2020 has been a whopper! Heads of schools have worked harder and have been under more stress over the past nine months than ever before, with less time to rest, recover, and recharge. They didn’t take much of a vacation this past summer, not just because of travel restrictions, but because there was so much work to do to plan for the beginning of the school year. The fortunate ones have boards and others who are effectively supporting them in a variety of ways. Yet even the fortunate ones are tired and fraying. Some of them may be considering whether they want to continue doing the job.
When I first talk with board members about conducting a head search, many of them are surprised at how early I suggest starting the process. Finding the right next leader for a school is critical, and can even be the difference between a school’s ultimate success or failure. Therefore, head search takes time and attention. Head searches for independent schools consist of much more than posting a job opening and interviewing candidates. Board members and search committees need to spend time carefully considering where the school is and where it is going, listening to the feelings and opinions of the community, clearly articulating the desired characteristics of the next head, and carefully vetting potential candidates. These activities result in the best outcomes when they are not rushed.
Head searches for independent schools typically fall into three time frames. The earliest ones start about 20-22 months before the beginning of the head’s tenure. That means they are starting now for heads who will begin at their new school in July 2022. The next wave of schools begin their head searches about 14 to 16 months in advance. Those schools will begin the process next spring for a July 2022 start. And the third wave begins in the summer or fall before the start date. Those schools have just begun their search now for a new head to begin in July 2021.
What I have learned over the past several years of facilitating both head and interim head searches is that regardless of when a school starts, there are strong, experienced candidates out there who will be a good match for the school’s needs. Head candidates have their own sets of circumstances that result in their looking for a position at various times. I have also found that when schools take their time to go through the process, to ensure that the board is prepared and aligned, the community feels fully included, and there is ample opportunity to collect and vet a wide diversity of candidates, they feel better and more confident about the outcome.
One factor in determining the start of a start a head search is when the current head indicates to the board that he or she is considering leaving the position, or, when a board decides they will not renew a head’s contract. Ideally, heads give their boards 15 to 24 months’ notice. Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why a head might be leaving and this kind of timeframe is not always feasible. Boards will need to respond whenever they learn of a potential transition. The best scenario is when a head and board chair have a close, honest, and open relationship where the head’s goals and plans are clearly articulated throughout their tenure; there are no surprises.
Head searches are time-consuming and can be emotionally draining for a school community. Hopefully, your head is feeling well-supported, particularly through this incredible time of change, uncertainty, and stress, and is not planning on leaving anytime soon. If you are a board member- have you checked recently how your head is doing? What support might you be able to provide or facilitate? And are they thinking they will be able to stay in their position- or are they thinking of leaving in the next year or two? Straightforward conversations now will enable the board to fulfill their responsibility to support the current head and plan for the next.
If you think there is a possibility that you will need to conduct a head search in the next 2-3 years, it behooves you to start thinking and planning now. There are many board and school processes that should be strengthened before a head transition. Boards should be reminded of the famous Bobby Knight quote “The will to succeed is important, but what’s more important is the will to prepare.”
Acies Strategies provides head of school search consultation for small schools. We have slots left for the 2021-2022 season. For more information see: www.AciesStrategies.com/head-search.
Writes about small school leadership and governance