10/04/2018 by Bob Fricker |

The Challenges of Hiring for Change

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Independent schools today are facing unprecedented pressure to change in order to be truly excellent and sustainable. To this end, they are experimenting with new uses of educational technology, adjusting pedagogy based on brain-science research, shifting to more project-based and interdisciplinary courses, adding a global focus to the curriculum, rethinking grading and evaluation, and more. At the same time, schools that once served a primarily homogeneous student body from a small number of neighborhoods are working to welcome students from widely different backgrounds and family structures.

Parents, meanwhile, are bringing a more consumerist approach to their child’s education. They demand higher levels of communication from schools and are less patient when the schools fail to meet their expectations. Because schools are now in a brighter spotlight, boards of trustees are also asking more of their institutions. Regardless of the school’s size, trustees want to know that the school’s business, admissions, communications, and development offices are highly professional and effective.

Although all schools change steadily over time, the current pressure is for school leaders — especially new heads of school — to quickly and smoothly implement significant change, despite the fact that many of these large-scale changes require complex systemic responses. Some schools succeed in doing this. But many others run into trouble, mostly in the form of community resistance to change.

I have been involved with independent schools and colleges and universities for years. I have been a teacher, administrator, and long-time head of school. I’ve also served on numerous boards and have been involved in dozens of head searches over the years. In my experience, there are six specific reasons for the resistance to change in independent schools:

1. The impact on school culture is not anticipated or addressed. As psychologist and school consultant Rob Evans and others note, the role of culture in an organization is to ensure consistency. Most schools function like a family business in which relationships are the central currency. Most trouble lies in the tension between this relational culture and the required changes — especially when the resistance is not anticipated and addressed.

2. Faculty and key administrators feel excluded from the process. School leaders who lack experience implementing large-scale change tend to underestimate the scope of the process and the need to generate enthusiasm among key constituents. As a result, many teachers and administrators can readily describe new initiatives that were adopted, launched, and forgotten as the focus shifted to other priorities.

3. A sense of urgency is not shared. Teachers always matter when it comes to change that affects their work. If they fail to perceive the need for the changes being proposed or doubt the efficacy or appropriateness of the proposed change, they make the possibility of lasting change close to impossible.

4. The scale and pace of change requires greater planning. The larger the scale and/or faster the pace, the more a leader must design, monitor, and manage the change. Most of the curricular or pedagogical changes schools undertake require far more than adopting a simple technique.

5. Competing priorities overwhelm the faculty and staff. Schools are idealistic communities that struggle to set priorities. Most schools are trying to make multiple enhancements to their program without releasing teachers from any of their current duties, an approach that leads to burnout and cynicism more than to change.

6. The leader loses sight of the fact that the school is, essentially, a voluntary coalition. At its core, a school is a voluntary coalition of parents and teachers. The parents can send their children elsewhere for free and teachers can readily search for jobs at other schools. Successful leaders hold the coalition together, resulting in power that is, as organizational expert Jim Collins notes in “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” more legislative in nature.

Some schools manage change better than others. Often it’s because the need for change is clear and urgent, which makes it easier to establish a plan and get everyone — or most everyone — onboard. But even in the best of situations, implementing change successfully requires sustained focus and reflection, qualities in short supply in most schools. Successful change requires school leaders to think strategically about the potential obstacles noted above. It requires a leader who can get the community moving excitedly in the same direction.

Which brings us around to the question of the leadership search process. As noted, we are all living in a time of some rapid cultural changes — and schools are feeling the pressure. There are very few schools looking to hire heads who will simply maintain an existing program. Needs vary. But what I’ve noticed is that most current hiring committees are looking for a new head who can initiate some kind of large-scale institutional change.

In an ideal world, there would be an abundant supply of vision-driven leaders who possess deep knowledge of the field of education, well-developed emotional intelligence, and excellent political skills. They would all be experienced in successfully leading a school through large-scale change. They would possess the superpowers of inspiration, vision, charisma, knowledge, and talent. Unfortunately, leaders with such superpowers are in short supply. This means that, in most cases, the candidates for headship are missing a desired skill or quality. They are talented and capable, but not perfect. This is the reality. All hiring, therefore, requires some kind of compromise.

In my search work with schools, we work hard to find excellent candidates — all with experience and skills that align well with the schools’ needs and expectations. But I also believe that a successful search process helps a school refine its expectations for its new leader. Most initial lists of “required” qualities describe someone impossible to find. But when we can burrow down to the essential qualities, excellent candidates do emerge. And the chosen candidates, more often than not, serve their schools well.

However, assuming that a leader is hired who fits the school’s needs and is sufficiently self-aware to hire others who complement his or her skills and style, there are approaches to leading change that increase the likelihood of success all around.

Here are a few approaches that I’ve seen work:

1. Take the time to create a more receptive environment for change. One school I know created research groups to study new potential ideas.

2. Find ways to authentically connect experimentation and innovation to currently held values. This assures that any change is linked to mission.

3. Consider whether the change under consideration would best be placed within a strategic plan. Strategic plans may slow the change process down, but this can be a good move for many schools in the long run. The process helps clarify the essential work the school needs to do to both hold on to its mission and evolve with the times. It also requires buy-in from all constituents. Efforts to change via a strategic plan are more likely to take hold than decrees from brand new heads of school trying to follow the board’s wishes.

4. Recruit allies who are likely to be interested in the proposed changes. Equip them with professional development opportunities that will enable them to successfully pilot the new initiatives. In turn, these early adopters enable a school to get the flywheel of change in motion.

5. When adopting a new initiative, earmark sufficient funds for effective and ongoing professional development. Resistance is often an expression of anxiety. Targeted professional development reduces anxiety by providing educators with new knowledge and skill.

6. Pace the changes being implemented and monitor the stress levels in the community. Good leaders know how to keep the level of distress within tolerable limits for doing adaptive work. Ronald Heifetz at Harvard’s Kennedy School uses the metaphor of the pressure-cooker to describe the importance of balancing equilibrium with disequilibrium. If the pressure gets too high, the pressure cooker can blow up. On the other hand, with no heat, nothing cooks.

7. Give the power back. Change announced from on high brings the faculty a feeling of being out of control. Involving those who will be impacted by the change helps them regain a sense of control and know that they are still valued.

8. Celebrate successes. Celebrating successes is not only a way to mark progress, it will also symbolically value and reward those who took the time to implement the change. It creates more allies and a healthier culture.

9. Partner with the board. The Board of Trustees should be an essential partner when an institutional change is of the magnitude that it will impact the school’s identity or require large amounts of funds or time. Informed board members can be advocates for the change and supporters when the change triggers resistance.

There is no shortage of books on leadership and change or institutional leadership. But many of these books miss the subtleties of leadership in independent schools. Two of my favorite publications — those that apply to independent schools — are Rob Evans’s “The Human Side of School Change” and Ronald Heifetz’s “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” Evans’s book in quite old now, but is still pertinent to school change today because he understands the human side of a school — the complexities of culture and human relationships. Heifetz book dates back a number of years, too, but he somehow predicted the cultural shifts that require a new kind of adaptive leadership today. I also recommend Jim Collins’s monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors.” Collins’s is one of the few experts on institutional leadership who bothered to distinguish between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

I encourage all of those involved in a hiring committee for a new head — especially one who needs to be a change agent of some kind — to read or re-read these works. They can help you think about what sort of person you are looking. But they can also help you better understand what challenges that person will face when implementing change. The better we all understand the process, the better we’ll be at choosing our leaders and supporting them in leading our institutions in this swiftly evolving and demanding century.

Robert Fricker is the Practice Group Leader, Domestic Head of Schools Practice, for Carney, Sandoe & Associates. He served as Head of School at the Independent Day School (Pre-K-8) in Meriden, Connecticut, from 2000-2007. He was a teacher of fourth and fifth grades at Moses Brown School, Rhode Island, from 1998-2000, and served as Director of Development there from 1995-1998. He has served on numerous boards, including as a trustee at Prospect Sierra School (California) and Athenian School (California). He can be reached at bob.fricker@carneysandoe.com.

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Todd Pipkin 5/18/2019 at 8:24pm

Excellent points–numbers 1, 2 and 5 stick out to me when addressing school change–

johnathan letcher 7/2/2020 at 3:50am

I think this is an excellent guide for a head to think deeply. In your six reasons for resistance, I would add or include tangibility. Too many “necessary changes” offer only themes of change (e.g. we will increase rigor in our STEAM program). I think it is absolutely necessary to make the change concrete with benchmarks that demonstrates an upward trajectory. This approach solidifies the school communities understanding and indeed, excitement of the impending development.