06/04/2020 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Human Leadership in a Time of Crisis and Uncertainty

by the CS&A Search and Consulting Group

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Given that nothing about school life is easy at the moment, we recently sat down (virtually) with a number of our search consultants to get their perspectives on how schools are managing the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis — and what advice they are offering schools that reach out for help.

In effect, their advice boils down to four central concerns:

  • Focus on care and compassion —keep your students physically and emotionally safe.
  • Think connection. Be visible. Reach out to all constituents. Manage and support the distance-learning process through engagement with teachers and students.
  • Attend to the financial health of your school through attention to enrollment and philanthropy.
  • Demonstrate the educational and social value of your school in the lives of each and every student.

Barbara Chase, former head of school at Phillips Academy (MA) and The Bryn Mawr School (MD), now a senior consultant at CS&A, told us she has been impressed with the way schools have made the impossibly quick shift to distance learning. “People are working unbelievably hard and are doing better than I think any of us could have imagined when schools first announced the shutdown,” she said. In terms of advice, she noted that along with the overarching need to ensure everyone’s safety, the goal for heads now should be “to ensure that your school remains a vital force in the lives of your students and their families, the faculty, and the staff.”

She encourages heads to be highly visible to the community throughout this period, communicating and virtually connecting with all constituents and regularly updating them on important developments. She also urged heads to exude as much calm as possible — “be a reassuring human presence” — while offering constant support to faculty, students, and families. “I’d also like to see board chairs connect with constituents during this time as well,” she adds. “They need to remind the community that they support and are working in partnership with the head to ensure the well-being of the students and faculty and the school itself.”

Building Trust

Art Charles, the former president of International College in Beirut, Lebanon now focusing on international leadership searches at CS&A, tells us he has seen an interesting — and confirming — pattern emerge during the first six weeks of this pandemic. “At first, schools scrambled to establish a distance learning system and troubleshoot the inevitable problems,” he says. “This was followed by complaints from some parents and students disgruntled with the changes. Interestingly, however, the frustration has morphed into gratitude as parents see the ways schools have managed to keep students engaged in learning. All around, it has been impressive.”

He also advises heads to be as visible as possible — sustaining relationships and community. “The level of engagement needs to be higher than usual,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve heard heads talk proudly about having an open-door policy. But they actually need to be more proactive than that — get out of their offices and into their communities. They need to do this virtually now, of course. But being visible will also matter when school campuses open up again. As a head, you need to meet people on their turf. You need to let students and faculty know you care and are interested in what they are doing — build bonds, be a steady, enthusiastic presence.”

Rhonda Durham, former executive director of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISASW) and current CS&A senior consultant focused on headship searches and consulting, echoes Art Charles’s view. “Good heads are always working to build trust and develop a strong school culture, even when you don’t seem to need it,” she says. “John F. Kennedy once famously said, ‘The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.’ Schools that adhere to this adage are the ones that find themselves in a good position to weather crises well.”

An equally important concern among every consultant we spoke with is about how school leaders reopen their campuses when the time comes. “This is where I think we’ll need leaders who are flexible and good at thinking strategically,” Rhonda says, “just as schools’ leaders needed to be following previous crises such as hurricanes Katrina and Harvey and the financial crisis in 2008. Not only will schools need to make multiple contingency plans, they will also need to adjust their practices and programs to a new landscape that emerges after the pandemic.”

Guided by Mission

Bob Vitalo, former head at Berkeley Carroll School (NY) and a current senior consultant at CS&A focused on leadership searches and working with heads and boards on strategic planning, is riding out the pandemic in New York City. He tells us he’s particularly aware of how difficult this pandemic has been for schools in New York City. “All heads of school here feel that even more is riding on every decision they make now — and every decision is being made in a cloud of uncertainty and under enormous pressure.” Still he says, good school leaders continue to adhere to the most central rule: “Do what is best for the kids.”

At the same time, Bob is aware that economy in the city has taken a huge hit and that it will likely drive changes in school operations and programs for years to come. “I won’t pretend to know the future,” he says, “but it’s clear that this pandemic, with its serious impact on the economy and the questions it raises about what schools should look like and what is possible, will drive a new round of changes in independent education.” For one, he says, the question of tuition cost and the value proposition of an independent education will rise once again to the top of the list of considerations. But he adds, “I’m confident that the smart, creative school people will use this time and the months to follow to not only keep their schools afloat but also evolve their programs as needed. There were so many things that schools did right after 9/11 — improving campus safety and adding a greater focus on social-emotional development. After the financial crisis, schools in the city have also had to focus on the financial health of their schools and articulate their value proposition.”

Leadership Transition and Looking Ahead

Bob Fricker has led more than 100 headship searches as a senior consultant with CS&A. He is particularly attuned to the role of school culture and organizational dynamics inherent in leadership transitions — and makes this focus part of his process in leading searches. In particular, he wants to help every board of trustees understand what kind of leader it wants for the next stage of its school’s life and to focus on actions that help ensure the new head’s success on the job. In our conversation, he reminded us of organizational expert Jim Collins’s quip, “Never waste a crisis.” “Among other things,” he says, “this pandemic is shining a spotlight on what works well and what doesn’t in schools. We can use the lessons we learn here to further improve our schools.”

While encouraging schools to explore these essential concerns about the long-term health of the school, Bob also cautions leaders about pushing too hard for change on numerous fronts. “In this moment of upheaval, heads need to display a blend of urgency and patience,” he says. “They also need to be the Appreciator in Chief. Everyone is looking to the head to be a steady presence and to offer both guidance and support.”

One of our busiest consultants these days is Bob Regan, who leads our Catholic School Practice. Bob points out that Catholic Schools have emerged in recent years as an excellent and sought-after model for private school education. Catholic education faced its own crisis in the late 20th century when millions of Catholics left the faith and interest in Catholic education was flagging. This devastating change forced Catholic schools to rethink their model. In recent years, they have reemerged as schools designed for our times — with an unapologetic return to a strong liberal arts tradition combined with equally strong values-based programs open to all faiths. And they are doing all this at a price-point that works for a broader range of families. “This is a formula that should help Catholic Schools weather the pandemic and emerge strong afterward,” Bob says. “And it offers the broader world of private and independent schools a model to consider as they strive to balance the quality of the program and tuition costs.”

In working with schools on headship transitions, Bob also encourages all schools to use the search process to clarify the school’s mission, identify the qualities of leadership that work best for the school, and evaluate how the board and head work in concert on behalf of the school. In the current climate, he adds, schools that are not currently searching for new heads would benefit from using this time to examine these concerns. “When we emerge from the pandemic,” he says, “in many ways it will feel like we’re entering a new era in our nation and in the operation of every school.”

With an eye on the near future, a number of consultants also remind school leaders to focus on admissions for the coming year and on philanthropy that will help keep their schools financially strong. As Barbara Chase puts it, “I think heads should be positive and not at all apologetic about asking for financial support. This is a time of real need for schools.”

Hope for the Future

Perhaps the most important perspective we’re hearing from our consultants is that the schools they know best are finding more success than would seem possible in these difficult times — as they are doing everything in their power to ensure that the children in their charge get the academic and social-emotional support they need.

“I’ve been really impressed with the school leaders I’ve talked to,” says Rhonda Durham. “They are in such a difficult position at the moment, and have to make so many decisions while the world shifts quickly around them. Their commitment reminds of just how strong this community is — and gives me great hope for the future.”

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