09/17/2019 by Lawrence Alexander |

Supporting Women of Color in the First Year of Headship

by Lawrence Alexander, CS&A Search Consultant for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practice

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


At Carney, Sandoe & Associates we have made a concerted effort to focus our attention on women in school leadership. This work includes identifying and supporting aspiring women leaders, partnering with schools to ensure that talented women are included in headship searches, and offering expert support services for women heads in their early years as school leaders. In particular, we have committed resources to promoting candidates who identify as female through our Women’s Institute and FORUM/Diversity, as well as through our ongoing consulting and thought leadership work.

The reason for this is clear. The latest NAIS statistics tell us that only 5% of heads of school identify as female, with less than 1% identifying as women of color. Given that women outnumber men in all other aspects of school life — from teachers to mid-level administrators — it’s evident that, when it comes to headship, the independent school community would benefit greatly from seeking out, selecting, and supporting more women leaders.

To be clear, as we highlight the collective importance of diversity in school leadership and the need for the skills that women leaders bring to the work, we also support the excellent work that so many men are doing as heads of school. In supporting more women in leadership, we are not dismissing the contributions of men; we are simply making the case for more equity in the hiring process that addresses the implicit bias that has kept the number of women — especially women of color — unacceptably low and that also underscores the collective value of a greater diversity of head candidates. In other words, hiring more women leaders is not only the right thing to do, but the entire independent school community benefits from a diverse pool of highly talented leaders and from the range of skills, perspectives, and experiences they bring to the job. Indeed, we can point to numerous women heads as proof.

The good news is that great majority of independent schools today are actively seeking such a diversity of candidates — and we’re seeing more women being hired these days.

What I want to highlight here, beyond the core work of attracting and hiring talent women as school leaders, is the parallel work of supporting those leaders through their first year in office. As we know, for all new heads of school, being hired is only part of a school’s transition from one leader to the next. The transition period — starting from the day a new head is selected, continuing through the months leading up to the first day in office, and stretching through the entire first year — is a time when schools need to think strategically about ensuring that their newly appointed head has the support needed to thrive in the job. At Carney, Sandoe & Associates, we see it as part of our job as search consultants to help with all aspects of the transition. Through this work, we’ve come to identify steps schools can take to improve the odds of success — for the new head and the school.

We’ve written on aspects of this topic extensively. One area where I think schools can pay greater attention is on the first-year transition period for heads of school who identify as both female and persons of color. Given that less than one percent of independent school heads are women of color, and that they are entering school communities that more often than not have predominantly white and male boards, and which likely have a history of white male leadership, schools would benefit from thinking strategically about the sort of transition support that will lead to the new head’s, and thus the school’s, success.

I have spoken with a number of women heads of color about their experiences in the first year of headship — all of whom share similar stories. Among the actions that helped them (or that they wish had been in place) at their schools include the following:

1. First, boards and hiring committees need to understand that every new head would benefit from a well thought-out transition process. In other words, they need to take the transition process as seriously as they took the hiring process. This is doubly important for women of color appointed in schools that have had a long history of male heads. You can assume that some form of racial and gender bias will arise — and will need to be addressed. Being proactive is much better than being reactive.

2. In setting up the transition process, appoint a transition committee of the board to work with the head on a smooth transition — starting from the day of the announcement of the new head’s hiring and continuing at least through the fall term.

3. The transition committee should then begin by asking the new head what she needs for a successful and fulfilling experience. This support should not only include the new head’s needs as the head of school but also as a new member of the school community and the broader community. If the head has family, you need to ensure the head has the information needed to help the family settle in well.

4. The board chair and the new head should hold a series of weekly meetings to establish their working relationship going forward. In these meetings, the two can set priorities for the first year. The board chair should also work out a plan for introducing the new head to the broader community in various settings. This is hugely important for heads of color at schools located in predominantly white communities. Because so many head searches these days are done out of the public eye, it’s very important for the board leadership to clearly articulate to all constituents its excitement about the new head — and why the newly appointed head is the ideal leader for the school.

5. The transition committee should also set up early meetings between the new head and each constituent group — including the faculty, staff, parents, community leaders, and others. On the one hand, committee members need to see firsthand how their new head of school is being received and perceived. On the other hand, they need to be active champions of the new head.

6. The entire board, especially if it consists of predominantly white and male members, should engage in diversity and anti-bias training. Many women of color stepping into headship positions will tell you that they’ve been subjected to a number of race- and gender-related microaggressions, even from the board itself. While these slights were no doubt unintended, they have the effect of undermining the head’s leadership. All board members need to know how to be effective allies for the head. Such training will also strengthen the board in its own work as the school evolves as a 21st-century learning community. Along these lines, one women of color serving in her first headship told me, “I was asked by my board chair what I needed to be successful. I frankly said to her, ‘Believe me.’ ” This may seem like one of those things that goes without saying. But it’s not. Too often, women of color in leadership positions have to deal with more than their fair share of challenges — including microaggressions that, intentionally or otherwise, undermine her ability to lead. What women of color in headship need most is the unwavering, thoughtful, culturally informed support of the board.

7. Encourage the head of school to identify a mentor or hire an executive coach to support her during the entire first year. All newly appointed heads benefit from a formal or informal coach who can help with the transition in numerous ways. But this is particularly true for women of color. Because they often represent a cultural change for independent schools, women of color serving as head would benefit greatly from this extra level of support to navigate the challenges that inevitably come in a community pushing for change. All things being equal, there are so many decisions to be made — and so many potential missteps.

The bottom line is that boards, faculty, administrators, parents, alumni, and current students all impact the successful transition of school leaders. With an increased focus on the recruitment and hiring of women and people of color in leadership positions at independent schools, it is equally important for schools to invest their energies in “life after the hire.” Getting someone to sign the contract is one thing; helping them thrive in the community is another.


Lawrence Alexander is a Carney, Sandoe & Associate search consultant leading the firm's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practice. He has led anti-bias training with schools and higher education institutions including Brown University, Clark University, Palmer Trinity School, and more. He can be reached at lawrence.alexander@carneysandoe.com

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