Replacing a head of school is one of the most challenging tasks the board of a Jewish day school or yeshiva must undertake. Heads of schools leave posts for many reasons; some leave of their own volition, others are let go. Often the departures are planned, but sometimes not. According to NAIS, one in five new and interim heads of independent schools in the 2019-2020 school year followed a head who held the position for three years or fewer, while nearly one in three schools in this survey report having had three or more heads of school in the past 10 years.
At Prizmah, we estimate that there will be between 25 and 30 open Jewish day school and yeshiva headships each year. The tenure of heads in the day school field is slightly longer than that of independent schools, but the bench for prospective new heads is much narrower.
Schools cannot let the emotions that transition planning can arouse impede the effort to ensure strong continuous leadership. The greatest advantage a board can give itself in replacing a head is by planning for the task before it happens. This allows the board to contemplate the future leadership of the school strategically.
While knowing that succession planning is key to a school’s future, many boards do not have a succession plan in place. The nonprofit Bridgespan Group explores the idea that succession planning is “not a periodic event triggered by an executive’s departure. Instead, it is a proactive and systematic investment in building a pipeline of leaders within an organization, so that when transitions are necessary, leaders at all levels are ready to act.” This would include the lay leadership.
The past year has taken a toll on school leaders. Many have said that the experience of running a school during a pandemic stretched them to limits they were not even aware existed. Many heads are rethinking their futures and looking ahead to what is next. Many others, pandemic or no pandemic, are nearing retirement age.
Planning ahead for change will make the process of hiring the next head of school smoother and provide the additional benefit of engaging the current head in thinking about future leadership of the school without any threat to their position. So as not to ignite fear that the board is planning to oust the current head of school, the head should be an active participant in the planning process. Succession planning is good governance, not a way to remove a sitting head.
According to NAIS, there are five components of a successful succession plan:
- Budgeting for the financial resources needed to support the level of search the board anticipates (internal, local, regional or national; with or without a search consultant).
- Building board consensus on the future direction of the school and what its ideal state will be in five or 10 years, including looking at areas that need growth.
- Developing board agreement on the professional and personal qualities the ideal next head of school will possess.
- Defining the components of the ideal search committee, and ensuring the board has or will have those people to call upon.
- Strategic communications planning, including information on the succession-planning process.
By preparing for the inevitable task of looking for the next head of school, it is wise to look closely at the current members of the school’s educational team. The most promising future leader may already be in the school’s offices or classrooms. An internal placement is often successful but needs to be done thoughtfully and with care. Who might be able to be groomed for a future headship? By identifying those people now, and giving them the support they need, the talent in the school is strengthened.
Professional coaching, usually from an external mentor, can build the capacity of future leaders. Undergoing a talent audit is another way to understand the capacities of the current staff. This helps measure skills against current, future and strategic needs and often shows room for potential growth and further engagement for many current team members. Building an internal pipeline in this way also allows for stronger retention of staff and faculty and is the basis of a plan for long-term growth of talent in your school.
It is important to remember that no one person can meet all the criteria you want in a leader. One aspect that makes being a head of school so remarkable is the myriad of skills one needs to do the job. Prioritize. What skills exist in other personnel? Decide what is really important for the future leadership of the school. Is it visionary education? A master operations manager? A religious role model? Having these discussions before beginning the search process will make the focus of the search committee much clearer and set them on a path for success.
Finally, when the time comes, be it next year or in five, how the school says goodbye to the outgoing head will speak volumes about how you welcome your new one. Change is hard, and the process of planning for an exit often gets overlooked by the work for the search. Stay true to the culture of your school and create meaningful ways for all stakeholders to say thank you to your outgoing head. The most seamless transitions occur when an exiting head and an incoming one both feel the school cares about them as people, not just as an employee.
With the right steps, leadership changes can bring more excitement and anticipation than stress and nostalgia. If you invest time now in exploring who you want to be led by and what your vision is for the future, you will enter into your next search prepared for a meaningful and lasting process.