11/23/2015 by Bob Regan |

Catholic School President/Principal Model, Pt 1

In this miniseries, Bob Regan discusses the President/Principal Model: the leadership structure of choice for many Catholic schools.

Exterior of Catholic school

For the past 25 years or so, the President/Principal model has emerged as the leadership structure of choice for many Catholic schools–and for good reason. In this powerful model, executive functions are elegantly aligned around two distinct leadership profiles: the outward-facing entrepreneur and institution-builder (President), and the inward-facing academician and champion of teaching, learning, and best practice (Principal). If done right, this collaborative model not only enables a much-needed expansion of the potential leadership pool for Catholic schools but allows greater focus on the things that matter—the institutional difference-makers and drivers of success.

For many Catholic schools, especially those challenged by the intractable market forces threatening their traditional ways of doing business, adopting the President/Principal model was to be the silver bullet, the vehicle that would deliver transformational change and new and more robust business models. Understandably, the race to convert was dramatic, widespread, and full of great expectations. It is estimated that in 1992, 20% of Catholic secondary schools had adopted the model; today, roughly 56% of the 1200 Catholic secondary schools operate within the President/Principal model.

For most Catholic schools, the model seems to be working fine, as evidenced by recent leadership surveys. All 62 schools in the prominent Jesuit Secondary Network (JSN) have adopted the model and report largely favorable results. Unfortunately, for a number of Catholic schools, the promise of the model has yet to be realized. Some schools have collapsed the structure entirely and returned to the traditional all-in-one model of a Head of School.

For a smaller number of other schools, the results seem worse. From numerous conversations and anecdotal feedback, it appears that a number of schools that converted to the new paradigm feel dissatisfied, discouraged, and trapped in transition: inert, dismayed, and unable to move forward or backwards. I am reminded of Mathew Arnold, who described his forlorn experience in the Victorian age as “Wandering between two worlds – one dead, the other powerless to be born.” This is the troubling no-man’s land where a number of dispirited Catholic schools seem to find themselves today. This is a group of schools I worry most about. If they quit the model and revert to more traditional leadership paradigms, we will doubtless shrink the market for promising leaders coming from other mission-driven sectors and run the risk of more Catholic school closings.

Let me share a couple of experiences that may be instructive of this conversion challenge. Over the past few years, I have had an opportunity to work with several Catholic schools struggling with the President/Principal model. Two in particular come to mind, both having to do with faulty execution. In one case there was an obvious error in the hiring process, and the school recruited a President who was more suited to the Principal role. This is a common failure of governing boards and search committees and not the fault of the model itself. Since leaders tend to do what they know how to do—regardless of what’s written in the job description!—this recruiting failure resulted in the school having, effectively, two Principals occupying the same space, but with different titles. The results were quite predictable. Instead of capitalizing on the synergies inherent in having complementary skill sets at the top of the organization, the executive suite was marred by bitter conflict and messy turf battles, to say nothing of the many missed opportunities and lost confidence. After considerable discussion and consideration, including the possibility of returning to the traditional Head of School model, the search for a new President was launched and order restored, but not before the damage was done to the morale and confidence of the administration.

The second situation was more complicated and potentially more insidious in its impact on the school. This involved an outstanding Catholic secondary school that was two years into the process of converting to the President/Principal model. A dynamic new President—also an alum and former trustee of the school—was hired from the private sector to capitalize on the opportunity and develop a bold new vision for the school. He brings impressive credentials as a corporate leader, along with passion for Catholic education and a trustee’s keen perspective on school operations. He is also a very good person who loves the school and has given lots of time, money, and influential connections. We were brought in to conduct the search for a new Principal. During our site visit (in which we engage with key constituents at the front end of the search), we met with dozens of people including faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni. We were surprised—if not shocked—by the level of ignorance about the President/Principal model and the hostility toward the President “function”—not necessarily toward the person, but toward the function itself. We were not expecting this. Clearly, the President/Principal concept had not been properly explained when introduced, and two years into the conversion process harsh but erroneous opinions had spread throughout the campus and hardened into conventional wisdom. Some well-intentioned and dedicated faculty were dismissive of the President function entirely and felt it was irrelevant to the classroom and their important priorities as teachers. They did not see any connection whatsoever with the student experience and were politely suspicious of unexpressed intentions. Some in the community regarded the President function as a superfluous appendage, an unnecessary and extravagant expense diverting much-needed resources from more worthy uses. As one long-term faculty member stated privately, “It makes me wonder what our trustees are thinking and how this new leadership structure might impact our priorities as a school.” The net effect of these unfortunate misunderstandings is an institution disengaged from the aspirations of the President and the trustees and a community failing to leverage its enormous goodwill in helping to take this fine school forward.

Those are just two recent examples, but they may be representative of similar challenges confronted by other Catholic schools struggling with the model.

Much has been written about the President/Principal model over the last 20 years, and some of it involves meticulous surveys and research-based findings, which are immensely helpful and worthy of examination. With genuine appreciation for these thoughtful studies, let me offer a different perspective and invite a new online conversation to take place. I come at this important issue from a practitioner’s point of view, as a former college president and Catholic school president (operating in the President/Principal model) and current executive search consultant overseeing the Catholic Schools practice at Carney, Sandoe & Associates. There may be nothing new or useful in my observations, but I offer them collegially and respectfully, and in the spirit of Wallace Stevens who once referred to such musings as “an ancient aspect touching a new mind.”

I am also going to focus my remarks primarily on the President function, since that’s the locus of greatest risk, challenge, and disruption. It has been my experience that the chief executive function in Catholic schools today—regardless of the particular leadership model or whether it’s called President, Head of School, or Principal—is in a dynamic and perilous state of change and is still evolving and struggling to find its way in this increasingly threatening and rapidly changing environment. The “old” Catholic school leadership profile—based primarily on mission effectiveness, maintaining business as usual, and sound operational management—is no longer sufficient, and new entrepreneurial models are still emerging and trying to prove themselves. Furthermore, as a search consultant, I can confirm that the career pathways likely to offer the greatest promise of success in this new Catholic school leadership role are also still unknown and lacking coherence and reliability. At this time, the hiring process is often largely intuitive and involves a considerable leap of faith—by both parties.

Getting it Right

For Catholic schools considering adopting or abandoning the President/Principal model altogether, I would encourage focusing hard on execution and addressing three fundamental propositions in particular:

  • Get the Hiring Right
  • Get the Messaging Right
  • Get the Doing Right

…and preferably in that order. Over the next three weeks, we’ll take these propositions one at a time.

Continue reading:

Part II | Part III | Part IV


Bob Regan is the leader of the CS&A Search Group’s Catholic Schools Practice. He can be reached at bob.regan@carneysandoe.com.

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