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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Head's Goals


Whether they are multi-year goals reviewed and revised each year, or strictly defined yearly goals, the creation of a shared understanding of the head's work is one of the most important exercises on the board calendar. As with so much of governance, the secret to success lies in the details. It is also, in our experience, one of those activities where boards and heads come to tolerate a certain amount of shagginess, a dangerous prospect.


Goal Precepts

We don’t advocate specific formats for heads’ yearly goals so much as some essential precepts:

  • Regular formal feedback instruments should be the primary informers of the head's goals, with the board's evaluation of the head as the most important. Heads might also identify themes in longitudinal data generated by a professionally designed yearly constituent survey (read: not from spastically issued, informal questionaires). Some heads incoporate feedback they gather from their leadership teams. It's important to name these sources and stick with them.

  • Heads should include their work in leading or playing significant roles in common longer cycle projects like accreditation, strategic planning, capital campaign, facility master planning. The board needs to know that a head in a self-study year has a lot on her plate. Heads should also include the re-negotiation of their contracts as a goal when they are two years away from the end of their current contract. We are strong advocates for the timing of this process to appear in the contract itself and for heads to "manage up" in driving this process.

  • We encourage heads to identify no more than 5 goals. This number helps insure a realistic yearly project and also tends to elevate the goals to strategy. For instance, a head's goal might be to drive the self-study process, a significant management task. A stretchier, more strategic goal might be to leverage the self-study process as an opportunity to grow leadership capacity across the org chart.

  • Identify measurements. Many of them will be proxies as so much of the work in schools does not allow for easy measurement. The stretchy goal I mention above, for instance, would be difficult to measure. One could track the number of faculty who volunteered for roles, the number that accepted the head's or steering committee chair's direct invitation, the faculty who volunteered for leadership roles after the process is over, having theoretically built confidence and skills, but these numbers wouldn't tell the whole story. Indeed, it is important for the head to narrate some of these compelling stories to the board: the first grade teacher who successfully led her self-study committee through the difficult conversations that led to the description of where the school stood on its DEIJ journey. This whole matter of what measurement means in the highly variable environment of a school is one of the most important ongoing topics for heads to educate boards on. Many trustees are coming from professional environments where success is deemed entirely measurable. On the flip side, it’s just as important for heads to identify measurements wherever possible, even if proxies, and not to chalk it all up to vibes.

  • Heads should consider developing a separate category of formative goals, two leadership skills that you are working on. These are things that might be stretches, places where you’re not a natural and need to grow, items like: improving your management of difficult conversations, becoming a more strategic manager of the community narrative, becoming a better negotiator, etc. We think that these kinds of formative goals should not be part of the formal evaluation but rather part of the conversation the head has with the board chair.


Timeline

The head’s goals should be approved at the first board meeting of the school year. This timing allows the board and head to set off on the new school year with shared understanding. At schools that are struggling with tension between the board and head, we often find that the lack of alignment has been baked into the system with the board approving the head's goals in November or December, allowing for 2 or 3 months of dangerous distance to develop between board and head expectations. Working backward from this moment, then, the head’s evaluation by the board and the board’s self-evaluation must be completed by the end of the yearly board calendar, typically in early June. Whether the Governance Committee, or a Head’s Evaluation and Compensation subcommittee of the Executive Committee (a format we strongly recommend) have been entrusted with this work, they should have an actual playbook to which they refer and add refinements. The process should occur at the exact same time every year regardless of “other stuff going on.” Typically, this means that the committee entrusted with the process should push the instrument out to trustees no later than 5 weeks before the end of the school year.


One important exception to this timeline is with new heads. We believe that it is wise for schools to work with the head elect in the months before s/he begins work to create some preliminary goals that can be related to the community in the early summer when the new head officially begins work. The position statement, particularly the opportunities/challenges lists, is the ideal place around which to center these conversations, and a good measure of just how honest the search committee was with themselves when they wrote them. This kind of expectation setting buffers the sometimes fantastical hopefulness that awaits a new head, with each constituency (and individuals) projecting onto the new head all of their wildest dreams (and psychedelic hobbyhorses). The preliminary list of goals also provides the new head with a context filter through which to absorb all that s/he hears during the first months. Later in the summer, the new head and board chair can refine the preliminary goals to be approved at the first board meeting of the year.


Tracking Goals

Just as boards should have mechanisms for tracking their strategic plans, so should they have a mechanism for tracking the head’s goals. In our experience, we think heads are wise to take on this responsibility and to put it in a regular cadence onto board agendas. One simple way to do this is for the head to use her goals to frame the Head’s Report at each board meeting. We also think that it’s a good idea to schedule a more elevated moment mid-year for the head to report on yearly goals. If your board has a January retreat, this is an excellent activity for this moment. Otherwise, the first board meeting after the budget has been resolved tends to have space for this kind of activity. Heads need to be prepared to put more on their plates as the year progresses, but they also need to remind the board about the goals you all agreed on and, at times, push back on initiatives that could stay in the bullpen until they can be evaluated for another set of yearly goals.


Board Chair/Head Collaboration

Perhaps the most important collateral benefit of this moment is the opportunity it offers heads and board chairs to reflect and plan together. The two should plan several work sessions to arrive at a set of goals to present to the board for approval at the first meeting of the year. The head and board chair arriving at this moment arms linked is a powerful kick off to the school year.


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