06/20/2023 by Lila Lohr |
What Boards Need to Know About Interim Headship
This article appeared as “The Great In-Between” in the Summer 2023 issue of Independent School magazine.
I’ll admit it: Not one person at any of the independent schools where I served as interim head of school—not one—was thrilled with the prospect of having an interim. I think it’s fair to say that most trustees, administrators, and teachers worry that an “interim year” will mean a loss of momentum on important projects during which a school can only hope to tread water. Or, as one administrator once candidly put it, “This means I’ll have to work for three different heads of school in three years, and just as we get used to you, we’ll be doing another search and you’ll be gone.”
I understand that sentiment. I’ve served as the interim head of 10 different NAIS member schools over the course of 20 years, and I have firsthand experience with the full spectrum of reactions, including understandable anxiety and fear about change and the unknown; resentment about the former head’s departure; relief and excitement about a new chapter for the school; and, perhaps most frequently, a wait-and-see attitude about what the interim year might bring. I’ve always worked to demonstrate that I understand these concerns and reassure communities that it wouldn’t be in my purview, for example, to make major decisions like changing the math program or making the lower school single-sex. Much of the anxiety is usually due to a lack of familiarity with the concept of an interim and genuine worry that the school they love might undergo a radical change in the next school year.
My experience suggests that with a little luck and a great deal of thoughtful planning and effective communication, an interim year can be very productive and also help ensure a smooth transition for the school’s next leader. With a strong interim head of school and a proactive board, it shouldn’t be an interim year for anyone but the interim. Long gone are the days when heads stayed at a school for decades; the average NAIS head tenure is now below seven years. With many head retirements and departures on the horizon—along with subsequent head searches—there may be an accompanying increase in schools considering and pursuing the interim head option. Boards of trustees would be wise to carefully explore whether it makes sense for their community.
As with any head search, boards will need to understand how to identify strong candidates, educate themselves and their community about the advantages of appointing an interim, and articulate their expectations for their interim. A smooth change in school leadership requires thoughtfully crafted communication.
The Case for an Interim
When faced with the news that the head of school is leaving, the board of trustees must first work to assure the community that the school will continue to thrive. As the board makes plans for how to proceed, trustees might determine that an interim head offers the best opportunity for continuity and maintaining confidence in the school’s future. Although individual circumstances vary from school to school, most interims only serve a one-year term, although there are times when a two- or three-year assignment makes better sense. An interim head can be an appealing option in these common scenarios:
- There has been an abrupt change in leadership that doesn’t allow a school the requisite time (12–18 months) to conduct a robust search from a large talented candidate pool.
- A legendary long-term head is leaving, and the community will benefit from a “pause” during which lingering issues can be addressed and resolved before the new head arrives. It isn’t unusual for an interim to help a veteran faculty or staff member retire gracefully or help reinforce new parental expectations. If a less successful head is leaving after just a few years, it could be helpful to have a strong interim realign the admin team or reestablish a more supportive school culture.
- A school has already identified a very strong candidate to be the next head but that person will not be available for another school year.
Effective interims bring a wealth of relevant experience and a new set of eyes. Although each school has its own special culture and history, they usually face somewhat similar challenges and can benefit from hearing about and learning from other ways to structure faculty meetings, honor teachers, engage trustees, or structure student/parent/teacher conferences. Nimble interims learn from each of their schools and can figure out what suggestions and strategies might resonate with a different school.
An interim head can also offer a valuable kind of open and direct communication; perhaps because time feels short—and therefore job security doesn’t seem as much of an issue—faculty and staff can openly share their thoughts with a short-timer (interim) about what works well and what needs attention. I’ve found that both trustees and an interim head benefit from more open and candid conversations about effective governance both as individual trustees and as a board. Many interims bring a wealth of experience from having worked with other boards on all sorts of issues and that perspective can be valuable to any school.
We Want an Interim: Now What
Once the board has determined that an interim is the best option, a frank discussion about what they hope an interim will accomplish, what skills and attributes are necessary, and how much time and skill that role will demand is crucial. Although it’s tempting to develop a long list of all the things an interim could address, it’s most effective to come up with four or five fairly general expectations, including overseeing the day-to-day operations of the school, guided by the school’s values and mission. Some schools will need to focus on building and onboarding the admin team. Others may need to make progress on the strategic plan or the goals set in the latest school accreditation. Although many interims have had quite a bit of experience raising money, much successful fundraising often comes from relationship-building, which is hard to do very quickly. That said, it is certainly reasonable to expect an interim to be attentive to and actively involved in development activities.
Next steps include creating and circulating a brief but compelling description of the school and the position to the community, NAIS, search firms, and the state or area association of independent schools. Many years ago, I latched on to a description that seemed to capture the essence of an effective interim head: someone who is looking forward while holding hands with the past. An effective interim will lead the community forward while simultaneously respecting, honoring, and paying attention to the traditions, values, and mission of the school. It’s important to hire someone who can hit the ground running and ideally—by way of experience and personality—quickly reassure community members that they are in good hands.
Where and how should boards seek that candidate? Best practices suggest they follow a similar but considerably abbreviated process as the one outlined in the NAIS Head Search Handbook. While many head searches can take 18 months to complete, through necessity, many interim searches are completed within two to three months, and in emergency mid-year situations with some good luck, within weeks. Many schools will hire a search consultant, often the one who will lead their search for the next head. Others forego a search consultant, either to avoid the extra expense or because they have a volunteer who is qualified and available to fill that role.
The interim search process can seem less daunting for schools that already have a strong leader within the community who could serve as an effective interim head. The continuity and insider perspective of an internal candidate can be especially appealing to faculty and trustees, who understandably are dreading going through the search process twice and spending a year in a situation that feels like treading water. As attractive as that possibility may seem—and there are always a few trustees who will immediately embrace this option—it’s important to focus on what the board wants the interim to do at the forefront and assess whether an internal candidate will be comfortable and effective addressing those issues. A school might have the right leader ready and able to step in, but it also might benefit from a new set of eyes to provide a different lens and new strategies.
An interim search raises the same question that comes up in most all head searches: Do we need someone who has already been a sitting head? Boards answer this question differently depending on the size and makeup of the school and its challenges, as well as the strength and experience of the administrative team. Most school communities, especially where there has been an abrupt leadership change, would prefer to hire an experienced head. It’s important to remember that, unlike the search for the next head, the search for an interim isn’t nearly as inclusive. Most of the community won’t have a say in selecting the interim, so knowing that the interim has “done this before” helps reduce (understandable) anxiety.
Making this decision and leading the school through the process is an important moment for the board to own this work—especially given that in many independent schools, the board remains a bit of a mystery, a body whose work and function are not fully understood. School communities can be rattled by change, so trustees need to be prepared to be enthusiastic, upbeat, and patient, while understanding that for many community members, the concept of an interim will be novel and quite possibly unappealing. They also must be prepared to share with the community the news about the search for an interim, a brief explanation of why the board has chosen to go this route, and how the process will unfold, including a general overview of timing.
The Nuts and Bolts
Once the wheels are in motion, the president of the board, in consultation with the executive committee, needs to create an interim search committee and appoint a chair of the committee, often someone who will also be on the larger search committee for the next head. Together they should assemble a small, diverse committee that represents several constituencies—the president of the parents association, a school administrator or faculty member, and trustees—and clarify that the search committee will only be presenting trustees with one candidate whom they will ask the board to approve. Knowing this ahead of time will no doubt inspire the committee to take great care in vetting the candidates.
Time is of the essence, and the interim search committee should plan to follow what is essentially an abbreviated version of a head of school search process: review the résumés of about six to eight candidates, create a set of questions for an hour-long interview (usually on Zoom) with the most promising candidates, vet the list of candidates further, and invite the three or four strongest candidates for a campus visit.
Although these visits can vary depending on the size of the school and the availability of key staff, most include a dinner or breakfast with the board of trustees, a campus tour, and time with the administrators, either collectively, individually, or in small groups. Sometimes candidates might be asked to speak briefly or do a Q & A with the faculty and staff. These visit days usually include some time with the current head; however, the value, length, and comfort of those conversations often reflect the circumstances under which the head is leaving. The day usually ends with an extended wrap-up conversation with the search committee to hear the candidate’s impressions and gauge the level of interest in the position. It’s not unusual to ask each candidate at the end of their visit whether, if offered, would they accept the appointment.
In the best of all worlds, the search committee will have already made important reference calls and collected commentary from all the people who met with the candidates and, after a lengthy conversation, will agree on hiring one of the candidates. The search committee will present that candidate to the board of trustees, who will vote to offer a contract. Once the chosen interim has signed the contract, it’s important to thank and congratulate the search committee and everyone who was involved and share the news with the entire community.
Making the Transition
It’s tempting to think the work is done after the announcement and not much else has to happen until school opens in the fall, but the spring and summer offer important opportunities to set up the interim head for success. By forming a transition committee, the board can focus on how to welcome, introduce, and support the interim. Such a committee could include a student, faculty member, staff member, and current parent, who are tasked with thinking through the opportunities for how best to introduce the interim to the different school constituencies—while also considering how to celebrate the departing head and not detract from the farewell.
For example, the board could invite the interim to address faculty and staff—perhaps in late April or early May, but not too close to the end of school. I have often used such a meeting to ask the faculty and staff to share with me their hopes for our year together, asking them to fill out cards listing three strengths of the school and three issues for our focus next year. Reading what the faculty love about their school is a wonderful way to begin understanding their culture and can be very effectively mirrored back to them in the opening faculty meetings.
In this late spring visit the interim could also have similar conversations with the administration team, who often have a list of issues they hope to see resolved. It is also helpful for the board to spend some time with the head’s administrative assistant and to let the interim know if there had been any internal candidates who might be understandably disappointed.
What Success Looks Like
A major takeaway from all my interim experiences is that the interim can and should play a critical role in creating a smooth transition for the next head of school—something that should be explicitly stated in the interim’s “assignment.”
Depending on when the new head is appointed and their time constraints, the interim and the head-elect should be in regular, perhaps weekly communication by January. There’s no question that this will create extra work for both the interim and the incoming head, but my experience suggests this ongoing communication is incredibly helpful to the incoming head. The interim isn’t asking the incoming head to “run both schools at once” but is alerting the next head to important issues and asking for input.
An interim should be expected to keep and continually update a running list of items they need to share with their successor, including information about hiring. During several of my interim assignments in which I was involved in making a significant hire, often a key administrator, I set up a committee and arrange visiting schedules, while the head-elect actually made the final decision. Distance and pressing issues in both schools can make this arrangement unrealistic, but it is an important reminder that any hires will be working with and for the next head.
This level of detail and attention to the transfer of information from the interim to the head-elect is something that an interim head of school is uniquely poised to do—and often exceeds the norm when one busy sitting head is leaving and focusing on the next assignment.
Many years ago when a well-respected and experienced interim head suggested that later in my career I might enjoy being an interim, I rather rudely scoffed and said it held no appeal. The last 20 years have confirmed that he knew me better than I knew myself. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to work in 10 different schools, and learn from and become friends with so many students, teachers, staff, parents, and trustees all over the country. Our schools are more alike than different, and each one has its own culture, its own way of doing things, and its own way of welcoming newcomers. Interims have an opportunity to build on and hold dearly the traditions and best practices of a school, while helping to welcome and prepare the next person who will be the keeper of the school.
Even in the face of initial resistance or skepticism about the value of an interim, with careful planning, clear expectations, and effective communication, an interim year can be very productive in itself, while also ensuring a smooth transition for the next head of school.
Lila Lohr is currently a Senior Consultant at Carney, Sandoe & Associates and president of the board of trustees at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Maryland. She’s served as an interim head in 10 schools, and before her interim career, she was head of school at St. Paul’s School for Girls in Brooklandville, Maryland, and Princeton Day School in New Jersey.