07/28/2019 by Amanda Riegel |

Is Timing Really Everything?

by Amanda Riegel, CS&A Consultant, Transition Services

Amanda Riegel Stay connected with CS&A

This is a piece is from CS&A's summer focus on leadership transition. Check out the full series here.

In the fast-paced world of social media, women are bombarded by inspirational stories of female entrepreneurs in their forties who have “made it,” defying their naysayers and trusting their instincts to create what people need and want.

Consider the story of billionaire entrepreneur Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, an innovative shape-wear company that continues to produce products that reflect the needs of the contemporary woman. One needs only to follow her on Instagram to get a taste of her charismatic charm and uncompromising belief in persistence and self-reliance. She posts regularly about being a female CEO, mother, wife, and friend. Candid and honest, she does not expect perfection from herself or others. She notes, “I’m not fear-less, because I’m scared of many things. I’m courageous.”

Women, of course, are not only finding a work-life balance that enables them to succeed in business. There are so many successful women in the range of professions, from politics to nonprofits, for the science to the arts, from medicine to education.

As a female professional in my forties who has devoted most of her life to working in independent schools and who also has the entrepreneurial “bug,” I often wonder why women in education do not seem to feel similarly emboldened to take professional leaps. Specifically, I'm puzzled by the number of mid-career females who appear ready to head a school and yet, when recruited, decline the opportunity citing, “The timing is not right.” There is no shortage of bright and capable women who would be successful if they were to assume the role, but often something holds them back.

Explanations for this trend tend to assume that there are not enough female mentors for the rising stars, so these potential leaders feel uncertain about their ability and skills to take the leap. Some argue that these talented women worry about the time commitment to be a head of school, due to their desire to be more present with their families. But neither view strikes me as right. First of all, while the low percentage of women heads — active and retired — might suggest a low number of female mentors for aspiring women heads, the reality is that women leaders in independent schools have a remarkably strong network and tend to be very generous with their support for more female leaders. At the same time, many male heads have also been generous with their time and support for talented women leaders over the years — and that collaborative trend is growing.

As for the family argument, juggling the demands of numerous roles is certainly not exclusive to women or to heads who have children. Women leaders in a variety of fields have demonstrated a skill for managing a complexity of roles and relationships in their lives. They often have a multitude of other titles by the time they are ready to assume a role in the “C-Suite,” and they have become masters at navigating their varied responsibilities.

So, if women have the talent and are increasingly able to balance roles, why are so many declining the opportunity to be a head of school?

Perhaps the answer lies with a different question: Are there dynamics in our school communities that are uniquely challenging for female heads — and what can we do to adjust these dynamics?

Schools must be realistic about their expectations for what the role of head should entail. Search committees are eager to assemble a list of qualities and skills that are essential for any serious candidate, yet they are often hesitant to identify where the school can broaden or adjust its definitions and expectations for the headship in ways that will attract women and ultimately benefit the school.

Furthermore, seriously considering a diverse candidate pool requires that schools examine their own cultures to look for vulnerabilities that might inhibit women from pursuing leadership roles. For instance, while any new head will be sensitive to how she or he is perceived in the school community, this feeling is often pronounced for candidates who represent any kind of change from traditional notions of leadership — especially if following a long-term male head of school. The school, therefore, must have a nuanced understanding of social capital, making strategic connections and communicating social norms to set up a new head for success. And this understanding needs surface at the very start of the leadership transition process. Schools must make it clear in the job description and announcement, and in subsequent communications, that they are not looking for someone to fill the previous head’s shoes, no matter how beloved and successful. Rather, they want a talented leader who can guide the school into the next iteration of itself. We have to make it clear to all candidates that, while we want a leader dedicated to the mission of the school, we are open to — and encourage — an array of highly talented leaders and are willing to make adjustments to accommodate their needs.

I recently served as Search and Transition Chair at the Gordon School in East Providence, RI, where we appointed Dr. Noni Thomas López as Head of School. Dr. Thomas López is a female head of color who brings enormous talent and leadership experience to the role, but it is her first headship. As such, we paid scrupulous attention to her transition. She is bold and confident in her beliefs, and she is also candid about being an introvert who needs time away from the limelight to recharge. Before she even began, we were having honest conversations about what that characteristic would mean for Noni’s personal and professional life as head. We knew that investing in a human being required an empathic understanding that there are personal limits that must be honored.

Female leaders may be hesitant to express vulnerability in the workplace for fear of being perceived as weak, yet possessing this emotional maturity is a tremendous asset. Jennifer Khanweiler, author of “The Introverted Leader” notes, “Thoughtful, quiet leaders don’t try to dominate the conversation or direction of a team. They are engaged listeners and set the stage for people to step into their own strengths.” We could see the obvious positive implications of introversion for a new female head entering the Gordon community after the long-term tenure of an extroverted male head. Indeed, Noni is already building strength from within, empowering others to join her in a collective responsibility to lead the community into a new era.

There are many examples of other schools that have made accommodations for newly appointed heads — and that have thrived as school communities. Schools struggling to find a diverse pool of candidates should take a lesson from these other schools and find ways to adjust the position to fit the candidates who excite them the most.

For those women who can imagine themselves as head of school but are not sure if the timing is right, I suggest you get real about what you will need to thrive. When you end up in the search process, focus on what excites you about a school and note the strengths you bring to the position. But also be clear about your needs. Talk about childcare, evening meetings, spousal support, and physical and mental health. These are the some of the realities that you will need to navigate as you take on the demands of being a head.

Heading an independent school is not easy. It puts a great deal of demand on its leaders. But you can take heart in knowing that many women before you have both succeeded in the position and talk about the work as the most rewarding work they’ve done. In all cases, they’ve had a community truly pulling for their success and serving as a partner in myriad ways.

If you feel the tug toward headship, I encourage you to follow your instincts. The key is to believe in yourself. Or as Sara Blakely notes, “Invest in yourself to the point that it makes someone else want to invest in you.”

Amanda Riegel leads CS&A's Leadership Transition Practice. Her interest in this work stems in part from her own experience as a Search and Transition Chair. With a firm belief that successful transitions involve a blend of intentional yet responsive planning specific to the needs of each situation, Amanda helps schools recognize aspects of their culture that are critical for a new head of school to understand. Conversely, she works with the incoming head of school to identify personal and lifestyle characteristics that will allow her/him to thrive. Amanda has presented on the topic of transition at various conferences and symposia. Additionally, she runs retained leadership searches for a broad range of schools including progressive, traditional, coeducational, girls’ schools, LD specialized, and faith-based institutions. Since joining the firm, she has successfully conducted searches in the South, Southeast, and Northeast regions of the U.S. She can be reached at amanda.riegel@carneysandoe.com.

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