05/05/2023 by Bob Vitalo |

Setting Strategic, Achievable First-Year Goals: One New Head’s Story

Illustration of a lightbulb with various graphics representing goals, ideas, business, etc.

This winter, I had the opportunity to sit down with John McVeigh, the first-year Head of School at Holderness School, a private, coeducational college preparatory school of 300 boarding and day students in Holderness, New Hampshire. John joined the Holderness community after 19 years at the Brooks School, where he most recently served as Associate Head of School. He has had a rich career spent in math and science classrooms, basketball courts, and college counseling and admissions departments.

Our work with client schools has demonstrated the necessity of formulating an entry plan upon the appointment of the new head of school. First-year goals that position the new head for success are critical. The head, in conversation with the board chair and other selected trustees, needs to formulate simple, achievable goals that can be met through the course of the first year.

John and the Holderness board chair conducted that necessary work, which may serve as a model for other new heads as they prepare to lead their school communities.

In our conversation, John shared his thoughts on his new role, his goals, and his collaboration with the Holderness board.

As you prepared to begin your new role, when did you start thinking about first-year goals and with whom did you have these discussions?

I accepted the position 13 months before I officially started, so I had a lot of time to visit campus and spend time with a wide range of folks in the Holderness community. That helped me to have a sense of what was on everyone's mind and to develop some specific goals during the spring before I began.

My first conversations about goals were with my board chair, who was also the co-chair of the search committee and had been essential in my very smooth transition. She was incredibly supportive during the goal-setting process, and we traded ideas over a series of conversations before finalizing three foundational goals for my first year.

What input did you use to shape your goals?

I had a number of 1:1 conversations that shaped my goals. Particularly important discussions happened with my board chair, members of our board, my predecessor, and our senior administrative team. The school had also recently completed a strategic plan, so I felt like it was important to incorporate that into our thinking, as it captured years of conversations and perspectives from across our community.

Can you describe the work you did in articulating these goals to the board and the broader community?

I shared my goals with everyone I could. The first time I talked about them openly was in a summer retreat with an extended administrative cohort of more than 20 people. We start the school year with an all-employee meeting, and we have started to hold an all-employee meeting after each board meeting. I now use these meetings as opportunities to provide updates on progress and invite others to share feedback.

In terms of articulating my objectives to our board, I’m using these goals as the framework around which to organize my Head's Report, which allows me some in-person time to talk with board members in-depth about how things are going, what I'm learning, and what might be next. I hope that everything we do here is a team effort, so my goals shouldn't be a secret to anyone.

Now, seven months into the position, are the goals making sense?

Absolutely. Because the board and the school were so thoughtful about my transition, I have felt confident in these goals all throughout the year. Now, seven months in, I definitely have a better understanding of the nuance and depth of these goals than I did when I arrived here in July.

What advice would you give to new heads beginning a goal-setting process with their boards?

I think the process of designing and executing goals should be as much about systems-setting as it is about goal setting. I appreciate the need for long-term goals for which to strive, but it's almost impossible to get to those end results without a thoughtful process.

Systems offer my team and me more immediate choices, daily behaviors, and habits. That allows us to make some progress every single day, as opposed to putting our goals on the shelf so we can revisit them at the end of the year and see how we did. I want the process of achieving our goals to feel more like taking a daily walk than summiting a mountain.

For instance, one of my goals is to spend my first year “listening and learning.” It's a terrific idea and has been serving me very well, but it is also fairly intangible. The broadness of this particular goal offered me space to define it myself and to create a system that I could use to achieve it and demonstrate to others what I was trying to accomplish.

In pursuit of this goal, my assistant and I designed a spreadsheet that allowed me to track all of my visits, conversations, and meetings with students, colleagues, alumni, parents, and board members. This gives me my own visual reminder about whom I've listened to and learned from and whom I have yet to meet, which is both motivating and allows me to hold myself accountable. I hope we can continue to pick goals that lend themselves to system-creation, so my team and I can control what we can control, focus on executing day in and day out, and adjust accordingly as the year goes along. I’d advise other new heads to employ a similar thought process in designing systems that support their overarching goals.

Prepare your Head (and School) for Success

In every head of school search, success depends upon the thoughtful collaboration of the board and the new head, and strategic preparation for the years ahead. Part of our role as head of school search consultants is advising on the nuances that separate successful transitions from unsuccessful ones. Reach out to our team to learn more about how we can help position your new head — and your entire school community — for success.

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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