03/15/2022 by Ann Teaff | ,

What Our Heads Survey Tells Us About School Leadership in 2022

Illustration of survey on a computer screen

For the past six years, Carney, Sandoe & Associates has sent out a survey to new heads of school, both those who are serving as heads for the first time and experienced heads working in a new school. The June 2021 survey — our most recent — makes clear that coaching for school leaders is a critically important method of support, especially in these trying times.

Indeed, over the six years of surveys, we’ve been hearing the essential same concerns from new heads. With six years of data, now seems a good time to bullet-point what heads need from their boards in the first year to ensure success.

Most Recent Findings Confirm Mentoring and Support are Key to Head Retention

The multiple layers of crisis the past two years — including COVID-19, racial violence and inequities, and political polarization — has dominated school leaders’ time since the spring of 2020, adding enormous pressure, especially to brand new heads and those new to their schools. Collectively, new heads have had to manage the shift to virtual learning and the problematic details involved; and when students and teachers returned to campus, heads have had to manage the challenge of keeping everyone physically safe. Also, with respect to both COVID-19 and racial violence and unrest, were the matters of the mental health and safety of both teachers and students. Additionally, heads were challenged to build relations with all constituents in a virtual climate. This latter work included the challenge of working remotely with the board of trustees, getting to know families and students in a time when on-campus events were not possible, engaging virtually with alumni and donors, and connecting with consultants, mentors, and leadership colleagues — all while managing their own safety.

These challenges clearly were enormous — and I am impressed with the way in which the heads I know were able to rise to the occasion.

But running parallel to these issues are the perennial challenges for heads — the ones that, year in and year out, make their jobs either go well or go poorly. As we claw our way out of pandemic mode this year, schools must take these matters to heart. The better a board can support a new head, the more likely the head is to stay with the school and accomplish major institutional goals. Meeting these leadership needs is the best way to help schools thrive — especially in our current cultural landscape of so much uncertainty and tension.

Heads Consistently Want This Kind of Support

Since 2016, CS&A has surveyed all newly appointed independent school heads at the end of their first year. The number of heads, of course, varies per year (ranging from 48 to 115), but to date we’ve managed to get a statistically strong return rate on our surveys. Heads consistently say they need and want the following types of support the most:

  • A board chair with experience on the board and the time to devote to weekly meetings, preferably in person, with the new head.
  • A strong, dedicated board that, through yearly training, understands and implements best governance practices. A prime element of this is understanding the difference between governance and operations, and leaving the latter work to the head and their leadership team.
  • Mutually agreed upon goals for the new head in the first year, with regular check-ins and feedback as the year progresses.
  • A well-crafted and executed Transition Plan for the new head, overseen by a Transition Committee, that includes assistance in acclimating to the school and the broader community.
  • Full transparency to the new head about all challenges the school faces. Anything less than full transparency potentially blindsides the new head and makes the first year(s) even more challenging, if not impossible.
  • Funding for coaching provided in the head’s contract and encouraged by the board chair and search committee. In these particularly challenging times, a thought partner with the new head is critical.
  • Trust, support, and patience from all members of the board.

As noted, these issues existed prior to the pandemic and will no doubt extend into the years beyond. As heads move into their second and third years, and as they shift from the short-term pandemic thinking to long-term strategizing and planning, a strong foundation of support from the board is essential. If boards include this core checklist of best practices in leadership support, they are likely to both attract top candidates and retain them for the long haul. This is the kind of leadership stability all schools need in order to thrive in 2022 and beyond.

Ann Teaff is Practice Leader of the Coaching and Mentoring Practice at Carney, Sandoe & Associates. Ann began her work with CS&A as an executive coach upon completion of her Certification in Executive Coaching from Columbia University. Ann has worked with newly appointed heads, as well as experienced heads and senior administrators of girls' schools, coeducational schools, elementary schools, and K-12 schools coast to coast, as well as internationally.

From 1998 to 2014, Ann served as Head of School at Harpeth Hall School (TN) where she led the school through two successful capital campaigns, worked with three other school heads to establish the Online School for Girls, established the Center for STEM Education for Girls through the generous support of an Edward E. Ford Foundation Educational Leadership Grant, increased enrollment by over 25%, and instituted student international exchanges, among other accomplishments.

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