03/15/2023 by Bob Vitalo |

Notes to Schools on Upcoming Head of School Transitions

Be wary when setting those first-year goals.

wooden arrows all pointing the same direction and one red arrow pointing the opposite direction

Now that most of the searches for July of 2023 have been completed, boards and head-elects have turned their attention to the transition from the old to the new — and a major piece of work ahead is setting goals for that most important first year.

We know from NAIS data that it’s critical for a new head to succeed in their first years. Too often, we see heads not make it to their second three-year contract.

The goal of the board should be to set the new head up for success. Integral to achieving this goal is ensuring that the board is realistic in setting goals for the new head.

In our decades of assisting schools with head of school searches and coaching boards and heads alike through this all-important transition, we’ve learned some important strategies for setting first-year goals.

1. Think big, but start small

Whenever our consultants produce a position description for a head of school search, we pair the opportunities of the position with a list of qualifications the successful candidate will need to perform. These lists are generally all-encompassing and aspirational.

While it is critical that a school move in new and potentially exciting directions, these lists of opportunities and qualifications are not usually accompanied by a timeline. The board, and by extension the school community, need to understand the reality that achieving this substantive work will take years. They need to demonstrate both the requisite patience and the desire to support the new head in tackling these challenges proactively and realistically as they move into the new role.

2. Prioritize daily living and operations

In our position descriptions, we always remind school boards that the new head will be actively engaged in the daily life and operations of running the school. This should be the first priority of the new head — and moving the school forward should be a longer-term objective.

We know that often a change in leadership is accompanied with the need for the school to pay attention to pressing matters that could be centered on finances, the program, staffing, or enrollment. Too many times we have seen boards, with good intentions, layer expectations that are unrealistic or impossible on the new head. Devising a strategic plan, addressing attrition, or facing financial sustainability may all be needed — but all first depend on the new head understanding school culture and establishing relationships.

3. Set goals that are specific, attainable, and human-centered

What should a new head’s goals be in their first year? The head needs to be present for all constituencies and needs to be an active and empathic listener. While these objectives may not seem as dramatic as planning new construction or devising a new financial model, they are critical. Establishing these relationships will set the stage for the more complex and demanding work that is ahead for the school and its leader.

It is important for the goals to be specific, concise, and clearly articulated to the board and the broader community, so all groups understand how the head will spend their time in that first year. Indeed, when someone wants to know why the new head is outside during drop off or is present at a middle school game, the answer should be “They are building the future.”

Every member of a school community wants their new head to succeed. Boards can help them in that endeavor by striving for incremental progress, being as specific as possible, and always understanding that real change happens through trusted relationships cultivated over time.

Bob Vitalo served as head of school at the Berkeley Carroll School (NY) from 2006 to 2019. He is Vice President, Search & Consulting Services with CS&A and focuses on retained head of school searches, senior administrative searches, and strategic planning with boards and heads. Contact Bob here.

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