The Search…The Transition… and then the Succession


 Too often boards (and heads) focus on the excitement and challenge of the search process, and very few boards pay much attention at all to honoring the outgoing head or think much beyond the actual landing of the new head. However, there are three distinct phases of a head search and all three require equal attention. The compendium of articles that follow describe the crucial steps and aspects of the search process: before, during and after.

I.  The Search

The first steps are to select a search consultant who has a deep knowledge of the client’s unique school culture and to form a search committee of wise and carefully selected members. The search itself may encounter several potential pitfalls such as the inclusion of an internal candidate, managing the candidate pool skillfully and handling the many expectations of various constituents, to name a few.

II.  The Transition

This is the point at which the energy of the search committee and that of the board typically begins to flag. We have written a great deal about transition but most search committees pay little attention to this crucial second stage of the search process.

All searches should plan for a “transition” committee made up of 3 to 4 board members who were also on the search committee. This committee should guide the chosen head during the last year of the present head’s tenure and through the first year or two of the new head’s tenure. The committee’s main purpose is to care for the needs of the new head and family; help the new head to avoid early significant mistakes; help the new head to understand which individuals and stakeholders deserve attention immediately; and identify the individuals and issues that should not be tackled early on.

The transition includes establishing or reinforcing the rules of engagement for healthy boards and defining upfront a clear and supportive head evaluation process.

III. The Succession

Succession refers to the ability of the new head to make a successful long term commitment to the school and to the role of the board in retaining and nurturing the head in order to assist in achieving that outcome.

“Succession” is the long game while “transition” is the short game, but all three phases: search, transition and succession, have clear rules of the road. Otherwise the head leaves or is fired and the process starts all over again.

We hope that you enjoy this body of articles devoted to this critical time in the life of an independent or international school. We suggest that you keep them handy for reference because there will come a time sooner rather than later when the information and recommendations will be highly relevant. Littleford & Associates can provide assistance at any point during these three phases of the search process.


I.  Choosing a Search Consultant

Most independent school trustees view a head search as the most important and time consuming task that they will ever undertake in that role. In fact it is an honor and privilege for many trustees to be invited to serve on a search committee. Therefore, these committee members need to have a rapport with and trust in their chosen search consultant in order to achieve the outcome that is best for the school, and frankly, which reflects positively in turn upon them.

If the search process does not land the preferred candidate and one with staying power because he or she does not mesh with the school culture, no one wins. Or if the contract negotiation process either is not professionally handled or leaves unspoken but lingering bad feelings, there is a carryover to the relationship between the new head and the board that threatens the chances for a long-term successful headship.

In selecting a search consultant to find a head of school (or CEO for a nonprofit), the determining factor is usually the chemistry of the consultant with the board chair, search committee chair and/or others on the committee. What is probably most important, however, in that selection is the consultant’s existing knowledge (or knowledge that he or she works diligently to obtain) about the school’s culture, mission, history and the political realities that may be landmines for the next head or CEO.

Rarely done but a very good idea is to choose a search consultant who is already familiar with the school from other work or assignments and may be very well positioned to know the type of head candidates who are most likely to succeed in that school culture and meet the expectations of the board and staff. Contrary to popular belief it is a plus, not a drawback, for the search consultant to know most of the client school’s “warts” and skeletons in its closet.

While the search consultant does not always have intimate knowledge of school and organizational climate, on site work prior to the start of the search is crucial to gaining that knowledge and insight. It should include focus group meetings with the parents, faculty, staff, students and alumni. The consultant will not receive sufficient insights simply by posting a standard online questionnaire on the school’s website to gather constituent input about the qualities most sought in a new head or the challenges that he or she is likely to face.

Search committees, with the advice of their consultant, typically begin the process by developing a profile of traits and experience most desired in a new head. However, often that profile is cast aside as the personal chemistry of one “star” candidate captures the imagination of the committee. The charisma factor then outweighs all others.

At that point, the search consultant needs to have enough knowledge about the committee members and the board as a whole to offer appropriate warnings and guidance. The consultant especially needs to know about the school’s faculty and staff culture and the history, incidents and tensions that are a crucial part of it, and how they are likely to mesh (or not) with the emerging frontrunner.

II.  Forming the Search Committee

While transparency may demand that a search committee have one or more teachers, parents, or alumni (who are not already on the board), Board members, especially experienced ones, understand the challenges and delicacies of the search while non board members (unless very well trained at the outset) tend not to. We are advocates of having most, if not all, members of the actual search committee be board members as the board is charged with governance and the ultimate selection of the next Head.

The most effective searches that usually land the candidate of first choice do sacrifice some democracy and some transparency. It is risky to allow too many people who have no training in basic board governance to have input and a role.

All committee members have private agendas at some level as each seeks a trait or experience in a new head that reflects his or her own definition of the mission. However, some members may have an inappropriate motive such as wanting to hire a head who might fix a narrow parental based issue.

In one search the faculty member on the search committee preferred another candidate but went along with the majority when it was clear that her candidate would not receive the “nod.” But two years later when this new Head initiated some unpopular changes this same teacher let it be known to the faculty that the Head had not been the “faculty candidate” in the first place. She also gave the impression that the new Head was having problems because he was the Board’s or the parents’ candidate who was unsympathetic to faculty concerns. The faculty representative (although it could have been a parent or alumni rep(s) as well) was waiting for the new Head to slip on the first banana peel.

Search advisory committees composed of a cross-section of parents and faculty can always be used during the semifinalist and/or finalist stages to interview the candidates on site and make their feedback known to the board search committee. They provide feedback only: they do not vote.

III. Inside Candidates

One of the first challenges facing many a search is how to deal with internal candidates. Some search committees believe it is wise to ask one or more insiders to throw their hat into the ring. The old adage “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” has some merit, and inside candidates have the added advantage of needing relatively little time to adjust to their new role while outsiders need at least three years to do so.

On the other hand, insiders may have little or no realistic chance of success. Why? The “warts” of the insider are only too well-known and boards seem to want “fresh blood” not afraid of instituting change and upsetting the school culture. A risk to the school is that if the insider’s run is destined to fail, the school will be left to manage that individual’s disappointment and disgruntlement. In the worst case, the bypassed insider could undercut the new head with teachers or parents.

Sometimes there is one strong inside candidate whom the board really wants to appoint but it feels that it must undergo a search in order to satisfy the community; engage in a transparent process; and grant legitimacy to that individual. Such a search normally discourages the best external contenders who see the handwriting on the wall early on. But what if some new information or a new development makes the leading internal candidate suddenly less attractive? Then there may be only a small pool of desirable outsiders to whom the school can turn.

One School had a strong Assistant Head who had been waiting in the wings for some time. This Consultant conducted focus groups with a cross-section of key constituents on school climate and quickly reached the conclusion that this individual was highly respected and would be embraced widely as the new Head of School. The wise Board moved quickly to appoint him. He has enjoyed a relatively seamless transition; he has a healthy relationship with the Board; he is executing the mission according to the strategic plan; AND the School saved all of the expense of a full-blown search.


  1. Encourage only the strongest “inside hopefuls” and convey your decision early on. Give a consistent clear message to the school community about that decision.
  2. Do not appoint the inside candidate as an Interim or Acting Head. That will drive away savvy, qualified outside candidates who view the insider as having an unfair advantage.
  3. Make a complete informed and objective assessment of whether the insider fits your profile and whether a search is really necessary for the optics.

IV.  Search Committee Patterns of Behavior

Most search committees want an educational visionary with strong people skills, a pied piper with students, a fund raiser with the ability to pull in six-seven figure gifts, an astute financial manager, and an enrollment and marketing genius. They will find it easy to embrace someone who loves sports, has bright well-behaved children, a selfless charming spouse or partner and impressive academic credentials. He or she should also be a prodigious worker whose door is always open. In other words, everyone wants “God on a good day.”

At all times, a good search firm manages expectations because the ideal candidate possessing ALL of the characteristics needed and/or desired in a new leader probably does not exist. The candidate pool is a fluid mix: leading contenders may drop out or unexpectedly disappoint, or a young, ambitious senior administrator may seem like a breath of fresh air and take everyone by surprise. One of the roles of the search consultant is to keep the committee open to and excited by the changing candidate mix and to create interest on the part of heads who may not necessarily be in the market. It is important to keep the pool viable and not let the search committee become too excited too early about a single candidate.

Search committees tend to recommend and boards tend to choose a replacement who often has the polar opposite personality and style of the predecessor. Normally, the longer the previous head was in place, the more opposite the personality of the successor. The guidance of a search firm that understands typical patterns of search committee behavior and encourages a balanced outlook can help to avoid a pendulum swing effect.

Opportunities to recruit and interview applicants and speak to referees are a new and empowering experience for many trustees. Most search committees and boards recognize the seriousness of this responsibility, but trustee behavior influences the result of the search process. If a search committee/ board cannot articulate and agree upon its needs and priorities, finding the appropriate leader will be difficult. If trustees tend to micromanage, they may not be attracted to the visionary head whom the school needs. If they do not truly appreciate the difficulties and stresses of the job of head of school, they may underestimate the breadth and depth of skills required. If they take an overly “CEO approach”, they may miss the importance of the “student head”.

Candidates visit, stir up excitement or indifference, and usually generate support among some constituent groups, but seldom all. The “faculty” candidate may not be the “board” candidate who may not be the “parent” or “alumni” favorite among the choices available. Sometimes, but rarely do all elements rally around a single candidate.


  1. There is no perfect candidate. The best leaders know how to build a strong team which buffers and complements his or her weaknesses. Certain skills can be bought from experts in the marketplace. Be open to but not bowled over by chemistry.
  2. Most heads are former teachers. Most teachers are care givers and not risk takers. Thus, heads tend to be risk averse. The more analytical the head, the less charismatic he or she may seem. BUT the more successful he or she may be long term for not having made decisions that affect the culture too quickly.
  3. Avoid the trap of choosing a leader repeatedly with a polar opposite style and personality from the preceding head. It results in too much instability for the school in the long run.

V.  Search Strategies

Appointing an interim head is a good option when there is insufficient time to conduct a full national search; when the prior head leaves suddenly; when the community needs some healing; or for example, when the prior head was a pied piper leader much beloved by all. Be sure, however, that all parties and constituents are clear about the interim’s future at the school.

In an external search, it is imperative that three to five candidates remain engaged in the semifinalist stage and two finalists be kept in the loop until the first choice person agrees formally. On the other hand, continuing to look too long for the “right” candidate may lead to an aborted search. Misleading a candidate to the extent that he or she jeopardizes his or her current position gives the school a bad name.

VI.  Healthy Board Governance

All searches result in an unhappy outcome if the board does not have an effective chair and a well-trained board who understand and apply the principles of good practice. Trustees who speak out of turn, gossip, criticize the previous head or exhibit micromanaging behavior send the message that they are an unprofessional board that would worry any head.

Handling reference checking with complete confidentiality and diplomacy, especially where sitting heads whose interest is not known to his or her current school are involved, is of paramount importance.

Boundaries and channels must be observed at all times. There can be no side bar conversations between the search committee and other constituent groups, including other board members, unless a formal structure of advisory committees is set up and the rules for their communication with the candidates and the search committee are very clear and followed explicitly.


  1. Train ALL search and advisory committee members, with the help of the search consultant, on appropriate questions and behavior towards candidates. Search committees who appear to have handed over the process to one or more vocal constituent groups often lose their first choice candidates and either settle or start the search again.
  2. The professionalism of these committees reflects upon the school and is the first voice that the candidate hears. The committee(s) must sell as well as screen.
  3. The partnership of the chair and new head is forged in the process of the search. It is always preferred that the search chair and the board chair stay on for at least one year after the new head is hired.

VII. Compensation Issues

Once the new head has been chosen, the compensation decision is an opportunity to build upon goodwill. This happens IF a search consultant with experience in the independent school world has knowledge of the various components of a compensation package. The firm informs the search committee in advance what it MAY take to land the candidate of its choice. Littleford & Associates works for boards of schools either when the firm is engaged as the search consultant, or when the firm is retained only at the closing compensation phase.

Aside from an intimate understanding of school culture and history and board and faculty politics, the search consultant needs an in depth knowledge of all of the following: the candidate’s current compensation package; overall financial health and family circumstances; as well as the financial condition of the school; total compensation paid to the current head; the attitude of the board towards compensation and its willingness to be flexible and creative.

Only one person, usually the search committee or board chair, works with the consultant in negotiating the package to be offered to the finalist. The search consultant needs to know the hot buttons or deal breakers for both parties, and their respective negotiating styles.

Sometimes the finalist raises the ante by asking for pay or benefits that were not on the table as part of the initial compensation conversation with the search consultant or the search chair. These could be totally fair and OR the requests could indicate a future pattern of behavior of the head of conveying one sentiment and then changing course unexpectedly. The chair may grant these requests in order to close the deal, but an underlying resentment about that may linger, and the new head may be under more pressure to perform.


  1. Ensure that your search consultant is skilled in negotiating the complete compensation package OR seek an outside experienced facilitator to bring quick closure to the process. The more protracted the negotiations, the greater is the potential for damage to the relationship between the new head and those who have been entrusted with the responsibility of reaching an agreement.
  2. The candidate should communicate openly with the search consultant and chair about which issues are negotiable and which are not.

VIII. Treat the Departing Head Respectfully

“The king is dead” refers to the departing head. While the departing head usually knows his proper place in the search process, he/she is concerned about his legacy and may be anxious about the next career move. Treat him or her professionally and with gratitude and respect assuming that the separation did not result from egregious behavior. Plan a celebration of his/her accomplishments. Invite him/her back to the school for very important events.

Remember that the new head will be watching how the departing head is treated as a sign of the treatment that he or she can expect to receive.

IX.  Conclusion

The key steps in the process are simple:

  1. Hire the right search firm.
  2. Establish an appropriate timetable, typically eighteen months and no longer.
  3. Develop an accurate, realistic and enticing profile.
  4. Form the search committee and establish the rules of the game for all players.
  5. Outline the communications strategies.
  6. Treat all candidates with respect.
  7. Ensure you do not lose strong candidates by dragging out the process or by not being up front, professional and fair with all.
  8. Sell all comers on the reasons why they should want to head your school.
  9. Ensure a successful and smooth transition by making transition a priority.

The Risks of Transitions

I.  The Transition Committee

Most search committees and boards pay little attention to the aftermath of the selection of a new head. These are the transition issues. They are huge and they begin immediately. Search committees need to spend as much or more time in planning for the successful transition (which takes three to five years), as it does for the search itself. Most heads encounter serious transition issues within the first one to three years, and the majority will not succeed or remain in the new position beyond five years. While some may consider a five year stint to be a reasonable tenure, it is not long enough to leave a lasting impact or legacy.

  1. There should be a transition committee which is small, confidential and composed of wise highly respected board members. Its key role is to ensure that the head does not fall into traps or cross powerful and important constituents.
  2. The transition committee also helps to ensure a smooth transition for the head’s family including the physical move, school placement and the role of the spouse.
  3. The transition committee needs to remain in place for at least a year, and perhaps for up to two years beyond the welcoming, honeymoon phase.
  4. The committee should not micromanage the head or be intrusive.

If a board does not wish to form a formal transition committee, it should at least ask key individuals from the search committee to remain closely engaged with the new head. They are to help the new head understand school culture and politics and to help him or her avoid stepping into a highly charged political issue unknowingly. Another goal is to make sure that the entire family adapts well to their new situation.

Most boards do not hold a governance workshop with a focus on transition with the new head or CEO present. This is an invaluable part of Littleford & Associates’ search services

II.  Managing the Pace of Change and Building Key Board and Constituent Coalitions

Experienced heads, while highly desired for the arrows in their quiver, tend to fall into the trap of moving too quickly to carry out a search committee’s charge to make key changes. Those often involve changes regarding faculty quality, evaluation procedures, accountability, parent relationships, financial controls, expanding marketing efforts, etc. Changes involving faculty are particularly risky if the new head was not the faculty’s first choice. All searches that result in the selection of outsiders cause some loss of momentum for the school initially. The key is PATIENCE.

One experienced head, who followed a beloved longstanding leader, was given the mandate to make administrative changes, institute a new salary and teacher evaluation system, dust off the strategic plan, undertake master facilities planning and examine curriculum quality. These changes were needed and/ or desired, but they were undertaken in rapid fire succession. Thus, each one was met with resistance at some point from one or more constituent groups. This head ultimately represented the “sacrificial lamb” or the middle man who paved the way for the next leader who served a longer term.

Heads new to the job make the mistake of not playing the role of the observer and listener for an appropriate length of time while simultaneously developing political capital. Interestingly, experienced heads should understand this rule, and they think they do. They make the same mistakes. They just do it in a more sophisticated manner.

III. The Importance of Healthy Board Governance

Transition issues become crises depending on how a board reacts. The smallest incident can cause a crisis in an unhealthy board. The biggest crisis can become an opportunity for strengthening a school where there is a healthy board. The boards most at risk are often those that are so self-assured about their governance practices and perhaps so strong in their endowment, admissions and reputation, that their confidence may not allow them to see or be prepared for the constituent attack.

Parking lot gossip is a fact of life in most independent schools. When board members (including their spouses) also engage in this behavior, or when they fail to speak in one voice outside of the board room, the head is even more vulnerable.

Transition issues are managed best when the partnership between head and chair is very strong. In this case the head and chair both understand the need to build political good will to other key board allies first, and then to influential figures in the faculty, and the parent body. Most boards falter when the head/chair partnership is cracking or not working well enough. However, a significant minority of boards fail in their roles when the chair/head partnership is viewed as too close by the rest of the board, and the head is not seen as receiving appropriate feedback and criticism.

IV.  Mentorina

Mentoring both new and experienced heads as part of a transition process is crucial. All of the energy expended in finding a new head is wasted unless the new head receives appropriate mentoring for this particular school’s issues. In this regard, it is often a good idea to have an outside support system for the head.

There is a major proviso to this last recommendation. Many board members with corporate experience suggest corporate counseling strategies, evaluation methods (OMB or “360”), corporate consultants and HR solutions in independent school settings. Corporate objectives, governance structures and culture are different than those of independent schools. Some HR approaches transfer well; others while well intentioned, often trip up a school head and contribute to failure.

V.  The Head Support and Evaluation Committee

If the former head’s legacy is not elevated but criticized excessively or unkindly, the new head forms an unfavorable first impression about how he will be viewed or evaluated. The head support and evaluation committee conducts an annual evaluation process with the head’s performance being measured against a manageable, previously agreed upon set of goals, preferably no more than five or six. Personal “style points”, should not enter into the process. And again, a 360 approach is NOT recommended.

VI.  Family Support

Never overlook the head’s personal life. If he or she has a spouse, partner or family, their adjustment and happiness are directly related to that of the head, who may not air these concerns openly but may be dealing with such issues regularly at home.

In one international school, the spouse of an experienced head was left to deal alone with the bureaucracy and regulations unique to that country. She was also feeling the loss of a role that she had enjoyed and in which she had felt valued and affirmed in the former school. The family was incurring living expenses which they had expected to be covered. These issues were allowed to simmer beneath the surface and created stress for the Head until the Board was made aware of them and put appropriate support mechanisms in place.

It is generally a huge plus if the spouse or partner is able to find a good job locally, assuming that he or she wants one, if or the school has a desirable position for him or her. On the other hand, some schools expect the spouse or partner (male or female) to donate time and effort by helping to host events, entertain, and be a presence in the life of the school in some major ways. Boards need to be clear about their expectations of the spouse or partner and to thank and praise appropriately his or her good works on a regular and timely basis. Some schools (usually boarding schools) may even pay the spouse or partner a modest salary for performing these roles.

Just as an unhappy and unfulfilled partner may cause a fine school head to leave prematurely, if a head’s child is unable to fit in socially or academically the same outcome may occur. Most head candidates will not, and should not even consider seriously an qffer unless the educational choices for their school age children meet their various needs. On the other hand, if the inability of the school (or alternative local schools) to meet a child’s needs satisfactorily becomes obvious, it is best to be upfront as soon as possible in the search so both parties can pursue other options.

Many schools provide a school-owned home and require the head to live in it as a condition of employment. Boards need to pay attention to the condition of the home and whether its features are meeting the family’s needs. They often overlook this because the home is considered a benefit. If the school does not provide a home, the board must ensure that the head receives adequate housing support annually.

VII.        The Contract

Remember that heads frequently are former teachers. Thus, like teachers, they are often not motivated by money. Nevertheless, heads are turned off by a package that does not reflect their worth in the marketplace. It is usually easier for a head to leave in order to raise his/her package than it is to stay and try to negotiate with a board who makes the head feel “captured” and having little political capital.

This brings us to the final phase of the search…

 You’ve Hired the “Perfect” Head-Now What?

Many boards spend a great deal of time designing the new head’s entry level package and then in subsequent years pay very little attention to it. Many self-effacing heads are uncomfortable raising the “money issue” for fear of appearing overly aggressive, but if the annual compensation review is either overlooked or sloppy, the head’s resentment quietly builds. Boards need to focus not only on how much the head is paid but also upon several components of the total package and benchmark each relative to the local, regional and even national market. In addition, the head’s needs and that of his or her family change over time and the compensation package may need to become more creative in order to provide for those needs and to provide incentives for future performance and/or retention.

The compensation committee may be the same as the head support and evaluation committee or it may be the executive committee, for example. In any case, compensation committees should have a charter of their purpose or resolution. This can be short but should state clearly the authority that the board has devolved upon this committee to act on its behalf and to employ an independent compensation consultant if desired and deemed necessary.

The compensation committee should be “squeaky clean” in order to comply with IRS requirements AND to avoid being a target for disgruntled constituents. The participation of person(s) with a real or perceived conflict of interest in the determination of the head’s compensation package could represent serious ammunition for parents, alumni or faculty seeking to air grievances.

A conflict of interest may exist at two levels:

  1. Individuals on the board who derive special benefits as vendors or friends of the school. These include vendors/trustees paid to do architectural, construction or landscaping work, or provide auditing, consulting, legal or search services or any other kind of activities for a fee. This relates to the vendor AND to the firm of which the vendor may be a member or employee.
  2. Individuals without financial conflicts of interest but who have a personal relationship with the head as close friends, relatives or employees.

While acknowledging the increased emphasis upon transparency with respect to CEO/head compensation packages, there is always the risk of politicizing the process by making it TOO public and a political football at a board meeting. Some boards may be plagued by a lack of confidentiality, and information may find itself in the hands of employees, parents and alumni.

While head compensation (but not all components of it) of non-religiously associated nonprofits will be published on the 990 forms (albeit two years later on inappropriate board approaches can make the topic even more politically sensitive. Hence professional counsel, while not legally required, is often advisable.

If a board does not conduct an annual and professional review of the head’s total compensation and appropriately evaluate and reward his or her performance, it is jeopardizing the head’s long-term ability to deliver on all aspects of “succession”: mission clarity, strategic planning, effective fund raising and endowment building, facilities development and mission based faculty recruitment and retention.

Becoming And Remaining A Healthy Board: The Rules Of Engagement

How do boards of independent and international schools and other nonprofits become and remain “healthy?” That means that these boards know how and are able to do the following: focus on key strategic issues; collaborate effectively as peers; follow the lead of a wise board chair; have a strong partnership with the head/CEO; ensure mission relevance, long-term financial stability and sustainability; and follow the principles of best practice.

In the independent and international school world, there are some troubling long term statistics about the health of boards related to the success and stability of schools: worldwide the average tenure of independent school heads is about 5.5 years and for international school heads, it is about 3.5 years. It is the third or fourth chair who fires the head 80% of the time.

Frequent board member turnover leads to frequent chair turnover that often leads to head turnover. For schools and nonprofits, this can result in a lack of strategic direction, missed opportunities, weakened stakeholder trust and morale and power vacuums that are seized upon by well-meaning but errant board members, teachers, parents and/or administrators.

Here are some guidelines for boards to consider, even those most stable boards where wisdom dominates:

  1. Day schools should have no more than 5 to 8 board meetings a year and they should last on average no longer than two hours. Board meetings that are several hours in duration indicate a tendency to intrude into management and get into the “weeds.”
  1. The first hour should be devoted to committee reports and to the head’s report. The focus of the full second hour should be an important strategic topic about which all board members have been notified. Board members come prepared to talk about this key theme and yet there is no expectation of an immediate conclusion or decision being made. This session is for big sky exploration and dialogue. Individual board members may suggest themes for discussion, but ultimately the chair and the head vet these.
  1. Boarding schools usually hold 3 to 4 weekend meetings a year. These meetings tend to be strategic sessions about buildings, fundraising, enrollment strategies, etc.
  1. Avoid executive session board meetings without the head present unless the purpose is to discuss the head’s contract renewal or a legal issue involving the head personally. Too many board members say “we need to go into executive session because we cannot speak openly in front of the head.” If the board chair and members cannot speak openly in front of the head (or privately to him or her) about a concern or issue, then either the board member is having serious challenges serving in the role or the head has communication issues which the chair needs to address with the head. Usually, the topic discussed behind closed doors is one that the head can explain easily but in his or her absence, incorrect information or assumptions may develop. During executive session trustees often dive into operational issues such as curriculum, athletics or the performance of a specific teacher or coach.

Some heads are fine with executive sessions. These heads tend to be very self-assured with longer tenure who feel very safe in their seat, or they may be a new head who does not yet know the dangers. However, for most heads executive sessions only serve to create worry or suspicion about what is being said in his or her absence.

  1. There should be no senior administrators present at board meetings without an explicit invitation from the head. The CFO and perhaps the advancement director are often invited. If the head invites the entire leadership team of 8 to 12 individuals to board meetings, all administrators except the head should depart the board meeting at some point. Too many administrators in a meeting for too long can lead to board members holding back and/or administrators receiving unnecessary information.
  1. For all boards there is a need to ensure a strong governance committee/committee on trustees so that realistically there might be no term limits. The standard of two three year terms can be the demise of healthy boards. This constant “churn” makes it almost impossible for schools to operate in a constructive manner and in a healthy partnership with the head. Certainly if schools are going to keep term limits (which you do NOT need if you have a really effective committee on trustees), then they should move to three, three year terms, or three four year terms.
  1. Chairs should serve at least three to five years or consider not stepping into the role at all. Terms of one or two years seldom produce long-lasting meaningful outcomes for the school. A partnership with the head is difficult to achieve when the chairs are coming and going. How many individuals thrive after three or four marriages?
  1. The composition of the boards of day schools, particularly PK-8/9 schools, is most likely to be all current parents. Hence, it is often these boards whose members struggle to keep their “parent hat” off and tend towards engaging in unhealthy behaviors. There are two ways to help prevent these boards from straying into micromanagement: conduct annual board governance training led by an outside facilitator and diversify the board. Ideally, there should be an outside educator and one to three benefactors, trustee emeriti or similar individuals who have institutional memory.
  1. Keep board subcommittees to these: Committee on Trustees (the most important); finance; buildings and grounds; strategic planning (may be ad hoc); head support that oversees head evaluation, compensation and contract renewal; and advancement.

The Committees NOT to have: marketing/communications; athletic; education; school life; personnel; or legal. Periodically a board may wish to launch a very short term task force to address a particular issue or shortcoming but this task force should close shop quickly.

  1. Beware of the errant or rogue trustee who is pursuing his or her own personal agenda. The role of the chair of the COT, and if necessary that of the chair, is to bring this trustee back “on board” as soon as possible. If this trustee is well-intentioned and simply temporarily off-track, he or she will respond favorably to guidance. If not, the difficult task of removing the trustee falls to the COT chair or the board chair.
  1. Always ensure that the Head’s evaluation is completed annually, on a timely basis, with input from the full Board in writing but led by the Head Support Committee.

The Board should not meet in camera without the head to talk about him/her in a way that seems to critique the head’s personality traits. The evaluation process should be professional with a focus upon performance relative to previously agreed upon tangible goals. Some boards use a Board Source template but that can be an overly bureaucratic tool and may provide more information than a board needs for this specific purpose.

This Consultant does not recommend a 360 evaluation designed for the corporate world where those participating in the evaluation do not teach the children of the board members to whom the CEO reports.

  1. The chair needs a partnership with the entire board not just with a few key trustees. The chair needs to be able to call upon board unity and support if the head, board or school faces a sudden crisis where the chair must speak for the board. The chair needs to cultivate, empower but also guide each individual board member as well as the board as a whole.
  1. Most governance issues flow from a weak head/chair partnership. However, some governance issues flow from board jealousy and mistrust of the head/chair partnership because it appears to be too close and not critical enough of the head’s leadership shortcomings. The head needs to work to develop a personal partnership with each board member and to get to know each one’s families.
  1. On the topic of annual and capital fundraising, the board must lead by example. Every board member must contribute to the best of his/her financial means. Participation by the full board is equally as important as the amount raised.

If a board follows the majority of these rules of engagement most of the time, it is well on the way to performing on a high level leading to greater institutional stability and successful strategic outcomes.

Greater board stability and longer serving heads with fewer head searches and transitions means: greater parent faith in the mission; greater faculty commitment to a common direction; deeper and longer lasting alumni loyalty and giving; and in the long run better facilities and resources and higher endowments.

What “Rogue” Board Members Can Accomplish

Several years ago our Firm worked with an international school with a parent-elected Board. This was an angry, divided and dysfunctional Board. The Annual General Meeting was a placid event until the issue of the Head’s contract renewal was raised. Faculty, who could all vote in the AGM, showed up in numbers to support the Head. However, a number of parents led by an angry sub group of the Board were determined not to extend her contract.

The resolution was the appointment of a gracious new Chair who supported the Head. The resignation of a few Board Members who seemed to have a personal grudge against the Head also helped immeasurably to restore the Board to health.

Fast forward 5 years. The same School and Board are back in crisis. The Head (a new one) is threatened and the Board is divided into two factions again. Now the issue is whether the Chair (who supports the Head) should be removed. Why? Because that Chair tried to remove the same “rogue” Trustee who five years before bounced the previous Chair. This challenging Board Member has wanted to be the Chair for the past 15 years but his controversial style cannot garner full board support even though he is seemingly popular with parents. His selectively employed charm and ability to manipulate fellow Board Members have resulted in the latest 4 to 4 split on the Board over the Chair’s tenure.

This Board is unwilling to undertake any kind of governance assistance or outside intervention because four Board members are suing to remove the Chair. The Head is wondering about his future and his security. The Chair has had difficulty trying to remove the errant Board Member because that individual is a parent-elected Trustee protected in part by local law. The Board Member’s response: campaign for three more votes and attempt to remove the Chair.

How is the same person helping to destabilize this Board again for the third time in fifteen years? One board member can bring down or almost bring down a board if the individual is clever enough and his/her manipulation is not as evident to his friends and supporters as it is to other board members.

Another international School brought onto its Board someone who clearly wanted to be Chair and felt strongly that the incoming Chair was not as effective as he would be in the role. He was wealthy, charming, bright with plenty of time to offer. He made some positive contributions as a Board Member although he challenged the Chair on most themes. His antagonism towards the Chair and his own desire to lead the Board became increasingly obvious.

At the same time his overstepping behavior as a parent caused teachers to report him to the Head and prompted them to research his past in order to find information that might discredit him as a Board Member. The Board Member resigned but continued to challenge the makeup of the Board and find a way to regain his seat. The School became engaged in a distracting legal battle.

These cases might seem unreal. But all such situations seem unbelievable at the time as insiders and observers wonder “How could this happen to a great school?”

All boards and schools are one possible step away from a crisis due to the misbehavior of potentially only ONE board member who was not vetted carefully or became focused inappropriately on his or her own agenda. These individuals can feel justified in bringing down a head or a board and even potentially an entire school in order to advance their personal goals.

We have seen this behavior so many times that it has prompted our Firm to push more ardently for board development including careful and diligent cultivation, screening and vetting of board candidates and for annual board training. Enforcing ethical standards and codes of conduct needs to become the norm for all governing boards. This includes annually signing pledges to maintain confidentiality, abide by the code of conduct, and avoid conflicts of interest including situations that may involve one’s own children and spouses.

The cases above give new meaning to the “rogue” board member and also call for new protocols for the growth, development and maturity of boards. These include gradually phasing out the AGM parent-elected board. Worldwide those boards are trending towards more of a hybrid self perpetuating board with at least one-third to one-half appointed by the board itself and with the members staying longer terms and creating institutional memory. Many boards need to take a hard look in the mirror and assess whether they can do better. Most can.

However, “rogue” board members occur as well in self perpetuating boards. Avoiding a parent election process only solves some challenges. Ultimately it is the process for choosing, screening, orienting and training, evaluating, warning and removing errant board members that can help schools and their leadership truly remain “safe.”

Board Structures: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

Most of our governance clients want to know about best practice and trends relating to board structures at independent and international schools.

I. Basic School Board Types and Their Typical Patterns of Behavior

These structures are very different depending on type of school.

Independent schools may be day in grades PK/K-6, 8 or 9; day in grades PK/K-12; day with boarding in the upper grades; or predominately boarding.

The majority of PK to 6 and PK to 8/9 independent schools have boards dominated by present parents, and sometimes the bylaws specify that those whose children have graduated may no longer serve on the Board. That is an unwise policy. These boards need some alumni or former parents to add perspective to the views of sometimes highly emotional current parent board members.

A good rule of thumb is that no day school board should have more than 80% of current parents as members and that no boarding school should have more than 80% of alumni as members. Elementary day school boards are the most volatile and vulnerable to governance crises. The statistics on the “firing” of heads is worth noting. K to 6 and K to 8 schools fire their heads far more often than do the boards of K to 12 schools. Day school boards fire their heads far more often than do the boards of boarding schools. In general, all parent boards of ANY type of school fire their heads far more often than do boards with a good number of alumni, past parents and outsiders serving.

Boards made up of almost entirely “professionals” e.g., lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc., tend to terminate their heads more often than do boards with at least a good mix of CEO’s of publicly held companies or privately held companies with more than 200 employees. Why? Professionals who serve on boards often see their role as operational or “hands on” versus strategic and policy focused. Day school (especially elementary) boards in small town and suburban areas tend to be composed mostly of professionals.

Most boarding school boards are dominated by alumni and past parents. However, this composition has changed over the past 10-15 years. Parents want immediate change. Alumni often want little change at all. A mix is becoming more important on this type of board. On the other hand, boarding school boards tend to be the most stable and have longer institutional memory compared to all other types of schools.

We can usually categorize international schools as one of the following: nonprofit with enrollment predominately composed of expatriate students; nonprofit with enrollment composed mostly of locals although labeled as an “international” school; and for profit or family-owned.

Parent elected boards of international schools tend to be the most unstable and crisis driven, and the most likely to fire heads. These schools often do not have appointed or self-perpetuating boards. That greater sense of democracy can also represent the seeds of dysfunction when boards believe they represent the current parents or factions of the current parents. In these schools, the concept of transparency is taken to the extreme and the Annual General Meeting or various “town meetings” can lead to insurgencies that “throw the bums out” even if the “bums” actually doing a great job. Boards are supposed to represent the past, present and future of the School, i.e. its mission and not narrowly the current parent body. This axiom is crucial to the health of all schools.

These are frequent patterns observed over time but of course there are always exceptions.

II. Current Trends

A. Elementary Day Schools

Board turnover is a constant problem for K to 6, K to 8, Montessori and some progressive schools. These Boards tend to have high board and chair turnover, thus often resulting in a constant rehashing of the same issues as each new cohort of parent board members arrive. Parental presence at elementary (and PK/K-12) schools, while wonderful in terms of parent loyalty, volunteerism and often generosity, also can fuel a daily mix of parent/teacher gossip often leading to rumors and innuendo that can undermine heads and boards. Current parent board members often find it very challenging to distance themselves from such parking lot talk.

Elementary day school boards, especially those of the more established and sophisticated schools, are moving toward a greater mix of parents, former parents, even alumni and perhaps even a former chair with the goal of preserving institutional memory. Some of these boards may be trying also to recruit a few “outsiders” who may be locals with an instinct to support the school even if they have no direct connections to it. Qualified board members in this category are difficult to find and keep but they can be an important and objective voice of wisdom especially when a parent or teacher driven crisis arises.

B. PK/K – 12 day schools

These boards tend to have a few former parents, alumni and/or alumni parents as members who balance out the short-term but passionate, commitment of current parent board members. A perfect mix here might be 60% current parents, and 40% “other” which could be alumni, alumni parents, grandparents and/or “outsiders”

C. Boarding schools

These boards are usually the most stable as parents are not wandering the campus regularly and potentially stirring up constituents. Boarding school boards are mainly made up of alumni but should also include at least 20% current and former parents. All alumni boards can also be too rooted in the past or in a particular decade of the past which is why it is also important for these schools to have a range of alumni representation on the board. If the composition of a board is skewed by a particularly strong subset of one or two classes or by one era, alumni revolts and even attempts to overthrow boards can result over the termination of a favorite teacher or administrator, for example.

D. International

In the International school world, there is a strong movement to expand boards beyond the original US public school model of 7 to 12 elected parents, chosen from “AGM” or annual general meeting.

The trends for these boards worldwide are clear: add more appointed members, chosen by the rest of the board; reduce the parent elected board members from 100% down to 60% or at most 70% of the board; lengthen board terms; and allow appointed board members to serve as many 3-year terms as the rest of the board will support. Of course, this assumes assume regular evaluation of board members’ performance. These appointed board members then represent institutional memory which is the crucial lynch pin for healthy boards.

E. Family-owned, Privately-owned and Corporate Chains of Schools

These kinds of boards present some unique governance problems. Family-owned schools often want nonprofit status and accreditation but do not want to give up the family’s control. The thorny issues here revolve around how money is raised and spent; how many family members are employed by the school or on the board; and how much parents really know about the board, how the school is run and how money is spent. Transparency is a key concept here.

Accreditation is sometimes offered too quickly before a true assessment of governance health is established. Accreditation by multiple agencies here becomes a bell weather of a healthy school. The more agencies that accredit these kinds of schools, the stronger the school tends to be.

Corporate chains of schools which may be owned by an investor group, or a single powerful, wealthy owner are growing across the world and now expanding in the US although most of these schools started in South Asia, East Asia and Europe. These boards tend not to be typical boards at all. Their members, usually at most five individuals, are often local representatives of the corporate entity.

Some of these schools are among the best schools in the world these days so we cannot dismiss their governance structures as strange or inappropriate, but there are challenges inherent in this kind of board structure. Who hires, evaluates and fires the head? Heads in these situations need to have a personal trusting relationship with the local “rep” but also with the “higher ups”, even if not with the actual owner.

There needs to be greater clarity about how these boards function, interface with stakeholders and how their finances provide for proper school funding as well as a reward for shareholders for their investment risks.

Again, how many recognized international agencies accredit these schools is key.

III. Board Structures, Head Tenure and Board Tenure

Most of our readers will remember our previous research that shows that the average tenure of a US independent school head is about 5.5 years and of an international school head is about 3.4 years.

Boarding school heads last longer than day school or international school heads.

Longer serving boards with longer serving chairs have heads with longer tenure. Most chairs serve two years and most heads are fired by their third or fourth board chair. If we connect institutional stability, board and school health and accomplishments to head tenure, THEN longer serving boards with longer serving trustees have longer serving chairs who support longer serving heads who leave a lasting legacy rather than a power vacuum that some constituent group fills.

However, even self perpetuating boards run into trouble when board member parents wear their parent hat, alumni wear their alumni hat and when parent or alumni association representatives think they represent their group’s more narrow interests, not the larger mission of the School.

The healthy direction for board structure review/overhaul is to keep these items foremost in mind:

A. Always start with mission. What structure, size and make up best serve it?

B. Developing the board should always be among the top priorities of any strategic plan and that goal includes assessing board effectiveness, stability, and head and stake holder relationships

C. What is the track record of success, length of head tenure, and number of crises that have arisen in recent years and how were these handled (or mishandled)?

Healthy boards with healthy structures with the right people “on board” can right the ship in any school crisis and move past it quickly. Littleford & Associates can help schools with any board structure function optimally and resolve challenges and crises.

Premature Dismissals: Overlooking Head Transition

In choosing a search firm, a board should hire one that puts an appropriate emphasis upon transition. If the firm does not provide transition services, bring in a consultant to conduct a workshop for the full board with the new head present. Why?

Recently our Firm has witnessed a spike in the departure of school heads in their first three years. This time frame is what we call the transition period during which most new heads are at the greatest risk of not having their contracts renewed. Many depart under circumstances that look normal or self-initiated but which actually are cases of the board encouraging the head to leave or of the head seeing the handwriting on the wall and departing of his/her own volition. We keep hoping that with good governance training this trend will improve.

The further the head gets past the five year mark, the greater the likelihood that the head will stay 8 to 15 years or possibly even more, and that depends often upon age, career status and ambition. The effectiveness of schools is absolutely associated with the longevity of heads. But during the first three years, the new head is most at risk and that risk is tied closely to the pace of change, board turnover, chair turnover and the internal politics in which the new head is immersed. These issues also speak to the need for independent schools to consider healthy internal succession planning, to retain some degree of board institutional memory and to implement a guided transition that prevents a new head from stumbling.

Two recent events come to mind as examples of this “spike” in departures and dismissals. Fortunately these were narrowly averted due to timely intervention. In one case, the outgoing long term Head left with a great deal of support, respect and appreciation while at the same time, constituents eagerly awaited the arrival of her Successor. It seemed like a very positive and potentially very successful scenario.

The first-time Head was asked to:

  1. Reduce the number of foreign students in the boarding program because the growing number was affecting the culture of the school and creating a subset of students whose English was not strong enough to handle the academic program.
  2. Raise the overall caliber of new students in both academic and behavioral terms even if this meant a short term reduction in income.
  3. Improve the overall character building aspect of the culture, a hallmark that had been undercut by the above enrollment patterns.

A very powerful Board Member felt that the new Head did not understand the balance sheet and enrollment patterns and he contacted the prior Head to ask if she would consider returning to take over her old job. Surprisingly she engaged enthusiastically in these unprofessional conversations, and thus, less than two years into the new Head’s tenure, a potential coup was underway behind the scenes. It was occurring without the knowledge of the current Chair or Vice Chair or the sitting Head.

The Board member leading this effort contacted 7 of 18 trustees and felt certain that he had the vote count to “bounce” the new Head midway through the academic year. He also thought that he had convinced the Chair of the Committee on Trustees, but the COT Chair contacted the Board Chair. A full scale governance crisis unfolded as both factions attempted to achieve their respective aims: fire the new Head immediately (for doing his job!), or work with this new Head on strengthening the finances and perhaps modifying some of the new admissions standards. The fact that the Chair was due to step down in a few months further exacerbated the problem, thereby leaving a perceived power vacuum that the “group” was eager to fill.

As a result of a timely governance workshop, peace was made between the warring sides, largely through a compromise on the composition of the Executive Committee, the choice of the new Chair and agreement on a new set of reasonable and fair goals for the Head. With these shifts in board politics, the Head appears to have a new lease on life as well as a contract extension.

In a second case, a Head whose arrival was met with great fanfare encountered many problems upon her arrival, including poor faculty and parent morale and a micromanaging Board. Previously the Board felt that it had no choice but to intrude into management because the former Head had withdrawn increasingly into himself. This former Head was well intentioned, low key, and conflict averse, and as the School grew from 60 to 500 students he struggled to make the leap from running a mom and pop to a more sophisticated operation.

The new Head did indeed re-establish control and won over the parents, students and teachers immediately. The “honeymoon” with the Board soon ended, however, as misunderstandings occurred about the Board’s perceptions of its role versus the new Head’s perception of her role. The Head made a major faculty compensation decision without full board approval at the same time that the School was experiencing the effects of an economic downturn. To be fair to the Head, it was not clear what she could and could not decide and implement without consulting with the Board first. To be fair to the Board, they felt that the multiple issues that they found in the former Head’s later years justified their intrusion into management.

The new Head, who had not reported to a board before, did not understand fully the need to cultivate individual relationships and alliances with these Board members and to check carefully with the Board and/or the Executive Committee before making the most key decisions. Failure to consult fully with the Board about the level of faculty salary increases for the upcoming school year turned the Board sour. In order to recruit and hire the best faculty available in the marketplace the Head left on the typical recruiting fair tour but since the prior Head had not done this, the Board thought that the new Head was absent from the School for too long. Compounding the problem were the turnover of several Board members in the Head’s first year and a change in Chairs.

The new Chair succumbed to pressure from some Board members to hold a vote about whether to renew the Head’s contract after the Head had been on the job for only 18 months. Would another search really be preferable to working with the current Head whose past record at her previous school was stellar and who was very popular with all other stakeholders?

After some introspection and outside coaching to both parties, the Board made, and the Head accepted an extension offer. In this Consultant’s view, the Head now knows that she must work on her relationship with the Board, and the new Chair seems genuinely interested in trying to balance the needs of the Head with those of the rest of the Board. In this case, the Board had some legitimate causes for concern, but the Head and her family were not being cared for well enough during his critical transition period. All boards need to keep in mind that being a head of school is a very stressful occupation.

In both of these cases, and in many more that we could enumerate, the board’s expectations of a new head upon arrival waxed so enthusiastic as to be unsustainable in terms of the new head’s ability to meet them. Certainly, the most important constituency for a head to please is the board because pleasing the other stake holders means nothing if the board votes to fire him or her. Often boards do not think through the transition that a new head will experience and the short and long term consequences of termination.

Only In very few cases does this Consultant see transition needs receiving adequate attention. That includes managing the compensation package and contract; being sympathetic to family adjustments; anticipating and handling political challenges and economic risks and opportunities that the new head may face; and dealing with key personalities on the board and among the faculty and other stakeholders. One “slip” in a new head’s early tenure can be the death knell for his or her ability to survive beyond the transitional first five years.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Avoid changing board chairs in a new head’s first two, or even better, three years.
  2. Preserve board institutional memory and specifically, make every effort to keep search committee members on the board for several years after the new head is hired.
  3. If the previous head left a power vacuum into which the board moved (even if necessary), keep in mind that the new head’s ability to function will require that he or she take back the necessary power to run the school.
  4. Put a transition plan in place that outlines all the risk factors the new head may face.
  5. Form a transition committee of board members only (preferably made up mainly of search committee members) and keep that committee in place for ONLY one year.


  1. In a normal transition, the first year is supposed to be a “honeymoon” period where the new head should NOT take on major changes (sometimes this means preventing the head from hurting himself or herself by wanting to do too much). If the head must make some key changes, the full public and private support of the entire board becomes even more important.
  2. The second year begins a time of normal, cautious change.
  3. The third year is the one year where often the faculty begins to push back on the changes and may attempt to engage the parents and/or alumni in undercutting the new head.
  4. The fourth year is one of consolidation of the head’s position.
  5. The fifth year is usually the one where the head feels moderately “safe” and begins to see a long term future at the school.

Original Newsletter

Every Board Has a “Personality”

If the board retains strong institutional memory, a clear and consistent “personality” emerges even if that board trips up occasionally. But if the board turns over its members frequently then the Board’s personality can be vague and changing constantly, making it difficult for the head, faculty and other stakeholders to “read” the board’s tone and anticipate how it is likely to act.

Thus, all boards, including the ones that seem to be functioning at a high level most of the time, have a “personality”, meaning its collective profile. How does the board respond to the following: The head’s leadership style? A crisis or challenge? New members joining? A bully or a domineering presence on the board? Parental pressure? Fund raising demands? Marketing and enrollment pressures? A board tending toward gossip and misbehavior? To a board overlooking the timely renewal of the head’s contract?

Any board is only as good as its weakest member or that member who is guilty of not abiding by the rules of healthy governance. Consistent inappropriate behaviors by just one or two board members can render the strongest board chair and head less effective. They can demand an inordinate amount of time in board meetings, for example, or they might be constant skeptics who challenge every decision, discussion and assumption. The Chair spends much of his or her time managing these few strong willed individuals whose energy is unfortunately misdirected.

What is the underlying personality of a board dominated by lawyers? By accountants? By entrepreneurs? By virtue of their training and the inherent talents and traits that members of an occupation usually have in common, professionals tend to demonstrate those same characteristics and behaviors at the board level. Some people are drawn to practicing law for example, because they like to debate and challenge assumptions or “protect” and guard against exposure to losses. Accountants may want to dig deep into the numbers to ensure the budget and finances are sound. Entrepreneurs may be more willing to take risks in return for greater reward. Bankers and venture capitalists etc. also all have their proclivities which show up at the Board level.

But the individual most missing on boards, and most needed is the CEO of a large publicly held corporation. Surprisingly, very few of our boards actually have such an individual serving. You should find one. Why?

Every board needs the involvement of someone who works in a similar role to the head/director. Like the head of school, the CEO works for a board and hires and fires individuals. Accountants, engineers, and many bankers and lawyers do not report to boards and do not hire and fire individuals as part of their regular occupational routine. Why is this important?

A CEO is better equipped to understand the separation of policy from management, and that is crucial to the success of the head and thus ultimately of the school. A CEO of a publicly held or privately owned company that has a board knows that when an issue arises it is not the board member’s role to solve that issue but rather to bring it to the head’s attention and let him or her handle it. Most of our board members are well intentioned professionals who tend to believe that because of their specific skill sets, they are able and obliged to help solve a problem directly. Some examples are a board member/ corporate HR manager who wants to intervene and resolve faculty tensions or one who is a professional fundraising consultant micromanaging the school’s development director.

The overall “personality” of most of our boards is missing these crucial individuals with this key CEO-type skill set. Most of our Nominating Committees (Committees on Trustees) do not even look for these individuals. In the international school network, many boards claim that such folks are scarce in the school community. They are not. Schools just need to have an active and effective nominating committee that knows how to find, vet and recruit them.

The Nominating Committee (COT) is responsible for updating policies, by-laws and the policy manual as needed AND for carrying out these eight key jobs: the cultivation, screening, invitation, orientation, training, evaluation, warning and removal of board members. If the COT does not carry out these eight tasks then the “board’s personality” will not develop carefully over time to ensure a balance of positions, perspectives and styles. Rather than focus upon skills that can be purchased in the marketplace such as legal, HR or accounting expertise and upon representation of certain groups, the Committee should consider and assess how a prospect’s personal style will mesh with the board’s style and how this new board member may affect the chemistry, balance and tone of the Board.

All of this suggests that the role of the Nominating Committee (COT) is much more complex than it appears. It shapes the board’s personality over time which in turn determines its health, strength and effectiveness.

Littleford & Associates advocates conducting regular workshops for chairs and members of Nominating Committees (COT) with heads and board chairs attending if possible.

Why a Leadership Coach?*

In this edition of our Newsletter, we welcome as our Guest Contributor, Mark E. Ulfers, Head of School, American School of Paris. He is the author of the following article.

Hopefully I still have an eye-on-the-object look. It is the rapt expression when a person is deeply engrossed in what they are doing and, in my case, about love for a chosen profession and the ebb and flow of a life in schools.

Yet, I also cheerfully and all too confidently plunge and somersault into leadership circumstances where I have no business or overwhelmingly misjudge the best way to help our learning community or school. My blind spots are many. After 29 years of leading schools, I still miss on pulling out the best leadership tool and much more. So my idea is to never stop trying to become qualified for my job!
I found a leadership coach to learn in a different way about leading a school. My goal was to be better today than yesterday.

Plato’s theory about human perception in his “Allegory of the Cave” claims that knowledge gathered from our senses is opinion, not truth— even if clearly observed. Philosophy, debate and even practical experience must challenge and inform deeper understanding— to shed metaphoric sunlight. In my work, I was worried about seeing only what I wanted to see. I was certain my field of vision on leadership and innovation had narrowed. And as has been said, it is best to keep in mind that memory and experience are tools of a novelist. I wanted a new point of view with a chance for objective and challenging debates, from the outside looking in. Leadership coaching helped me move beyond the shadows.

I learned much from my initiation into having a leadership coach and there are a few themes and ideas that can be teased out from the experience.

Success Blinds You to the System

The time to begin with a leadership coach is when things are going well and also when you have a healthy fear about taking the complexities of your work for granted. After years of experience, maybe I caught myself being too quick with answers, realizing that what I was seeing or doing did not always translate to a lasting solution or an optimal climate where harmony finds a way. I needed poking with a sharp stick.
A group of 200 CEO’s (Gavett, August 15, 2013) were surveyed about their learning needs and unanimously indicated they were receptive to making leadership style changes through coaching and feedback. Of this group, 80% of CEO’s who sought outside leadership coaching did so on their own. I did the same. I went to my board and asked for their support.

The Devil of Insecurity Can Be an Angel in Disguise

Back to the survey— The majority of CEO’s had not sought leadership coaching. The idea that others in leadership or members of their board might see coaching as “remedial”, was a stopper for many. Yet consider that the world’s greatest tennis players want coaching when at the top of their game.

My insecurity of not seeking a coach earlier in my career was really a function of using an old internal operating system, rather than the equivalent of upgraded self-reflection 2.0 mental software. I understood that it was time to sharpen my craft, to get unstuck, and to find someone who would openly challenge both my thinking and doing for leading a school. Quite the opposite of signaling any professional weakness to my board or others, initiating leadership coaching enhanced my professional standing.

Speaking Truth Over Power

“Power” is not a word normally associated with schools— nor should it be— yet human nature has much to say about such matters. People across differing roles and responsibilities within a school will not naturally tell you what’s on their mind nor will they cross the very communication barriers you are trying to lower. Some will, many won’t. The same is true of inner-circle administrative team members. I figured a leadership coach could help with organizational translation— another set of eyes and ears on our professional home.

I’ve learned that a leadership coach is at his or her best when speaking frankly and when applying attitude adjustments. I needed a leadership coach hardwired to speak with candor. Our ongoing debates, conversations and real-time problem solving (each session for one hour, sometimes longer) did help me get beyond the “cave” of my perceptions. Exchanges were at times blunt, yet never disrespectful. My coach helped challenge my thinking to deal with new realities in teaching, supervision of instruction, board governance and the impact of my leadership behaviors on the school. To borrow from Jim Collins and “Good to Great”, my coaching sessions afforded a bi-monthly “autopsy without blame”. We unpacked school events together. The climate for doing so had nothing to do with fault finding, but rather how best to deal with a difficult situation and then to come back stronger. And because my mentor has years of experience in schools, problem-solving discussions were laced with stories and vignettes that invited creative thinking and learning from one context to another.

Strip Away the Noise and Clutter

Leadership coaching has offered me a renaissance of self-discipline. How I work with people, thought processes for setting vision and marshalling people and resources around imperatives for change and then launching into action have dominated our process debates. Most recently we discussed how human motivation, talent development, mentoring skills and our incurable need to continually improve can drive implementing leadership standards and performance reviews.
My coach and I came with our agendas for each meeting. In the very beginning, we agreed on key leadership topics, about which I rated my ability— or lack of— so we had a baseline agenda. We determined to build discussions from research and practice. But then there were always the circling urgencies of school life, whether about personnel, board decisions, team building or a tough interpersonal issue we were facing.

We thoroughly dissected conflict resolution process in the midst of intellectual “doodling”, where we applied ideas to novel situations. And not for a minute was I let off the hook for faulty thinking or sloppy doing as we’ve debriefed day-to-day leadership.

During coaching sessions, all the background noise from the busy life of school did drop away for one hour, every two weeks as we settled on an issue and talked it out, never leaving the discussion without a next step to be reported back when we met again. We focused on the things with greatest impact.

Windows and Mirrors

The leadership coach experience has reminded me of the sentiment that we see the world, not as it is, but as we are— or as we are conditioned to see. I work with smart, clear-headed, and sincere people who embrace our school mission, but they see many differing ways of achieving our strategic goals. To support balancing so many perspectives and finding the inner strength to do so, leadership coaching has provided both a window and a mirror. The window for sharpening my vision and opening new scenery on leadership perspectives and opportunities— and the mirror to look inside myself for vulnerabilities, areas for growth and how I can best lead the development and success of others and our school. And also keep that eye-on-the-object look too!

* I found John Littleford of Littleford & Associates as my leadership coach. Or maybe he found me. Either way, it worked. His depth of professional knowledge, flat-out common sense, personal chemistry with me, and his candid style continue to be key to the success of my leadership coaching experience.

The Governance Game III: The Importance of Transitions

(Part Three of a Four Part Letter on Governance)

  1. The Dangerous Times:
  2. The most dangerous time for a school is when it changes heads. The dangerous times can encompass the last year of the departing head, the search process itself, and/or the first three years of the new head.

    The second most dangerous time for an independent school is when it changes board chairs. Few schools are aware of the power vacuum and potential for fall out between the new chair and the current head or a current chair working with a new head. New chairs often want to make their own “mark”, make a difference, or leave a legacy. This may or may not coincide with the head’s own sense of the school’s mission and direction.

    Should heads be influential in the selection of a new chair? Absolutely. Otherwise, the school may find itself looking for a new head as well.

    In previous articles, we have stressed the importance of institutional memory to a healthy, stable and mature board. This requires that board members serve longer terms, more than simply two, three-year terms. The chair should serve at least a two to five-year term. All of this presupposes that the committee on trustees is doing a reasonable job in designating, cultivating, selecting, orienting, training and evaluating trustees.

    From solid institutional memory on boards comes a greater likelihood of longer serving heads, which means more stable schools, and more meaningful legacies of leadership.

    A joke making the rounds, but a joke with real truth, runs as follows:

    In the first year of a new head, the search committee congratulates itself. In the second year of the head, the Chair congratulates the head on performance. In the third year of this head, a “rump” group of trustees meets at the local country club and asks: “Who hired this person?”

    Institutional memory is crucial to keeping heads in place, as only the original board and search committee remembers why the head was hired in the first place and the vision that the new head articulated so well.

  3. The Importance of Transitions:
    1. The Transition of the Head.
    2. Most schools hire a search firm to find head prospects. Once the head has been selected, very few boards actually follow through with any real implementation of transition concepts or plans.

      When a new head is retained, there is usually a honeymoon period. It normally lasts one year and with a lucky few heads, up to three years. The proverbial baggage begins to build up in the second and third year.

      The transition questions should include:

      How can the Board make the transition and physical move for the head and family as easy and comfortable as possible?

      How can the Board ensure that the head’s children and spouse have made the adjustment and change smoothly?

      Are the head’s children well placed and happy in their schools?

      Is the head’s spouse feeling gainfully employed or useful and not just an appendage of the head?

      Has the board ensured that the financial resources for a smooth move and effective transition are available?

      Has the board or a committee of the board taken on the role of pointing up the danger zones, the cracks in the school’s culture, the political pitfalls, the unusual personalities, and the wayward and maverick teachers that a new head will face?

      Has the board ensured that the head and chair are a good match? Often the search chair becomes the new board chair.

      Has the board established a clear evaluation process to guide and support the head?

      Has the board made the head aware, and is the board aware itself, of certain close bonds that exist between trustees and individual teachers and staff members, ties that could compromise the head’s ability to lead?

      Does the board have realistic expectations and have they been communicated to the head? Or has the board laid on too much in the way of goals and assignments, that if implemented, may endanger the head’s political “capital” with various constituencies?

      The head transition process takes 1-3 years, depending on the issues, the length of service of the prior head, and the length of service and power of the faculty.

      Transitions: The Power Vacuum

      In most changes of head, there is one of two scenarios:

    1. The departing head was long term, retained both positional and moral power and authority, and left on good terms, perhaps even as a departing hero. In this case, (if there was no interim head), the new head could be viewed as a lesser “light”, no matter how good he or she may be.
    2. The danger here is that the new head may take on too many changes too fast, or does not become thoughtfully and carefully familiar with the culture and the teachers (and their families) before initiating change. Any head who follows along term apparently successful head needs to “lay low” for a year, even two years, to fully assess the legacy of his or her predecessor. Most long term heads become gods after they have left, even if they had not achieved that status while they were there.

      Many of these long term departing heads leaned on key faculty and had long-time faculty favorites, who will be gunning for the new head if he or she tries to take on their “rights” or privileges and semi-feudal kingdoms.


    3. The previous head was short term, unpopular and forced out, or was long-term and an absentee landlord in the final years. In either case, real power is likely to have devolved to the faculty, and the board might have engaged in micro management. In both cases, the board may ask the new head to make some initial moves, to take back some power that was perceived as given away to the faculty and to initiate some form of teacher accountability, perhaps through teacher evaluation. New heads will try to build their own administrative team. This, while logical, can exacerbate faculty fears of change. If the changes initiated by the new head occur too fast, the faculty will do an “end run” to the board and help initiate a move to dump the new head. This happens regularly in some schools where head turnover is high. The power vacuum is always filled by the faculty first, then the board. Then a new head is hired to regain lost leadership ground, only to find that he or she is fired as they wade into an increasingly powerful faculty “turf.”
    4. The Transition of Chairs

    Many boards make a serious mistake in not planning far in advance for chair transitions and in ensuring that effective chairs serve longer. No chair should be asked to serve without first asking the head to convey clearly and confidentially to the current chair whether the choice or choices available are compatible with the head’s style, views and personality.

    How are new chairs selected? How democratic should the process be? It should not be democratic at all. Independent schools are not democracies and those that attempt to function as such are the least healthy ones in terms of governance practices.

    Some chairs feel they should step down just because they have served two years. Others may feel they are overwhelmed by workload and parent phone calls.

    Chairs should serve at least 3-5 years, and should be encouraged to remain longer IF:

    1. They have a good working relationship with a valued head
    2. The board supports the chair’s leadership
    3. The chair’s personal and professional life is not adversely affected by continued service

    Chairs who find themselves buried and overloaded by school related work and phone calls may be falling into a pattern of micro management or may be a part of a board that tends to act more like a parents association dealing with minutiae, than a policy board dealing with strategic planning.

    Heads should be asked for an opinion on a successor chair and that request should be made of them confidentially. The head’s first choice should be given significant weight. Taking a poll of the board’s suggestions for the next chair can bruise egos and lead to the selection of a chair candidate with whom the head cannot work effectively.

    There is something still to be said in having a very small group of “wise men and women”, perhaps a small committee on trustees, consult very confidentially with the head and chair to ensure the proper choice of a new chair is made. No one need have hurt feelings that they were “passed over” as chair.

    The Transition and Choice of New Trustees

    Trustee cultivation, screening, selection, orientation, training and evaluation falls to the committee on trustees. Most trustee candidates are elected from the parent body, or are chosen based on friendship and connections, and not necessarily based on what the individual could contribute in the way of resources, leadership, and wisdom. Mechanical and technical skills are not a powerful reason for choosing a trustee. Those services may be purchased. The most important criteria should be commitment, loyalty and wisdom. Having resources as well may be crucial to the school’s long term health.

    New trustees should not be elected to “represent” a constituency, such as parents, alumni or teachers. If this practice proliferates, the natural outcome is that trustees see themselves as representing a specific group and their narrow interests rather than the mission of the school as a whole. “Trustee” is a good word because effective trustees, properly chosen, are entrusted with the school’s mission, its history, its present a s well as its future.

    Trustees may be drawn from the parent body and the alumni. However, they should be selected because they bring some powerful sense of the school’s mission to the table, not because they “represent” some group.

    Faculty representation on the board is unusual in US independent schools, and with good reason. It rarely works well. The head of school represents and should represent the faculty and their interests and needs, unless there is a union or internal collective bargaining unit on site, or the equivalent of same. If there is a union, or internally powerful faculty committee, the fox should not be allowed into the chicken coup. No school with an “organized” faculty should have faculty also represented on the board, as representation has already been chosen through collective bargaining.

    No new trustee should be chosen and asked to serve without the head first having met and “vetted” that individual through an informal process where the candidate does not know yet they are a candidate. Once that initial conversation with the head has occurred, the committee on trustees then may screen more formally the suggested new board member, asking for permission to place his or her name in nomination.

    At a recent governance workshop, when it was noted that no new trustee should be asked to serve if that individual could not work with the head and share his or her vision for the school, one trustee remarked: “If you do that, then all the trustees will support the head!” Precisely. Otherwise the board may as well fire the head now and start all over with a new search process.

  4. Transitions in the Board Chair/Head Partnership
  5. Board chairs are the chief defenders and critics of heads. They are the head’s first and most important line of defense against unfair parents, one issue trustees or teachers frightened of change. However, the chair must also have sufficient rapport with the head to provide needed criticism and appropriate feedback.

    When the chair/head partnership breaks down, the entire school and its political culture are in jeopardy. However, when the chair/head partnership is viewed as too close and the chair is viewed as providing unquestioned loyalty to the head, both the chair and the head are in danger as other trustees may become resentful of the power and the partnership of the chair/head team.

    The next article in this series on board governance will address board committees, their structures and functions and how they should handle strategic issues facing the school.

Mission “Tugs”

Sometimes the core battles of the board room center around mission and mission clarity. As long as those conversations are rare or occur only just before an accreditation visit or a new strategic plan, boards seem to amble along fairly well experiencing only the typical bumps in the road.

However, when a board, head and leadership team tackle a review of the mission, they can run into some major hurdles, leading to potential governance fall out. This is due simply to the passion which people bring to the table over this topic. Some feel, based on their history with the school, that they are correctly and deeply grounded in the traditions, patterns and successes of the past. They argue: “Do not lose touch with your roots.” Other boards are concerned about mission relevance and the need to send clear, more powerful marketing messages to attract full enrollment. They may be looking at least to a partial overhaul of the mission.

Powerful alumni have the ability to bring down a board when they believe that the school has moved away from core traditions which they regard as crucial to its past and future. The landscape in the United States is littered with these examples, some of which have garnered spectacular press coverage.

In the international school realm, boards are “thrown out” more often. Board revolutions here are not about preserving traditions but being more subservient to the needs of the latest arrival of families who are only there for the short run and want the school to meet their needs at the time. In these situations, history and tradition play almost no role. Thus, these boards forget that their role is to preserve the best of the past, serve the present students but to be prepared to serve the future as well. Higher turnover on international school boards contribute to a loss of institutional memory which exacerbates the problem.

The point is that mission review, often as part of strategic planning, can throw a bomb into the culture, if not managed properly. Mission review is not simply a starting point for strategic planning. It is a process in itself. It deserves that attention and one should always proceed with it cautiously. Often an objective consultant can facilitate that process so that it does not become a political football. Mission clarity and unity is an area where Littleford & Associates has helped hundreds of schools worldwide.

Following a “Founder” and Can You Survive?

Most schools founded by an individual began as Montessori schools or small progressive elementary schools. Some founders launched Pre K to 8 Schools, and a rare few founded a high school and/or a boarding school. Often these schools carry the Head’s family name and are located on the estate/home of the founder or his/her family.

But the definition of “founder” used here is broader. It means anyone who has been the head of school for so long that almost no one remembers a prior head because the impact of this individual, who may have stayed 15, 20, 30 years or more has been so profound. The school is the head personified.

When these quasi-founders depart, there are, or should be a different set of principles applicable to searches, transitions and governance. Very long-term heads can leave great legacies but they can also leave weak boards. They usually hand pick their board members. These boards may be very far removed from the operations of the school and while that is generally a good thing, having repeatedly deferred to the head without question, the board may have lost contact with the tone of the faculty, the sentiment among the parents or the experiences of recent graduates.

These heads may also have delegated not muchpower (or perhaps too much power) to the senior management team. The senior management team or faculty may be eager to fill the power vacuum that the departing head leaves, thereby making it almost impossible for an external search candidate to succeed. Under these circumstances the best successor may be an internal appointee whom the current head admires, likes personally and prefers even though the Board might go through the window dressing of conducting a search.

Often these insiders can build the necessary bridge to the board (and strengthen it) while not running afoul of the departing head. While the departing head may indicate that he or she wants a clean break, the reality is that no one can let go quickly or entirely from their “baby” into which they have sunk a large part or the greater part of their lives. The insider generally can keep some connections to the “founder” and yet still be able to push back against the former head when that is necessary.

One founding elementary school Head left her school over fifteen years ago. Since then there have been five Heads including short term, mid- term and interims, all of whom the Founder has undermined to some degree. The only one who succeeded on some level was the former Associate Head who was favored by the Founder and came back to “rescue” the School when one of the five succeeding Heads was fired. This founding Head still cannot let go and is influencing dramatically the parents, teachers, and board members many of whom were students there when she was the Head. Now fifteen years after “retirement” this former Head again is influencing another head search.

One very long-term retiring Head attempted to “stack the deck” against the new Head. In her last year, she tried to give the faculty raises that the board had not approved. She left many skeletons in the closet and surprises for the new Head and for the Board as well. The Board, to its credit, gave the outgoing Head a proper send-off.

Those external appointees who follow founders tend stay two to five years at most and in the long run may be considered “middle men” or “sacrificial lambs”. Following founders is not an assignment for those lacking “fire in the belly” and strong survival instincts.

A rule of thumb: Over 90% of head searches result in outsiders being hired and over 80% of them are fired or moved on after 5 years or less. Only 10% of head searches result in an internal appointment but only 10% of those folks are “fired.” However, a cautionary note to those who support internal succession planning (as this Consultant does in certain circumstances) over external succession hiring: Even insiders can miscalculate by betting too much and too fast on changes they wish to make in the hopes that their political capital with their peer group is high enough to withstand, for example, a reinvigorated teacher evaluation process. These internal successors can be proven wrong as they too must be cautious about what kind of change they initiate and how fast they do it.

As part of its head of school search services, Littleford & Associates provides counsel on the unique circumstances surrounding the departure of founders or heads who are leaving that kind of legacy. The search process is much more than finding candidates; it includes ensuring that the ultimate choice is successful.