the degree to which they mesh with their interests and concerns. Develop a few talking points, loosely based on the aforementioned goals, but be quick to flip the conversation with your own questions for your interlocutor. They don't have to be profound, something along the continuum of "what did you all do this summer?" to "what are you excited about this year?" This is the oldest interview/party trick in the book and observes a foundational human truth: even introverts like to talk about themselves. And lest that sound flip, it's also your first step in building relationships, which you will not accomplish by expounding on your educational philosophy at the opening of school faculty barbecue.

  • What you say/what they hear

This point may be more important for first time heads. It's something that Rob Evans points out in Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader, namely, that often what others see in you or hear you say as the chief school leader has less to do with who you really are and what you said and more to do with their ur-experiences with authority. Another way to say this is that you will often have moments when a teacher or parent's response to an important decision you've made is absolutely astounding, baffling. Give it a few minutes (or 24 hours), and you'll see that it has more to do with their relationship with the previous head (and to be sure, you'll also bequeath some record scratches to your successor), with a valor-stealing boss, a domineering mother, an aloof father, etc.

  • Right place and time

As I say in this more robust description, this is some of the highest simplicity to impact ratio advice I ever received from my mentors. It contains a couple of general truths: meet people on their turf when you can, and be present in the highest touch moments of the day as often as possible. It has a few important caveats: sometimes the situation demands the theater of the head's office, and be wary of members of your community who are better at theater than you are. You will encounter people who are adept at using informal or social occasions to draw you out on topics you'd be better off discussing in other places/moments, on your own terms. If your Spidey-senses are tingling, shut up.

  • Board succession

Ideally, you've inherited a healthy role for the head in board succession planning, but if you haven't, day one is the time to start building it. It's important that you have a veto-level role in the selection of new trustees. The flip side is that you've got to get to work building relationships and context so that you know who could be future board leaders.

  • Bully pulpit

There are occasions throughout the year, most of them calendared, some occasional, when everyone is listening to you: head's report at board meetings, opening faculty meetings, Parent Open House, Curriculum Night, State of the School Address, etc. Plan very carefully for these moments. Make your remarks approachable but substantive and connected to the School's mission and strategic goals. Do not default to breezy reviews of fun things that have happened on campus unless you connect them directly to mission and strategy. You are the CEO not Julie McCoy.

  • Columbo

You have a year to play the naif, and if, in year one, you can be the person who understands the essential components of the the institution but not all of the details, you will discover that people will reveal extraordinary things to you. Some of those revelations will be patently crazy, others will be grotesque but contain a kernel of important truth, still others will provide immediate benefit to the school and your leadership. This is a one-year-only opportunity. Keep your ears open.

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