Common Mistakes In The Search Process

There are many ways to lose top flight candidates in a head of school search but three of them could be avoided easily:

  1. Failure to clarify the compensation package up front and to allow enough flexibility for the package to be designed around a candidate’s family needs
  2. Assembling a search committee hastily and allowing the agreed upon timetable to slip
  3. Failure to sell the School fully and with enthusiasm to the candidates

I. The Compensation Package and Contract

Many search committees (or the search chair) do not clarify either early enough or specifically enough what the proposed compensation package may look like. Describing it as “competitive” is usually not going to tempt the top flight candidates who are already holding an attractive position and are in good standing with their boards and constituencies . Some of the offers today, especially from the for-profit chains around the world and in the US, are reaching levels of $500,000 to nearly $1,000,000 (excluding stock options).

Cutting to the chase early on and landing the candidate of choice depends often on being generous in the front end description of the package and in its final details leading to closure. Given the competition for fine school heads in the nonprofit and for-profit realms means that the “early bird gets the worm”. By “early”, this Consultant means holding out enough of a compensation carrot to make it worth a candidate’s attention.

Generally head of school offers are affected by the occupations of the board members on the search committee and more specifically those of the chair and the search chair. Those individuals should have the freedom and leverage to negotiate within reasonable limits in order to attract top flight candidates. Any head worth his or her salt should bring to the school many times over their package value in leadership talent, bottom line results, and reputation for excellence as well as integrity of leadership. For profit schools and chains often “buy” reputation by picking off a top flight school head about to retire from a name brand school or one who is ready to leap from that school into a substantially better package. In this case, the search firm acting on behalf of the for-profit chain puts the money on the table up front and in a major way.

While most contracts for a newly hired head are three year evergreen or rolling contracts, some five year contracts are offered in certain areas such as Canada. A longer term contract is an especially attractive way to signal serious intent. Heads really only begin to make a difference after they have been in that role at least five to seven years and more. Remember that the effectiveness of schools often relies on the longevity of talented heads.

II. Timing of the Search

Busy people make up search committees, but changing the membership of a committee mid-stream after it becomes apparent that some members do not have the time, interest or energy to commit to the successful conclusion of the search signals a degree of unprofessionalism. The school may lose valued candidates.

Search chairs also need to be empowered with sufficient authority so as not to have to consult with the full committee when a quick decision is needed to schedule an onsite visit, to invite the family as well, to assure candidate(s) of their status, etc. Candidates who are fortunate to have choices have a right to know where they fall in the mix.The search chair and search consultant need to be able to convey with integrity their best sense of the candidate’s position.

Obviously, search committees want to keep as many candidates as possible in play, allowing them to be vetted properly and giving the search committee time to think through the school’s needs and options. The search consultant is expected to hold the pool’s interest. But the search consultant needs to be able to convey the messages professionally and to inform candidates when they are unlikely to move forward and when they are likely to receive more information about the committee’s interest.

Given how far in advance searches are being planned and launched today (18 months to two years), letting the timetable slip can result in the loss of the top candidates. This can lead to the perception that the school has to fall back upon lesser candidates, even if the “lesser” ones really are NOT any less qualified but simply in a position to handle the changing timetable better.

III. Selling the School

Searches are all about finding , vetting and selling top candidates. The selling aspect is something that all search committees need to take seriously from the beginning. The means convincing the spouse or partner and family members, as well as the candidate, of the appeal of the school, city, region or country.

Scheduling visits for semi-finalists and finalists is a complex task. In the interest of time and the budget, only finalists may visit. It is the search consultant’s responsibility to provide a detailed template for the visits including suggested meetings with the major constituent groups and with the advisory committees (if applicable) and a parallel schedule for the head’s spouse or partner. On the school’s side, a search committee member can assist the head of school’s assistant or other staff member to ensure that every detail such as accommodations, airport transportations, meals, etc. is covered. While candidates expect a packed schedule and the pressure to sell themselves , the schedule should not be overwhelming and exhausting.

On the other hand, a much more low-key and discreet visit is essential for a confidential candidate unwilling to risk his or her existing position. A breach of confidentiality gives both the school and the search consultant a black eye.

Many search committees will find early on, especially if no one has been around since the last search, that the committee needs a short course on salesmanship . A good search consultant can and should suggest, remind and advise.

John C. Littleford
Senior Partner

The Core Principles Of A Successful Search: Advice For Boards And Heads

A few years ago this Consultant published an article about the pitfalls of the head search process and the keys to its success. Littleford & Associates has conducted and observed head searches worldwide since that time, and it is clear that the same patterns of behavior (and misbehavior) and the keys to a successful outcome have not changed. Miscalculations and mistaken assumptions inherent in many searches may jeopardize landing the candidate of choice, undermine a new head or damage the relationship between him or her and the board. The lessons heard are worthy of repeating.

I. Inside Candidates

One of the first challenges facing 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, such candidates often 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 unhappiness and disgruntlement. In the worse 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 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 contenders who see the handwriting on the wall early on. What if some new information or a new development makes the internal candidate less attractive, or a deal cannot be struck? There is no desirable outsider to whom the school can turn.

One School recently 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 Assistant Head 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.

Thoughts:

  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. Do not waver.
  2. Do not appoint the inside candidate as an Interim or Acting Head. That will drive away savvy, qualified outside candidates and give the insider 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.”

II. Compensation Issues

In a recent situation a Head candidate was told by the Search Consultant that he would be hearing from the Search Chair with an offer. The value of the total offer was less than what he was currently receiving. The Candidate was a self effacing type for whom negotiating was unpleasant and was dismayed to receive such an offer. He declined it.

Even after repeated attempts to reopen the dialogue and renegotiate, the Candidate refused to budge. He felt that such an offer may well reflect the kind of board with which he might be working. All parties felt the effects of miscommunications and let down. The School Search Committee was forced to start anew as none of the other potential candidates were the caliber of the one who rejected the offer.

Sometimes after receiving an offer, the finalist raises the “ante” by asking for pay or benefits that were never 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 at one time and 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 find him or herself under more pressure to perform.

Thoughts:

  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.In one search led by another firm, the Search and Board Chairs called Littleford & Associates and said that they thought that the bargaining would be simple but that the Candidate kept making new requests. The Search committee felt pressed both by the total amount needed to meet the expectations of the Candidate and by the jump it represented from the predecessor’s package. The predecessor was a woman who had been promoted from within. Females and insiders are often underpaid in the marketplace. The recipient of the offer was a male with many years of headship at two prior schools. He knew his value and turned the bargaining with the Search Chair over to his financial advisor.

    The Advisor’s tone and corporate style offended the Search Committee. The initial agreement began to unravel and Littleford & Associates stepped in. Schools often hire our Firm for this purpose. We asked the Candidate to remove his spokesperson from the equation and to specify his priorities. We asked the Search Committee to step up to meet the most reasonable requests. The parties struck a fair deal.

  2. The candidate should lay all of his/her cards on the table but NOT prematurely as that conveys arrogance. Communicate openly with the search consultant and chair about which issues are negotiable and which are not.

III. Concern Regarding Education of Children and Meaningful Work for a Spouse

There is a range of key transition issues, but most head candidates will not consider seriously an offer unless the educational choices for their school age children meet their various needs. In a recent search the Search Chair flew across the country to make an offer in person to the Board’s first choice Candidate and that offer included the School’s plan for meeting the unique academic needs of the Candidate’s daughter. On the other hand, If the inability of the school (or alternative local schools) to meet a child’s needs satisfactorily becomes clear, it is best to be upfront as soon as possible so both parties can pursue other options.

In another recent case, the Head’s spouse reluctantly gave up her promising marketing career in a large metropolitan area. The move to a new school seemed o be the ideal opportunity as well for the spouse to stay at home with the couple’s young children. However the family is missing her income and she is missing professional fulfillment. The head support committee must address these concerns or they may gradually erode the Head’s and the family’s desire to remain long term.

IV. Looking for the Messiah or the Charismatic Leader

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 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 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.”

It is very important for the profile to signal priorities among the long list of desired traits and qualities. But even after doing so, search committees often choose someone very different from the profile developed initially. That is because “chemistry” and a successful visit often trump the official skills stated in the profile.

Thoughts:

  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.

V. The Pendulum Effect

One School replaced a long serving, beloved Head with a younger dynamic visionary who brought enormous energy to the School. He set out to implement the long list of changes that had built up over time and that the Board demanded. The new Head quickly became perceived as showing insensitivity to the School’s traditions and cultural norms and pursuing change at a pace that was not sustainable. He was gone within three years and became labeled the “sacrificial lamb”. A diplomatic charismatic leader replaced him.

Thought:

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.

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 understands and applies the principles of healthy board 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 scare 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.

A head search should not be a democratic process. 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.

Thoughts:

  1. Avoid choosing anyone for either the search or an advisory committee who may have a hidden agenda.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. The Importance of Transition Planning

Boards love the excitement of the “hunt.” The search is the easier more exciting stage compared to the transition phase when most schools drop the ball either out of fatigue or lack of knowledge or guidance.

Thoughts:

  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 micro manage the head or be intrusive.

All searches that result in the selection of outsiders cause some loss of momentum for the school initially. PATIENCE is key.

VIII. 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 AND misleading a candidate to the extent that he or she jeopardizes his or her current position gives the school a bad name.

IX. 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.

X. Conclusion

The search is a process that becomes far more complicated in some schools than others. We have seen small schools with clear cut needs experience a very difficult search due to highly sensitive cultures. We have seen large multinational schools conduct a very sophisticated search culminating in a widely acclaimed selection.

The key steps in the process are simple:

  1. Hire the right search firm (or conduct it in house but have a board member undertake it who has the time and instinct to do it well).
  2. Establish an appropriate timetable.
  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.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

The Head Search, School Culture and Trust in the 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 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 non profit), 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 prior knowledge or knowledge that he or she works diligently to acquire about the school’s culture, mission, history and the political realities that may be landmines for the next head or CEO.

I. The Dynamics of the Consultant/Search Committee Relationship

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. If the consulting firm has worked with the school in the realm of governance, strategic planning, school climate, institutional assessment, faculty compensation or evaluation that consultant may be very well positioned to know the type of head candidates who are mostly likely to succeed in that school and its unique culture and meet the expectations of the board, staff and parents. 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 in theory, the head of school is accountable to the board only, in practice he reports to many constituent groups which all effect the length and success of his or her tenure.

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 insights. The assignment could be a governance workshop but should also include focus group meetings with the parents, staff, students, alumni. Most important is acquiring an understanding of the faculty and staff expectations and factions and divisions within that culture which may affect the tenure of the new head.

The consultant will not receive sufficient insights simply by posting a standard online questionnaire on the school’s website to gather input from interested constituents about the qualities most sought in a new head or the challenges that he or she is likely to face. Everyone wants “God on a good day”, and these days everyone wants to take a school “from good to great”.

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 trumps all others.

At that point, the search consultant needs to have enough knowledge about the committee members, the board culture and membership 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. Transition: More Important than the Hunt

Readers of this Newsletter know that Littleford and Associates has been concerned for years about the lack of substantial transition planning for new heads and CEO’s. The excitement and challenge of the hunt and chase take precedence over the planning for that new head to succeed. Expectations will be high and board demands and pressures will be quick and heavy for him or her to move on agendas and produce results.

From this consultant’s experience working with 2500 schools and many other non profit organizations, most of the leaders chosen 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 a five year stint may be considered a successful tenure by some, it is not long enough to leave a lasting impact or legacy upon a school.

Most boards do not choose to go through a process of thinking about governance and transition issues and holding a workshop on that theme with the new head or CEO present. At one client School a new Head was appointed after what appeared to be a thorough search process. Even though the candidate had visited the School twice and had a good feeling about the Board, he did not know the degree to which personal and extended family relationships, a powerful network of nepotism, existed within the Board, parent and faculty communities.

While a very few of these long standing and often moneyed family relationships were known to the candidate, the degree and depth of them were not clear. Early on, the Head ran afoul of the cousin of one Board member who was on the faculty. That faculty member worked effectively behind the scenes to undermine the new Head with the relative on the Board because the Head had mentioned the potential need to drop Latin and consider the addition of another modern language in the School curriculum. The teacher with the Board connections taught Latin.

While there were other problems and a complex web of intrigue beneath the surface, this initial misstep by the Head lead to his departure after three years. Latin remains in the curriculum. The search consultant knew superficially about some of these family relationships but not about the extent to which they existed among the faculty and staff and the degree to which they permeated the staff culture.

In another search the one 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 candidate who was unsympathetic to faculty concerns.

The search consultant had suggested the make up of the search committee without understanding fully that the real reason for the last Head of School’s departure was the same pattern of behavior: there had been a split between the board, parent and faculty factions on the search committee and the same grudging acceptance by the faculty representative of the final choice of that Head. The faculty representative (although it could have been the parent or alumni rep as well) was waiting for the new Head to slip on the first banana peel.

III. The Contract: More than Just the Money

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.

When this consultant was leading one west coast search, the desired candidate found himself unable to sell his home in a weak market. Nevertheless, he was willing to accept the package offered by the search chair through the consultant.

This consultant told the story of when he was first hired by Bill Yardley, then Head of Chatham Hall as a young teacher. Years ago, he offered me and I accepted the princely sum of $5,000 plus room and board. When the offer later came formally in the mail, it was for $7500. While I was thrilled at the increase, I was also worried that it may have been a mistake. When I called Dr. Yardley, he told me that it was the correct amount and he was looking forward to seeing me. I never forgot that generous gesture. My loyalty to him and the School was predicated in part by that initial message of commitment to me and my family.

When the Chair of this west coast search committee asked me if the new Head was satisfied with his package, I indicated, “yes”, but that his wife would have to stay behind to attempt to sell the home. The Search Chair then asked: “Would an additional $35,000 help in that matter?” I told him I was sure that would be appreciated but unnecessary to sign the candidate. He asked me to tell the candidate that even though he had verbally accepted the formal offer, the School would up its offer to assist with the transition.

I suggested that the Chair make the call. Twenty minutes later the candidate called me and said excitedly, “Why did he offer me $35,000 more when I had already accepted the earlier offer?” I replied, “Because he is smart.”

The other moral of this story is never to underestimate the importance of the happiness of the spouse or partner and children in the head search and transition. Their needs and how welcome they feel in the school community will make or break the partnership between the new head and the school. It is the search consultant’s job to remind the search committee to be attuned and as responsive as possible to the family.

In an example of a search which had run so smoothly until contract time, the Search Committee Chair faxed an offer to the candidate. The offer was actually less than the value of the total package that the Head was now receiving at his current school. The search consultant had not done enough digging to calculate the total value of this Head’s package. The candidate was a clergy person receiving a tax free housing allowance and 18% in church pension, both of which were unknown to the School making the offer. The candidate was upset and offended but in his self-effacing way was not about to negotiate for a better offer and thus rejected it. This precipitated an angry response by the School to the consultant for not having done his homework.

In another case, and one of those rare ones, the Board Chair told this consultant that he wanted to attract the strongest possible pool of candidates in the world. Asked what the highest paid independent and international school heads were earning at that time, he responded about “$500,000 to $550,000 in total package value. (It is now closer to $675,000). The Chair indicated a willingness to pay whatever was necessary.

In the final group were some of the most experienced and highly regarded school Heads in the world from Canada, Europe, the United States, Australia and the UK. Every one of the candidates in that search pool had packages from their current schools in the $400,000 to $550,000 range. The School landed its first choice and negotiations were easy. The clarity at the front end about the likely salary and benefits package generated a huge response from the best candidates in the world. You often get what you pay for. The candidate selected is widely admired and accepted by all elements of the community. It was the right fit.

Knowing the school’s or non-profit’s culture and the political currents within it; having a solid relationship between the consultant and the search chair; understanding the risks of transitions; knowing how to provide clarity on the package from the outset and when to “close” the deal are just a few of the often overlooked but key ingredients in a successful non- profit search process. It is a very different animal than a corporate CEO search.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Fascinating Facts About Internal Succession

Many school heads and some boards know that still today up to 70% of all heads are fired, most often meaning that their contracts are not be renewed. However, most will land other headships and will not have the circumstances of their departures known publicly.

The reasons for such high turnover continue to be imbedded in the politics and turnover of boards, the loss of institutional memory on boards, the failure of the head/chair partnership and the lack of knowledge by heads about how to move into a school culture and monitor it carefully before undertaking potentially unsettling change.

Most heads become undone by the nature and pace of changes they institute, often at the behest of their own boards. Search committees set unreasonably high expectations and goals for a new head, as well as overly aggressive timetables for achieving the desired changes.

More than 90% of independent schools in the US choose an external candidate and the majority of those will be “fired” within 3-6 years. The 10% that choose internal candidates will have a much higher success record, and most internal candidates succeed and stay long term. Why is this?

Of course, promoting from within is more complicated than it appears. Multiple internal candidates will complicate the search, cause political divisiveness in the school, and raise risks for outside successors if one of the insiders is not chosen. If there is one powerful internal candidate who is popular but for whatever reason does not receive the “nod”, then the opportunity for political misbehavior and undermining by the faculty and possibly the parents during the new head’s term is raised substantially. Unpopular change can be subtly thwarted by the disappointed internal candidate. Of course, quite often internal candidates overcome their disappointment and simply work with the new person.

Search committees need to counsel strongly against the consideration of any internal candidates if it is clear from the outset that they are not strong prospects, and the purposes of carrying them along in the search are solely to make them feel better and to appease constituents. Instead this almost always ultimately makes them feel worse, more disappointed and thus to some extent, more dangerous to the successful transition to an outside head of school.

So why is it that so many internal candidates, if chosen, DO succeed? Internal candidates know the culture, the players, the politics, and the history. If they have been highly regarded by the faculty, board, parents and students and even alumni, they begin their tenure with major political capital. Insufficient internal political capital trips up most new heads who make changes without having earned and accumulated the capital first.

Internal candidates, even genuinely viable ones, are passed over most often because “familiarity breeds contempt”. Many board members want a new start, want to test the national market, and feel that an internal candidate may be “captured” by the culture, reluctant to make needed changes and lacking the vision to improve the program and curriculum. On the other hand, internal candidates have the greater ability to implement change effectively because they know how much the culture can endure and how various key or powerful individuals within the faculty, board and parent body may respond to certain kinds of change.

The stronger and more unique the internal culture, the more the school should seriously consider appointing an internal candidate and foregoing the cost, “excitement” and stress of a search. If the culture is a strong, distinct one admired by many, and if it is a hallmark of the school, then an internal candidate is almost always the stronger leading choice. This ASSUMES that the Board has enough information to know that the insider possesses the strength of character to be a change agent when appropriate and not JUST a conserver of the culture.

Should there be a search if there is a strong viable internal candidate? Many consultants and boards would say “yes” as in theory, the search then strengthens the credentials of the internal candidate if he or she is chosen eventually. They want to be able to say that one or more internal candidates were compared to a national market and “we ” still chose the insider so he or she must be the best one.

This can be a false scenario. Most often searches with very strong internal candidates drive away strong external candidates who can sense the tone and sniff the wind. They also know full well the odds against being selected or succeeding if chosen over a popular and powerful internal candidate. In this consultant’s view, there are occasions when it is better in this circumstance NOT to conduct a national search but RATHER to undertake a subtle set of interviews or focus groups with key constituents in advance to decide whether a search is really needed.

In the corporate world, it is common to provide for internal succession, but that seldom happens in independent schools. Why? Control is often the defining trait of a powerful, successful and long term head. However, such control also leads to the head’s natural reluctance to allow internal heirs apparent. Such successful heads may launch their careers elsewhere, but in fact one sign of a wise head can be one where over the years many strong second tier administrators are trained successfully to lead their own schools.

However, it is also a good idea to have at least one internal leader whom it is obvious to all could lead the school if the need arose and in whom the head and board have great confidence. It is not impossible to build internal succession into the head transition process. It does fly in the face of the kind of leaders we have tended to choose in the past, with a high need for control and therefore a great reluctance to hire strong internal leaders who could become the next head. A controlling leader DOES ensure mission integrity. It also makes it difficult, however, for insiders to be chosen who can and will succeed.

If external hires fail and are fired so often and if internal candidates are seldom appointed but almost always succeed when they are, then the whole search process and expectations of schools and boards needs to be reviewed seriously for major flaws in our expectations and our searches.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

The Search and the Departing Head: Valued or Forgotten?

The manner in which a board treats an outgoing head could impact substantially the nature and success of the search for his or her successor.

A young Head was hired at age 30, to replace a veteran “war horse” Head who had served twenty-four years. While the retiring Head had almost rebuilt the School from a near demise some years before, in his last years, he could not be fully present due to health issues. Some felt that the School was losing momentum and that some misbehaving faculty were not being held accountable.

The Board of friends and loyal supporters decided reluctantly to ask the Head to retire early at the age of 59. He agreed to this decision with some resentment.

The new Head was assertive, focused and had a strong administrative track record despite his young age. He seemed to be exactly what the search committee was seeking, or so they thought. The “polar opposite” pendulum began to swing, however, as the new Head with no head experience replaced the elder statesman. There was neither an acknowledgement of a transition period nor any thought of the concept of transition.

The new Head received the same benefit package and school-owned home plus 20% more salary. The retiring Head was living off a modest retirement benefit as the Board had never really benchmarked his pay package and was thus surprised about what the market demanded it pay to land a qualified replacement. This only upset the retiring Head more. In the new Head’s first year he began to “hold court” to disgruntled long term faculty who felt that the new Head was treading on their privileged positions that had become entrenched during the retired Head’s last three years.

Finally, after eighteen months of the former Head stirring up trouble, the Board asked him to leave town at least for one year. He responded that if the Board would take care of his under funded retirement asset, he would be pleased to oblige.

The Board set up a deferred compensation plan with sufficient up front funding. The new Head and Board made the commitment to ensure that this plan was managed and would grow appropriately.

With that assurance and having left the area, the former Head stopped meddling in school politics. The new Head, now in his third year, began to seek advice and counsel from the former Head. The two became eventually fast friends, and the former Head was invited back often for ceremonies and activities. Upon the departure of the “new” Head, the now long retired Head returned to praise him at his final graduation.

Many lessons were learned from this not so unique case history, i.e., how to: handle a search; plan for a transition; honor a long serving retiring head; prevent the departing head from meddling in school business; and rebuild a fractured relationship between an inexperienced new head and a long serving but “wounded” former one.

Heads of schools tend to depart from their schools according to one of the following four patterns:

  1. The Head’s Legacy Remains Intact and an Ongoing Role is Needed and Valued

    In this case, the head leaves on his or her own steam having given adequate notice. After an intermediate or longer term, the head is honored appropriately and perhaps even plays a modest to substantial role in fund raising or consulting with some form of compensation.

    There is usually a generous severance arrangement equivalent to a full year’s salary called either severance or a “sabbatical.” There is trust that the head will work comfortably with the new head after an appropriate time away and that the new head will have significant say over the degree of involvement of this predecessor.

    In other words, the separation is amicable and the leaders understand and respect appropriate boundaries. Chemistry or a tacit agreement between the two generally prevents trouble. The departing head is honored and available as needed, and the new head is not impeded or intruded upon. This occurs usually when a valued head is retiring and not moving to another school. The school appreciates the value of the fund raising contacts and political clout of the former head and both may be wielded to help support and shield the new head in the transition period.

    In some cases, the new head was the assistant or associate head who was promoted from within. The vast majority of such internal promotions succeed in part because the new (but “insider”) head understands the legacy of his predecessor and would hope to receive the same generous and honorable treatment.

    In one School, a ten year Head who had made major contributions to the School on many fronts recommended that the Board seriously consider the Assistant Head as her successor. The retiring Head felt the Assistant could and would obtain a headship elsewhere and the School might well not find a candidate as strong. After some exploration of the options, the Board decided to appoint the Assistant as the new Head, but only after another year of transition of working with the outgoing Head. The entire community was educated about the transition and accepted it warmly. There were no bumps in the road.

    The outgoing Head will remain on as a consultant for two to three years, focusing on fund raising. The rising Head and the outgoing retiring Head have had a strong professional relationship as this wise Head gave more and varied leadership opportunities to the Assistant to allow him to mature in the role. While not common, this kind of transition can be one of the healthiest.

    In another case, the long serving outgoing Head, whose roots ran deep as a former student and teacher, was replaced by a colleague from another school. The Board gave the outgoing Head a four year appointment to assist with a major capital campaign. The incoming Head gave strong endorsement to the arrangement and honored the former Head during their time together. The departing Head kept out of internal school politics in the transition. The two remain friends and colleagues.

    In contrast, some long term heads have difficulty letting go. Some want to be on the search committee, to influence it overtly or from behind the scenes. This is more typical of “founders” who fear letting go of their “baby” but it is also common among tireless leaders whose identity may have become defined by the school, and they view it as their primary source of gratification.

    There are also those former heads who stay in the area and play host (either openly or behind the scenes) to a chorus of critics who make a bee line for that person’s door to gossip about the new head. In one School, a popular Head, as part of his retirement package, was given a house close to the campus. During the fall of the new Head’s first year, the former Head was seen greeting the students and parents at the front door of the School and at the end of the day in the carpool line. These are types of behavior that are beyond the range of acceptable for a retired head.

    In another School, when the new Head was absent from campus at conferences or meetings, the former Head would return to visit for a day, apparently at the invitation of faculty still very loyal to her. She would reconnect with parents and teachers and sympathize with their complaints about the new regime. In both of these situations, the Chairs did not address this behavior with the prior Heads, and the new Heads felt “caught between a rock and a hard place.” While they knew they were being undermined, they also knew it would be politically disastrous to criticize (or appear to criticize) the beloved former Head.

    Fortunately the vast majority of heads who leave on good terms with their boards have other appealing options or healthy retirement plans and recognize their need to leave their former school alone, almost totally, for at least one or two years, unless the board has given them a specific role.

  2. The Typical “Parting of the Ways”

    The head leaves with an amicable separation and plays no further role in the life of the school, but may be invited back to visit some years later. He or she may receive a modest severance at departure. There is usually another headship that follows. The search is not affected significantly but the legacy of the head may not be honored or celebrated much in departing. The new head is aware that the school has little sense of the tradition of valuing the contributions of the outgoing head.

    This is not a crisis and is the norm of most transitions where the departing head is moving on to another school and was not “fired.” However, independent schools tend to have a bad habit in such situations of not maintaining appropriate connections with these former heads who can assist the school with important contacts and who may have left a valuable legacy.

    No egregious errors have been made here, and there is little fallout from the separation. There is regret only in that many valuable former heads are allowed to depart without ongoing recognition of their work, and this may have an impact on how the new head views the board. Retention of a connection with former heads signals to the new head that the school values tradition, continuity, and fairness and treats departing heads with honor. Wise boards and heads invite past heads to return periodically to be a part of the tradition and history of the school. Heads should not fear former heads who have been away at least a year, and heads should take the lead in maintaining the connections.

  3. The Seemingly Amicable Departure

    In some cases, the head’s contract is not renewed and the separation may be professional but not amicable even though the outside world may not know of the reasons or the nature of the unpleasantness. There is no compensation or severance support for the departing head. However, the disagreement and termination are kept within the bounds of propriety allowing both parties to move on. The new head is not necessarily distrusting, but he or she has received the signal or subtle message that the school and board may not have an inclination to treat an outgoing head with at least a tradition of honoring his or her contributions.

    In this scenario, wise heads will want a stronger contract with tighter language regarding separation and may want an attorney to review the document which this consultant always advises. Amazingly, the vast majority of heads never have their own attorney review a contract before entering into a relationship with a new board and school.*

    This kind of separation is fairly common within independent schools. However, in this instance, new heads are more likely to play their bets safely, and perhaps wait to sell a former home until the security and trust of the new assignment is clear over the first three years. Trustee behavior in the first three to five years will signal to this new head whether the worry and anxiety were justified.

  4. The Unpleasant Public Separation

    There are also those unfortunate situations when the head is fired before the contract term was completed and the entire community is aware of this, including the external world of prospective new heads. There may be a legal disagreement and challenge about the terms of separation. The search for the new head certainly will be affected as the word is out in the public domain. Generally, outstanding candidates will tend to avoid this search or will probe at great lengths with the search consultant and committee about the reason for this dismissal before even considering the position.

    Boards that engage in this kind of termination (unless for moral turpitude or gross misconduct) can engage in this behavior again. This may represent a serious lack of good governance practices and immaturity in trustee selection, training and behavior.

    Of course, there may be a very legitimate reason for this separation. It may be simply that the head was ineffective. However, the school did choose and hire this person, and the manner in which the school fires him or her sends a signal about how it does or does not play by the rules of the game.

    In another case, the Head was called to the local country club for an unexpected executive committee meeting. Upon his arrival, he was fired and told to clean out his desk at school on that very day. He had received a quite positive evaluation three months earlier, and his contract had been extended. There were no moral or legal reasons for his dismissal. However, a new member of the executive committee had enough sway over the other members that they followed his strong desire to be rid of the Head.

    The School did not honor the termination provision of the “not for cause” scenario. The Board assumed the Head would not retain a tough attorney and not go public but would settle in order to avoid any implication that he was terminated for some serious grievance. The move backfired, the Head sued for the full severance amount, and the newly launched search was aborted. An internal Interim was appointed from the ranks of the BOARD. Two years later, the Board conducted a more “normal” search in an attempt to sweep away much of the nastiness of the prior firing.

    This case received widespread attention, and the School has never really recovered fully from the “word in the street” about this firing. Prospective heads still hear a version of this story from the independent school grapevine whenever the School launches a new search.

  5. Conclusion

    Boards should never make the assumption that their behaviors are not known outside of their internal school community. How boards and search committees handle the prior head as well as the search will be a defining moment for boards and will reveal to potential candidates and newly hired heads how such a board may treat them.

    *Contracts are generally neutral, balanced and fair in tone or clearly favor the board in any kind of separation. Infrequently the contract is weighted in favor of the head, but this is usually only true in situations where there is a founding or a very long term head.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Doubts At The Altar: When Searches Fail

The miscalculations and mistaken assumptions surrounding many searches can mask serious underlying issues that may jeopardize landing the candidate of choice, undermine a new head or damage the relationship between the newly appointed head and board.

Serving on a search committee is an honor and one of the most important responsibilities a trustee will ever undertake. The chair plays a pivotal role, not only in the search but in ensuring a smooth transition for the head.

  1. Inside Candidates

    One of the first challenges facing a search is how to deal with internal candidates. Some search committees believe it is wise to suggest that one or more insiders throw their hat into the ring. While the old adage “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” may seem to have some merit, such candidates often have little or no realistic chance of success. If the “run” they make is destined to fail, the school will be left to manage their unhappiness or disappointment. In the worse case, the bypassed insider could undercut the new head with teachers or parents.

    The assistant head of one school asked to be considered, but the search committee turned him down. Having been there about 25 years, his flaws were only too well known, often why search committees do not choose insiders. He was also the confidante of the prior head.

    In the new head’s second year, the assistant head began sensing and stirring up unrest among faculty. He became a subtle rallying point for teachers making an end run to the board suggesting that the board should not renew the new head’s initial three year contract. The assistant head met with the board chair and while acknowledging some of his own mistakes in dealing with the new leadership, laid out a long list of alleged issues with the new head, including an inability to understand “our” culture. The assistant head made it known to other board members that if they did not renew the contract for the head, he would be willing to serve.

    Sometimes there is one strong inside candidate whom the board really wants to appoint but feels that it must undergo a search in order to satisfy the community; engage in a “transparent” process; and to grant legitimacy to that individual. Such a search normally discourages the best contenders who see the handwriting on the wall early on. The word is out that the insider is clearly preferred. What if some new information or a new development makes the internal candidate less attractive, or a deal cannot be struck? There is no one waiting in the wings.

    Less than 10% of inside candidates are fired, while almost 80% of new “outside” heads will be fired or not have their contracts renewed within their first five years. Choosing an insider thus seems to ensure greater stability yet independent schools seldom make that decision. Schools tend to want “fresh blood,” unless tradition and the culture are deemed to be so important that an outsider could not really adapt to it or might make efforts to change the culture in ways that would upset faculty and alumni.

    Thoughts:

    1. Discourage any but the strongest. Convey your decision firmly early on to any “inside hopefuls”. Give a consistent clear message to the school community about that decision and do not waver.
    2. Do not appoint the inside candidate as an Interim or Acting Head. That will drive away savvy, qualified outside candidates and give the insider an unfair advantage.
    3. Make a complete informed and objective assessment of whether the insider fits your profile, and could do the job very well and whether a formal search is really necessary for the “optics.” A highly qualified inside candidate might indeed BE the best choice. It is not always crucial to conduct a formal search given its real costs and attendant political (and potentially damaging) maneuverings by various constituents to choose their preferred candidate. Another important consideration is transition time: inside candidates need little time to adjust to their new role while outsiders need at least three years to do so.
  2. Compensation Issues

    In a recent situation a head candidate was told by the search consultant that he would be hearing from the search chair with an offer. The value of the total offer was less than what he was currently receiving. Apparently, the search consultant had not probed sufficiently or counseled the search chair adequately about compensation expectations in the marketplace.

    The candidate was a self effacing type for whom “negotiating” was unpleasant and was dismayed to receive such an offer. He wrote back to the search chair that he would decline, and the search chair called the consultant in a panic. Even after repeated attempts to reopen the dialogue and renegotiate the package, the candidate refused to budge. He felt that such an offer may well reflect the kind of board with which he might be working. All parties felt the effects of miscommunications and let down. The School search committee was forced to start anew as none of the other potential candidates were the caliber of the one who rejected the offer.

    Some search firms charge a fee which is a percentage of the value of the candidate’s first year salary. This is standard practice in the business world and moderately common in the non profit world. However, it can backfire and be perceived by some as a conflict of interest.

    In one recent case, the search committee wanted to offer a package to the candidate of choice but made a very conservative offer, well aware that the higher the offer, the higher the amount they must pay to the search firm. That was a miscalculation as the candidate opted for another job, based at least in part on the perceived “low ball” offer.

    Sometimes after receiving an offer, the finalist raises the “ante” by asking for things that were not a part of the original compensation conversation with the search consultant or the search chair. These might include spousal employment, remodeling the head’s house, or other after thoughts. They could be totally fair and natural OR it could indicate a future pattern of behavior by the head of conveying one sentiment at one time and changing course unexpectedly at a different time or for a different audience.

    The chair may grant these requests in order to land the preferred candidate, but an underlying resentment about that may linger, and the new head may find him or herself under more pressure to perform.

    Thoughts:

    Ensure that your search consultant is skilled in negotiating the complete compensation package and can bring quick “closure” to the process OR seek an outside experienced facilitator to do this.

    In one search led by another firm, the search and board chairs called Littleford & Associates and said that they thought that the bargaining would be simple but that the candidate kept making new requests. In fact, during the early discussions, the search committee received the impression that he might be willing to move to this less expensive part of the country for less money than he was receiving currently. Now the candidate was balking. He told this consultant that he had never intended to imply such a thing and he would not be coming for less than his present package.

    The search committee felt pressed both by the total amount needed to meet the expectations of the candidate and by the jump it represented from the predecessor’s package. They had not anticipated this. The predecessor was a woman who had been promoted from within, and females and insiders are often underpaid in the marketplace. The recipient of the offer was a male with many years of headship at two prior schools. He knew his value and turned the bargaining over to this financial advisor to discuss with the search chair.

    The advisor’s tone and corporate style offended the search committee. The initial agreement began to unravel. At that point, Littleford & Associates was retained. Schools often hire our Firm for this purpose even though they have used a different consultant for the search because not all search firms have the same degree of expertise in negotiating the final agreement.

    We asked the candidate to remove his “spokesperson” from the equation and to specify his priorities. We asked the search committee to step up the offer but not to cover some of the non essential and “side bar” items. Ultimately, the candidate found the job attractive enough not to risk losing it over some relatively minor points.

    Some few years later, the head is still at the new school and has built a solid record of accomplishment with the School and a strong relationship with his board. His package has increased commensurate with his performance.

    Thoughts:

    1. Consider negotiating a fee for the search consultant, unrelated to the final salary package for the candidate.
    2. For the candidate: As much as possible, lay all your cards out on the table. Know on which points you are willing to give ground and which are nonnegotiable for you and your family. Communicate openly with the search consultant.
    3. The more protracted the negotiations, the greater is the potential for damage to the relationship between the new head and the key board members who have been entrusted with the responsibility of reaching an agreement. Your search consultant may or may NOT have the most complete data available on all aspects of the package: salary, retirement plan options, housing and other benefits. Littleford & Associates has undertaken over 2000 such reviews worldwide in the past 22 years. Our firm has the most comprehensive database in the world on this topic.
  3. Concern Regarding Education of Children and Meaningful Work for a Spouse

    Most head candidates will not consider seriously an offer unless the educational choices for their school age children meet their various needs. A school engaged in a head search lost a very qualified candidate due to the lack of local educational resources for her child whose special needs were critical in the evaluation of the options available. The search committee made every effort to find accommodations, but the area resources and curriculum were simply not a fit. If the inability of the school (or alternative local schools) to meet a child’s needs satisfactorily is a “deal breaker”, it is best to be upfront as soon as possible so both the school and the candidate can pursue other options.

    In another recent case, the head’s spouse reluctantly gave up her promising marketing career in a large metropolitan area. The new school’s more rural location made any reasonable and comparable job opportunities unlikely. The spouse’s feelings of a lack of professional fulfillment increased over time and gradually eroded the head’s and the family’s desire to remain long term.

    Or, a spouse may have been gainfully employed in a satisfying position within the former school. This could be the role of the “first spouse” which can be a demanding AND gratifying (and sometimes a paid) job. This is often the case in a boarding school or in any school where supporting the head in major fundraising efforts is particularly important. If there appears to be no value placed on the “first spouse” role in the new school, or there is no suitable internal position available then the spouse may again feel a lack of professional fulfillment.

    Thoughts:

    1. Important transition issues encompass a broad range such as the children’s education, the spouse’s employment and suitable medical services. (More on the transition committee below.)
    2. It is not unusual for a school to pay for the tuition of the children locally, if the new school does not provide the appropriate context or grade levels. Note that this is a taxable benefit. The school may or may not gross up the benefit in order for the head to remain ‘whole” from a tax point of view.
  4. Chemistry with the Search Committee and Chair:

    The successful candidate will create some chemistry or a “connection” in the search process. The old adage that the first and last and/or most charismatic candidates have the edge does appear to hold true. A rapport between the search chair and candidate is crucial to the candidate’s belief that the search chair is really the leader of the committee.

    In one search, the chair allowed faculty, parents and other board members to influence unduly the direction of the committee. The semi-finalist and finalist candidates eventually picked up on that signal as they heard the personal agendas of members of the school community. It raised doubts in their minds about who was in charge then and who their “boss” would be.

    Candidates need to feel a bond either with the search chair or with another key member of the committee. They need to be sold on the school fully as much as they are trying to make their own case. Search committees that just “screen” and do not sell, or appear to have handed over the process to one or more vocal constituent groups, often lose their first choice candidates and either settle for a second or third choice or start the search again.

    Thoughts:

    1. Search chairs need to guide their committees firmly. There can be only person who interfaces fully with the search consultant. The candidate needs to hear one “voice”, even if that voice is a consensus reflection of the Committee.
    2. The partnership of the chair and head is a well known ingredient in the health of schools and boards. Many of those partnerships are forged in the process of the search as the parties get to know one another. 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.
  5. Looking for the Messiah or the Charismatic Leader

    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 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 and impressive academic credentials. He or she should also be a prodigious worker whose door is always open.

    Yet it is important for the profile to signal priorities. A statement of the top one to three qualities that are MOST needed at this stage of the school’s history is critical to attracting candidates who may be the best fit.

    Ultimately, search committees often choose someone very different from the profile developed initially. That is because “chemistry” and a successful visit often trump the official skills stated in the profile.

    School search committees express a desire for someone who has “presence” and “magic” with people. Thus, there are many schools that have chosen form over substance, flash over long term effectiveness and people pleasers over those who can make the critical and sometimes tough decisions.

    In a search for an elementary school head position, someone with outstanding university and secondary school credentials but little elementary school background or experience submitted a resume. Due to a connection between a search committee member and this applicant, an interview was granted. The candidate wowed everyone with a very engaging personality and was selected. He lasted two years and his contract was not renewed.

    Thoughts:

    1. There is no perfect candidate. Every candidate’s strength is also his weakness. The key qualities are basic people and organizational skills. Technical expertise can be learned or bought in the marketplace. The vast majority of schools have heads who grew to become great financial managers, fund raisers and marketing whizzes but who knew very little about those areas when they first became heads of school. Furthermore, the best leaders know how to build a strong team which buffers and complements his or her weaknesses.
    2. Most heads are former teachers. Most teachers are care givers and not risk takers. Most heads are risk averse, and that flows from their growth from the teaching “mode.” The more analytical the head, the less charismatic he or she may appear. BUT the more successful he or she may be in the long run for having not made decisions that modify or affect the culture too quickly.
  6. The Pendulum Effect

    One school replaced a long serving but tired head with a younger dynamic visionary who brought enormous energy and drive to the school. He was exactly what the school thought it wanted, and he set out to implement the long list of changes that had built up over time and were being demanded by the board. The new head quickly became seen as a “bull in a china shop”, i.e., being insensitive to cultural norms within the school and pursuing excellence and change at a pace that could not be endured. He was gone within three years.

    He was succeeded by a “healer” with a laid back non confrontational, “diplomatic” style. That was what the school needed until five years later when that head saw a need to assess whether his style was providing effective, forward moving leadership for the school. Board members and staff were beginning to raise this question. He had the wisdom and flexibility to make some necessary modifications in his approach within the limits of his style and age. He thus enjoyed a long tenure at this school.

    Thoughts:

    Try to 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.

  7. Lack of Healthy Board Governance

    All searches will lead to an unhappy outcome if the board does not have first an effective chair and a well trained board who understands and applies the principles of healthy board practice. Most search candidates can pick up signals about governance through interviews in the search process. Trustees who speak out of turn, criticize the previous head and gossip about fellow trustees or administrators send the message that this is an unprofessional board that could turn quickly on the next head.

    One of the most positive draws for a candidate is knowing that the board operates professionally, seeks to learn and enhance good governance behaviors and particularly that the committee on trustees functions effectively in selecting, evaluating and guiding trustees.

    The need for professionalism extends of course to the search committee. Handling reference checking with complete confidentiality and diplomacy, especially involving sitting heads whose interest is not known to his or her current school is of paramount importance. The search consultant must provide some formal guidance and training in this matter.

    Boundaries and channels must be observed at all time. There can be no side bar communications between the search committee and other constituent groups, including other board members, unless part of the rules agreed upon at the outset.

    Thoughts:

    Healthy governance behaviors and good practice begin with the committee on trustees, the most important one on the board. It is charged with cultivating, screening, inviting, orienting, training, evaluating, warning and if necessary, removing trustees.

  8. The Importance of Transition PlanningBoards love the excitement of the “hunt.” “Long live the king” refers to the search for a new head that excites and inspires the search committee. The “king is dead” is the reality about the departing head.

    The search is the easier stage relative to the transition phase when most schools drop the ball either out of fatigue or lack of knowledge or guidance. The transition phase is crucial.

    Thoughts:

    1. There needs to 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 figures in the faculty, parent body, board or alumni.
    2. The transition committee is also charged with helping 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 first year.
    4. Such a committee should not micro manage the head or be intrusive. Its primary function is supportive and advisory.

    All searches that result in the selection of outsiders cause some loss of momentum for the school during the two to five year transition time when the new head adjusts to and changes the culture, policies and personnel to varying degrees. Fairly high turnover of teachers and key administrators in the early years of a new head’s tenure is common and can cause some consternation within the community. It is important to avoid overreacting to such events which are to some extent natural and appropriate.

  9. The “Middle Man Theory” : When an Interim is a Good Idea

    This is also known as the “sacrificial lamb theory” because the person who follows a valued very long term head is often gone within three years. Why? The departed beloved head often attains “sainthood.” These schools might have done better with an Interim head who could release the internal pressures of praise (or criticism) about the previous head, allow a clean airing of previous hidden problems, and not saddle the new leader with being seen as a polar opposite of the valued outgoing head.

    Thoughts:

    Interim or Acting heads are 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.

  10. Search Committees and Their Private Agendas

    In the formation of the search committee it is important to determine whether the search will be centered only in the Board, include some non board members such as teachers, alumni and non board parents OR whether there will be advisory committees of students, parents, faculty and alumni who may meet semi finalists and finalists and give their to the board search committee.

    A head search should not be a democratic process. Letting too many people have input and a role can be risky. Non board members have no training in basic board governance, such as maintaining confidentiality and respecting boundaries and channels. As soon as the new head makes a “misstep” one constituency or another (typically the faculty) reports that he or she was not their first choice in any case.

    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 such as sports, or will carry out their particular curriculum agenda, such as LD or gifted programs that would serve their own family’s needs.

    Thoughts on Search Committee Members:

    To the extent it is possible avoid choosing anyone for either the search or an advisory committee who may have a hidden agenda.

    Train ALL committee and advisory committee members, with the help of the search consultant, on appropriate questions and behavior towards candidates.

    Remember that the professionalism of these committees reflects upon your school and is the first “voice” that the candidate hears.

  11. Search Strategies

    In one head search, the school was quite intrigued by a local candidate, currently a Development Director, who seemed to be a good fit with its profile. The search committee passed on one other qualified candidate in order to invite the local prospect for a visit. Once the local candidate’s current school learned of his interest, it promised him the headship there, his ultimate real goal. He declined the invitation to continue in a search. The search consultant did not know the real motives of the candidate his firm presented, and the candidate who had been passed over was no longer interested. The board was furious at having “wasted” a pick, and the search consultant felt misled.

    Thoughts:

    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 or the loss of other good candidates who may wonder what is “wrong” with the school.

    Conclusion

    The search is a complex demanding process, but becomes far more complicated in some schools than others. The complexity is not based necessarily on the size of the school. We have seen small schools with clear cut needs experience a very difficult search due to highly sensitive cultures. We have seen large multinational schools with very sophisticated needs in their new head where the board chair firmly led the search process to a widely acclaimed choice.

    The key steps in the process are simple, however:

    1. Hire the right search firm (or conduct it in house but have a board member undertake it who has the time and instinct to do it well)
    2. Establish an appropriate timetable
    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 and fair with all.
    8. Sell all comers on the reasons why they should want to head your school
    9. Be totally professional at all times
    10. Ensure a successful and smooth transition by making transition a priority

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Retirement Planning For Heads Of School: Some Useful Tools To Get There

In interviewing over 50,000 teachers worldwide in the past 20 years on the topic of their compensation, over 95% of them could not relate their exact salary, much less the amount they have accumulated in their total retirement assets.

Most heads are not any more knowledgeable about their total asset picture. Like teachers, they tend to be caregivers. Furthermore, their absence of personal financial planning may pose some long term challenges.

  1. Which “Experts” Does a Head Need?Most school heads fail to hire an attorney when a contract is offered or renewed. Their trust is high. Yet, even the board chairs of highly reputable national schools have advised this consultant that they believe heads would be wise to seek legal counsel before signing a contract and that a good board would insist on it, for the longer term health of the relationship between both parties.

    Many schools now offer financial planning services for faculty, staff and for the head of the school for a modest fee, and sometimes it is offered pro bono. It is important for a head of school from the mid 30’s on to have a financial planner and tax advisor, preferably one who is also trained as an attorney. Many schools provide for these services as part of a head’s contract, and if not, this is not an unreasonable request for a head to make. The financial planning advice should come from a certified financial planner not a broker or insurance sales person interested in selling specific “products.”

  2. Which Benefits are Typical and Which Can a Head Legitimately Request?Heads of school often have major tax protection by virtue of living in a school owned home, with the corresponding tax free benefits of utilities, and other housing amenities. These are tax free (according to most tax attorneys) IF the head is living in a school owned home at the wish of the Board, and does school related entertainment and some oversight of the school from that home. This should be documented in the head’s contract for the school’s and the head’s protection.

    Recognizing that living in school-owned homes does not allow a head to acquire equity in a home of his or her own, some boards assist the head in the purchase of a permanent retirement home with an interest-free loan forgiven over time. However, most boards, while not shying away from considering this benefit, are at least being very careful about compliance, transparency and “optics”.

    Usually the school car is leased and provided to the head. The head declares that portion of the car that is used for personal or commuting purposes and pays the tax on that portion. Thus a $6000 annual lease value, with 20% personal use, means the head is paying tax on $1200 of benefit.

    Some heads ask their boards about long term medical care. Generally, boards will not consider this as it sets a precedent and can become costly as the amount of the future liability to school is unknown. However, for valued long term heads and teachers, many schools will carry the head on the school’s medical plan, often at school expense, until the head reaches age 65. Many will also provide a supplemental or “wrap around” plan for Medicare at school expense, up to and even beyond age 70.

    TIAA/CREF and similar 403 (b) investment vehicles form the front line for asset accumulation and most heads find their school putting in between 7% and 14% of base salary, depending on school policy and longevity of service. Heads should be maxing out their own contribution limits beyond these school contributions. Deferred compensation is the next higher level of savings.

    Deferred compensation or 457 (f) plans are the most powerful and widely used tools by which heads are attracted, rewarded and retained. It is also the primary vehicle through which most which school heads are building their assets for retirement.

    Many heads in the country will retire with more in their non qualified deferred compensation plans than in their 403 (b) accounts. Contributions to deferred compensation plans are considered at “substantial risk of forfeiture” and represent school owned money until the head retires, becomes disabled, resigns, is fired or dies. At that time, the money is taxed unless another provision has been made in advance for the extension of the “risk of forfeiture” provision.

    “Split dollar” life insurance plans should be phased out in favor of deferred compensation plans because split dollar plans, lacking this “risk of forfeiture” provision, may attract IRS scrutiny.

    It is not a good idea to have 457 (f) plans in place if a school’s finances are “iffy” and thus, the “at risk” provision means a powerful risk to the asset. Deferred compensation can be made up of the head’s own salary reduction in a non qualified deferred compensation plan as well as from contributions from the board. The board’s contributions may be funded or unfunded, in the near term, annually or longer term. Once those monies are in the plan, they cannot be withdrawn until the employment relationship is severed. They grow tax deferred.

  3. What are a Head’s Prospects for Employment Upon Retirement?The vast majority of heads naturally try their hand at the consulting profession upon retirement. A very few make a “go” of it due to the greater than anticipated travel and marketing demands of the profession.

    A very few heads continue to work at their own school or other schools in other administrative capacities such as development or admissions. However, few heads are really comfortable hiring former heads.

    An even fewer number of heads find positions in local, regional or national foundations. These are almost always a product of key board connections, or alumni or parent contacts that have been built over time. Such opportunities are rare and yet they can be landed if a head knows which strings to pull and is adept at long term cultivation of prominent members of the charitable communities that have helped the school over time. There are about twenty such positions being held today by former school heads across the land. However, twenty is not a high number considering the number of heads “retiring” every year.

  4. A Sample Profile of a Retiring HeadJason is 58 years of age and the age when most heads are ready to leave the profession. He is planning to retire in July, 2005. He has been a school head, at this school and one before, for 25 years. His TIAA/CREF asset to date from all sources totals $850,000. He has amassed $560,000 in deferred compensation during the nine years his plan has been in place with his current school.

    For his retirement, the school has arranged to turn over to him the leased car he has been driving. It will also provide two years worth of salary and benefits upon his departure, both to reflect a full year sabbatical he was once offered and never took, and to provide one year’s severance in appreciation of some eighteen years as head of this school. Together these assets represent approximately an additional $500,000.

    Having lived in a school owned home most of his career, Jason and his wife have bought a permanent retirement home in another state. That home has been in a shore area where the family has rented the home out each summer for $30,000. Based on those years of rental, he owns the home debt-free.

    Jason’s wife, while never working for the school in a paid capacity, has been his faithful support system, working with the children and the families of the school for many years at no compensation. The Board has decided to provide her with a one time gift, a trip to Europe for the two of them for several months. This gift in fact comes from a donor family to the School and is thus taxable to the head. The gift in turn is prompted by the board’s reasonable desire that Jason distance himself from the school and community for a period of time so that his successor has the comfort and space needed to establish his headship.

    Jason and his wife also own a condo in the town where their school is located. Their daughter has lived there for many years, paying a modest rent to her parents.

    Most former heads of Jason’s age are not ready to sit by the lake all day. Jason plans to do some consulting for a search firm with a number of regional partners with whom he has built a network over the years. He hopes to garner two or three searches a year and possibly some additional consulting work, adding perhaps $50,000 a year to his bottom line.

    However, realistically Jason should expect and be pleased to earn a modicum of income to supplement his regular retirement with the added benefit of staying “connected” to the business and his peers.

  5. ConclusionIt is important to note Jason has been able to build a MORE diverse retirement portfolio with GREATER total assets than the majority of heads. He was able to acquire at least this much financial security as a result of the following: a long-term headship; a proactive supportive board made up of key ‘CEO types” who understand the tools and importance of retirement planning; and the assistance of a financial planner.

    Retirement planning and security are thus a function of many key elements: a good contract which protects the head and the school; sound financial planning advice; strong disciplined savings in a 403 (b); the addition of deferred compensation; saving to buy a home; and a board that values the head’s service sufficiently over time to ensure there is a “soft landing” after the years of hard work.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Powerful Elements of the Head Search Process: The Risks of Transitions

Among the key ingredients to a successful search and a smooth transition of leadership are:

  • Avoiding the natural “trap” of choosing a new head who is the polar opposite of the preceding head in style and personality.
  • Understanding how school culture and the circumstances of the prior head’s departure may affect subtly the search outcome in positive and negative ways
  • Managing the expectations of all constituents who have direct or indirect input into the selection of the new head
  • Keeping the candidate “pool” engaged and the search committee open to “thinking outside of the box” right up until the final selection
  • Devoting MORE time to identifying, anticipating and managing transition issues than to the search process itself. WHY?
  • Mentoring new heads on the importance of assessing school climate; managing the pace of change; and building key board and constituent coalitions. Who shares in this important responsibility?
  • Designing an appropriate and competitive compensation package that adequately meets the needs of the new head’s family and the school while taking into account the culture of the community and media attention.

A skilled search consultant serves as an advisor to the search committee, the board and also to the incoming head, when necessary. Training search committee members in how to manage a search process is crucial to success. Training them as well in how to handle transition questions, how to probe references, how to operate as interview teams, and how to make the most of the school’s scarce search budget in attracting candidates and bringing them to visit informally is a hallmark of the search and transition services offered by Littleford & Associates.

  1. The Search
    1. Circumstances of the Head’s Departure

      In independent schools the opportunity to launch a search process takes on a life of its own. The process and outcome depend first upon the circumstances of the prior head’s departure and his or her legacy. In the case of a retiring long-term head, the school community becomes quickly consumed by the attitude, “the king is dead, long live the king!” in the early stages. This is human nature, of course. The successful outgoing head may feel somewhat discomfited by how quickly he or she seems to be relegated to the past even though accomplishments are praised.

      In the case of a head who has been “fired”, i.e., the contract has not been renewed, the departing head may feel relief, disappointment or anger depending on whether he was “prepared” or blindsided. The reaction of parents, teachers and alumni, who may be misinformed or not fully informed about the decision, can affect and possibly undermine the search and transition dynamic and make it almost impossible for a new head to succeed. The Search Committee and constituents may set up the new head for a very difficult transition especially if too much overt or subtle criticism is directed at the prior head by either the board or the new head.

      In one school, the head accepted the Board’s decision not to renew with reluctance and disappointment. In subsequent months, alumni and parents sought to have the head reinstated while the search for a successor had already been launched. The head, feeling naturally buoyed by this outpouring of support, did not discourage their efforts. A new head has been selected with the backing of the full board, but he faces a difficult entry and transition period.

      Search committees tend to recommend and board choose a replacement who is often 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. This pendulum swing can be averted by the guidance of a search firm that understands typical patterns of behavior of search committees and encourages a balanced outlook.

    2. Trustee Patterns of Behavior

      Searches can be exciting. Opportunities to recruit applicants, interview them and speak to references 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.

      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 may 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 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 assured too early about a single candidate.

  2. The Compensation Component: Transition Warnings

    An experienced head was recently appointed to a new school headship. The prior head of school lived in his own home purchased when housing was readily affordable. The Board learned that it could not recruit nationally a candidate of quality without providing school housing. Once the candidate was chosen, rumors begin to circulate among parents and faculty about the cost of the home for the new head.

    Even before he arrived, the new head took a direct “hit” for the new house. The community assumed that the HEAD insisted on this purchase. This policy decision to buy a head’s home should have been announced at the beginning of the search. It should have been communicated that the home would be a valuable school asset and that in many schools, living in school-owned housing is a condition of employment. Any flak would have been deflected from the new head.

    In another case, a veteran school head had just been offered a new position. The Search Committee and Board Chair were both surprised when it was time to negotiate the package. At various points in the search process, the compensation expectations of the newly chosen head were conveyed to the Search Chair but not to the Board Chair, who thought the package might be modest initially until the school’s finances improved. The search firm had assured the candidate that the offer would be very competitive and similar to his current package. These miscommunications caused both parties to feel uncertain about the discussions. The successful outcome was not without some tense moments that might have potentially damaged future relations among all parties. The expectations of the parties had been quite different and “assumed” or underestimated until the final stages. It is important that the search consultant keep all parties on the same page throughout the process.

    Occasionally, the compensation expectations of the candidate of choice may be unrealistic or inappropriate. Buoyed by his status as the finalist, a newly invited head of a very prestigious well-endowed school put forth an aggressive compensation proposal. In this case, the consultant hired by the board to facilitate the negotiations needed to advise against an overly aggressive starting package, despite enthusiasm on both sides about the selection.

    Political sensitivity was the key in this situation. The outgoing popular head’s salary was comparable to the proposed new salary, and that head was feeling “cast aside”. Total compensation must be benchmarked relative to the market, but the Board must be aware of the feelings of the departing head as well as building upside potential and incentives into the new head’s package. The final offer contained strong future incentives to offset a lower starting point.

    Once the new head has been chosen, the compensation decision is an opportunity to build upon she goodwill that has been created and to design the evaluation process and reward components, if comfortable for both parties. This happens IF a search consultant with experience in the independent school world has knowledge of the various components of compensation packages. The firm informs the search committee in advance what it MAY take to land the candidate of its choice. Thus, the groundwork can be laid to avert any surprises that may undermine the selection of a new head or the acceptance of an offer. Littleford & Associates works for the 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.

  3. Transition Issues Begin Immediately

    Most search committees and boards pay little attention to the aftermath of the selection of a new head. These are the “transition” issues. And they are HUGE. Many heads are “fired”, the vast majority in their first five years and the majority of those in their third year. Search committees need to spend as much or MORE time and attention in planning for the successful transition (which takes three to five years), as it does for the search itself.

    This time, attention and energy needed for transition issues seldom takes place. The board and search committee naturally want to celebrate and move on. Yet the work is actually just beginning. In addition, it may be a good idea for a trustee to oversee the smooth departure of the outgoing head and to ensure that her accomplishments are appropriately celebrated. How the departing head feels and how she may convey those feelings to the community can affect the new head.

    Transition issues inevitably surface regardless of the new head’s experience and often trip up the head and the board. Littleford & Associates is currently conducting searches and advising schools where transition issues are being explored and planned for as part of the PRE-search phase. These include clarity about compensation expectations of talented heads, workshops for the board on preparing for the search but also preparing for the transition and spotting the transition issues. These need to be tracked for a three year period.

    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 in school life. Those often involve changes regarding faculty quality, evaluation procedures, accountability, parent relationships, financial controls, expanding marketing efforts etc.

    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 and schedule to name a few. These changes were acknowledged as being needed and/or desired, yet each one was met with resistance at some point from one or more constituent groups. Five years later, while the school finds itself in good shape, the climate remains unsettled. This head may ultimately represent the “sacrificial lamb” or the “middle man” who paved the way for the next leader who may serve 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.

    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. An annual evaluation process is essential, with the head’s performance being measured against a manageable agreed upon set of goals. Personal “style points”, should not enter into the process.

    In addition, the head’s personal life must not be overlooked. If he or she has a spouse 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 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. The partnership was close to dissolving.

  4. The Importance of Assessing School Climate

    School climate and change issues are a major area of activity for Littleford & Associates. Our firm has been engaged by an increasing number of schools worldwide where either experienced or school heads new to a school are struggling with board factions, splits, and indecision over whether to back a head when an incident or series of actions stirs controversy among the communities served by the School.

    These changes in school culture may be related to the consistency of discipline being applied, including some where the children of board members are involved. Some parents want tough standards and others want “compassion” and flexibility. The new head may not yet know the culture well enough to avoid the political pitfalls and warning signals.

    Recently, in one client school, students were caught smoking marijuana near school, and another group was caught during a school trip. The new head dealt with each case firmly and on an individual basis depending upon the circumstances of the offense. The story appeared in the local press. Several parents questioned the severity of the disciplinary actions and ultimately the leadership of the School. The Board sought counsel on how to manage this problem from both a PR and governance/transition perspective. The final press coverage was a boon to the school.

    Other change issues center on curriculum, the departure of faculty, tightening up of student and faculty standards and codes of conduct, or perhaps control of an athletic program that may be out of “sync” with the stated culture of the school. ALL these issues are change issues that are a natural part of transitioning to a new head, but those involving faculty are particularly risky if the new head was not the faculty’s first choice.

    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 endowment, admissions and reputation, that their assurance 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.

    Transition issues can exacerbate tensions that are already present at the board level and in the culture of the school.

    While a board may not wish to form a “transition committee” following a successful search, all boards should study and explore transition issues AS PART OF THE SEARCH PROCESS. They should ask key individuals from the search committee to remain closely engaged with the new head. The goal is to ensure that the head has the appropriate guidance and support in understanding school culture and politics and to ensure a successful healthy transition for the head AND his or her family. The goal is NOT to let the new head step into a highly charged political issue unknowingly or not to back that head fully when an issue may arise.

    Newly appointed heads often seek guidance from Littleford & Associates relating to key issues and the politics of their boards surrounding these issues. Most often it is a negative faculty reaction to the head’s style or decisions that have undermined the head with the board. Often the head is acting under specific or assumed board direction to address certain problems.

    Mentoring heads new to the role 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, and sometimes, self and team diagnostic tools such as the Myers-Briggs assessment can be helpful.

    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 and governance structures 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.

    Establishing concrete ways to help, support, guide and keep the new head and to ensure school stability thereby is a hallmark of Littleford and Associates. Finding and mentoring heads, as well as conducting search and transition workshops to provide for long term healthy governance, are part of the many areas of our Firm’s expertise.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

The Next Generation Of Heads

There appears to be a plethora of ambitious young men and women who have the urge to lead and believe they can head a school as well or better than the current head. Other potential candidates from the business or university realms may be intrigued by the challenge of leading an independent school. The opportunity can seem alluring: the ability to lead change in some of the nation’s best schools.

What skills will the next generation of heads need in order to succeed? In our work worldwide with heads of school, as well as talented division heads and other administrators who aspire to this role, Littleford & Associates sees these areas of needed expertise as constantly changing and expanding. We provide assistance in identifying and addressing the challenges and the risks.

  1. The Skills RequiredThe key will always be a “student head”, someone who relates well to students of all ages but especially to middle and upper school students. Yet, once such a “student” head is hired, he or she will be asked to care for, nurture and support adults on an ongoing basis: faculty, parents, board members, and alumni. Nonetheless, we tend to envision the “ideal” head, who is known to the students and relates well to them. However, knowing the faculty and their families is a key to effective leadership in our schools.

    Stories abound about “great heads” who knew the name of every child and were in close touch with the family needs of their teachers. Knowing and caring about the students creates political “capital” with parents. Knowing and caring about individual teachers builds the same “capital” with the faculty.

    The next generation of heads will be required to have: greater knowledge and expertise in finance, fund raising, risk management, law, supervision, recruitment and replacement of teachers and staff, college and secondary school placement of students, parent relations, values education, organizational behavior and development, curriculum development, and technology.

    1. Financial Management and Legal IssuesIn the area of financial management, heads today need to be more knowledgeable about: accounting practices for non-profits, receivables, payables, managing skyrocketing insurance rates, investment policies, bond financing, building and construction issues, staff benefits, and banking relationships.

      Heads need to take their boards through the important exercise of assessing their “sacred cows”, meaning their treasured financial goals that are often in conflict with one another.

      The “Sacred Cows”, those “preserves” of all that we want, are:

      1. High Faculty and Staff Salaries (at least very competitive with the marketplace).
      2. Strong Program, Curriculum and Technology that is State of the Art
      3. Low to Moderate Class Size
      4. Appropriate Maintenance of the Physical Plant (to avoid deferred maintenance)
      5. A Strong Financial Aid Program to Help Ensure Diversity
      6. Management of Enrollment: Balance to Enhance Income (but Not Too Large)
      7. Moderate Increases in Tuition and Fees
      8. Enhanced Annual Giving, Endowment and other gift Income
      9. More Profit Centers (School Store, Dining Room, Summer Schools etc)

      The key to achieving the school’s goals, and yet balancing the budget and controlling expenses, especially in a time of economic downturn, is to know how to balance the “Sacred Cows.” Schools can do this in a way that the board, faculty and administration support through appropriate education and understanding the trade offs involved.

      In one client school, the health insurance rate increases came in during late August 2002 and caused employees to pay $50.00 a month for the first time for the Preferred Choice Plan as opposed to an HMO for the individual premium. The monthly family premium almost doubled from $360 to $650. No matter what the explanation, the head of school is feeling the heat for these increases. He is expected to know a quick way to heal the pain of a “hit” that made recent salary increases disappear completely in paying for these new premium rates.

      Financial planning is but one piece of the overall strategic planning exercise. Strategic planning experience will be vital in that quiver of arrows of multiple talents for the next generation of heads. HOW do you organize the strategic planning process? It is a process, not an application of a generic formula. Is the school culture really ready for a democratic approach seeking wide opinion and buy in, or will that approach in a particular school polarize opinions, politicize constituents, and create an energy drain for the new head?

      In the legal area, it will be necessary to know more than a modicum about basic labor and employee law. Potential issues are the legal implications of a staff member with AIDS, a child with a contagious disease, an age discrimination lawsuit, sexual harassment or molestation by a current or former employee, and the legal outcome of proven bullying. There are legal repercussions as well to bomb threats and inadequate campus security. The recent tragedy in a client school of a number of students lost in an avalanche while on a cross country ski expedition points up the challenges. The group was well prepared, had the proper beacons for location in deep snow, and the leaders were expertly trained. There was no avalanche warning. Yet children and staff still perished. How this School copes with these challenges will determine whether the community will be divided or strengthened through shared loss and recovery.

    2. Uniting Various Constituencies Behind the MissionIn the area of curriculum development, the new head will be expected to articulate the mission, lead the vision and tie that vision to the past so that it is deeply rooted in tradition. At the same time, the vision must be innovative and relevant to the present. The head must challenge the faculty and parents to make that mission valid for the future. Heads will not be able to turn over curriculum to a coordinator and assume all is well.

      Managing change and school climate is already politically “prickly” and will become a more time consuming and essential element of serving as a school head. Knowing how to change, when and what to change, whom to influence, and with whom to negotiate, will be a required talent. Some schools will feel that it is too risky for the head to acquire this important skill “on the job”.

      Managing the Board will be a vital task. Some successful heads spend up to 40% of their time in board related activities, supervision or cultivation. While this may seem excessive, knowing board members, their children currently enrolled at the School and their present and potential contributions as trustees enables heads to know that their boards are “behind” them, but not far behind! Trust builds confidence. When a crisis occurs, if board members know and trust the head they are more likely to support the leader.

      One new head learned several profound lessons about building relationships with key board members. In his first year, he received a call from the police of a city in the frozen north where the hockey team went for a tournament. Most of the players had been arrested for “streaking”, i.e, running nude through the city center. When the police checked the hotel rooms, they found cheerleaders and alchohol throughout. Upon the team’s return the new head told the popular hockey coach that any touring teams would require a “chaperone” for the coach. The coach said if the head did not trust him to run the trips alone, he would resign. The head said, “I accept your resignation.” Immediately, the coach mentioned to a number of faculty that he had just been “fired.” The next day the front page of the newspaper blared the headline: “New School Head Fires Hockey Coach!”

      That new head learned the power of sport within a school and of strong chairs. At an angry gathering of parents and teachers who were calling for the head’s resignation some two weeks later, the board chair, with whom the head had already built a partnership, stood up to speak. He said: “We hired this head for a purpose. He is doing exactly what the board has asked him to do. I own a construction company, and work in a rough and tough environment. I have learned to wear “iron pants.” If you intend to roust our new head, you will have to go through me and believe me, you won’t get there!” The head has been there a very long time. The chair’s remarks were critical to his survival.

      Managing constituents is a crucial challenge as more and more heads, boards and schools are vulnerable to an “attack” from faculty, alumni and/or parents. These are often unexpected, and the board and head are caught off guard searching for an appropriate measured response. The use of e mail as an organizing tool against school heads and boards has already reached the level of an art form. New heads will need to devise a quick response mode to e mail attacks.

      Some heads are lucky, are some are unlucky in the caliber and greatness of the chairs with whom they serve. One chair of a prominent day school encouraged his mid term head to take a break and apply for a year long sabbatical. While the head was interested, he could not afford the school policy of a full year at half pay. The chair encouraged him to apply to a local foundation for a grant supporting the other half of his salary. Fortunately, the head received both the sabbatical from the school AND the grant from the foundation. He had an outstanding year of learning in a special mid career program at Harvard. Several years later the chair died unexpectedly. The widow met with the head, and both shared stories of their affection for this special husband and chair. The widow then revealed that the foundation “grant” was entirely donated by her husband, the former chair. The current value: $120,000. No pressure here on current board chairs!

    3. Parental ExpectationsBalancing parental expectations of what schools can realistically accomplish requires excellent communication. It requires good negotiation to build partnerships with the home for those goals that should be accomplished together, as well as to refuse to take on assignments that belong in the family unit alone. Yet, it can be risky for a new head to challenge parental demands.

      Addressing, managing and reacting to social issues such as drugs and alcohol, promiscuity, eating disorders, special needs issues, medication issues, etc, will all pose an increasing challenge to that new school head especially in defining the role of family versus school.

      In one recent client school a head was asked in a parent assembly if he believed in an “absolutist” view of no drinking, in line with the state law of no drinking under the age of 21? Or did he believe in a “designated” driver strategy since kids “will drink anyway”? Half the audience in this meeting felt that the absolutist view was the only right answer. The other half felt it was ludicrous to believe that parents or the School could really deter teenagers from drinking. A melee broke out in the audience and pushing and shoving ensued. Those who wish to serve as heads will need strategies for these issues.

      One of the greatest challenges for the new head will be that of protecting his or her integrity from the constant wear of moral “nibbling” around the edges about admissions and fund raising pressures.

      In a recent client case, a board member/donor threatened the head through a series of letters suggesting a coaching change for his son’s team. His $500,000 pledge was never openly put on the line, but the implication was that it would not be paid if the head did not consider the trustee’s wishes.

    4. Marketing Fundraising and OutreachThe development and admissions functions today require a marketing head. This head understands the pros and cons of parent opinion surveys, sells the key “niche”, and builds the centers of excellence that distinguish great schools from average schools.

      The next generation of heads will need to be able to ask for money and succeed in obtaining it. The head will be unable to expect and ask that the trustees alone undertake this role. One head told this consultant: “I don’t do fund raising and the board knows that and supports me in this.” This is not a viable long-term fundraising strategy for any School.

      Heads will need to be international in reach but local in focus. The challenge is to seem “available” and “approachable” in a job where the head cannot really be “all things to all people” while at the same time, meet complex external demands. Independent schools are becoming more global all the time, not just in attracting new students, but in managing diversity, technology, partnerships with other institutions, curricular change and the risks associated with school sponsored travel.

      Many heads already have mastered the majority of these talents and recognize that new and varied challenges are rewards of the profession. The key is that the current generation of heads learned most of these skills on the job, and the next generation may not have time or “space” to do so. This generation will be expected to handle a crisis with wisdom, not by “trial by fire”. The nature of these crises will change dramatically from what they were ten years ago.

  2. How to Train That Aspiring Head?Some heads have sent a legion of administrators out to become heads. One school head known to this consultant counts 10 current or former heads of school who started their careers with him at this or a prior school. What does it take to generate and launch that talent? Obviously, some heads hire talent according to the old adage that “Number ones hire number ones” (and “Number two’s hire number threes”.), and these individuals naturally gravitate to become leaders of their own schools, sooner rather than later. In the interim, they greatly benefit the schools that they serve.

    There is a natural training ground for aspiring school heads who work with inspirational heads. It can be summarized in these words: exploration, delegation, challenge, responsibility, leadership and opportunity.

    Essentially, the current head finds ways for aspiring heads to EXPLORE new realms, DELEGATES to them RESPONSIBILITY by CHALLENGING them to find solutions, and them offering LEADERSHIP niches and OPPORTUNITIES to grow.

    Whether the topic is parent education, a challenge from a constituent group, a new marketing concept, a planned giving idea, a special events concept, a curricular innovation, or a way to improve school climate and staff morale, the aspiring head needs opportunities OUTSIDE his or her current realm of responsibility and assigned leadership. This can be accomplished by serving on committees, sitting in at board meetings, taking charge of specific “out of role” assignments, trouble shooting functions, etc.

    These opportunities are most lacking in the realm of financial management. Yet a skilled head can navigate these waters by ensuring that the chief financial officer helps the aspiring head understand how to deal with key budgeting, building and finance issues.

    How many school heads provide these flexible opportunities for their aspiring heads? Do they even know WHO their aspiring heads are? Some candidates do not share their ambition while others make it clear.

    More open and direct as opposed to accidental mentoring of aspiring school heads will help the independent school movement in this country. The number of “fired” heads, heads who have been unceremoniously removed or whose contracts have not been renewed, is ALSO teaching a lesson and SHOULD teach a lesson to the next generation of school heads. They will need a formal multi year contract, a formal annual evaluation process, and the knowledge that even great heads get fired. Developing an ability to put their families first or risk the stress and pain of family troubles is a lesson learned too late by many school heads.

    There is a workshop for “new heads” every year sponsored by NAIS. There are even budding attempts to build leadership teams and offer workshops for aspiring heads. We are still searching for methods that effectively teach the next generation of heads the core skills necessary not only to survive but to thrive in the role. A “quick course” does not exist about how to know every faculty family, circumstance and child’s name while being a sophisticated business person who understands profit centers and curriculum, bond issues and phonics, labor law and the principles of educating boys versus girls!

    Littleford & Associates provides mentoring to new chairs and heads as well as to experienced ones. Our firm conducts workshops on board governance and transition planning. We assist boards in developing appropriate head compensation packages and in evaluating heads fairly and professionally. We are also working now to help attract, develop and train that new generation of heads and to help ensure that they succeed through ongoing, on the job training.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Is It "The End"? And If So, Then What?

The lifespan of a head at any one independent school is relatively short. According to research by Littleford & Associates, an inordinately high percentage of all heads are fired, even though the public message about a head’s departure is usually a different one. On a positive note, this high turnover of headships means that the majority of heads have a “second life” as a leader of another independent school. In preserving future options, however, heads need a good sense of intuition about the “drift” of things, a good contract and a board willing to negotiate a flexible and fair separation, whether that separation occurs unexpectedly or with notice.

  1. The First Step: Ensure Longevity in the Position

    Completely aside from the important ANNUAL head evaluation process, a successful school head should also do the following:

    1. Spend a significant amount of his or her time working with and cultivating EACH member of the board. The most effective way to do this is to visit with each trustee at least once or twice a year to gather:
      • informal feedback on how that trustee views the head’s performance;
      • input as to how the trustee feels about his or her own service as a board member and how the head may be able to enhance the satisfaction of that service; and
      • feedback on how the trustee’s children are doing in school if the trustee is a current parent.
    2. This may seem like a large expenditure of time and effort, but it is one of the keys to longevity in any headship position. Some schools heads may feel they have little time to undertake this task. However, it is important to do so to whatever extent your time allows. The investment pays off in better rapport with the board.
    3. Communicate regularly and directly and develop a positive, working partnership with the board chair. Be sensitive to the demands of his or her personal and professional schedule while ensuring that your communication needs are met.
    4. Help to ensure open and effective dialogue between the chair and the rest of the board, making other trustees feel valued and invested in the School. A minority of troubled boards encounters difficulty because the partnership of the head/chair is perceived as too close and insufficiently critical of the head.
    5. Create opportunities for board members to become better acquainted with one another, trust one another and have a fairly high degree of unity. Thus when a crisis does occur, the board is more likely to support the head fully without breaking into factions. An annual retreat for strengthening good governance and unity is a “must.” These are very important investments of time.
    6. Undertake change carefully, analytically, and with the support of key administrators and faculty.
    7. Avoid terminating a long term or “longer term” teacher unless you have already established a reservoir of substantial good will among the teaching staff and have been the head for at least three to five years. Otherwise, if such a termination is necessary, the head will need to prepare the board very well, beginning first at the executive committee level. International school heads will feel pressure to move more quickly and generally may be able to do so.
    8. Keep a watchful eye, not only upon the level of support emanating from key trustees (including the chair), but from the “invisible board” of outsiders, parents, past parents, alumni or other prominent school supporters. Such individuals, if irritated sufficiently, can maneuver a head’s dismissal quite effectively.
    9. Understand the importance of the loyalty of your own key, second tier administrators such as the business manager and division heads or deputy heads. A powerful and popular division head who gives public support but private disapproval about a new head, for example, can undermine that head sufficiently for the head to be fired.
  2. How Do the Signals Emerge?

    Warning signals emanate most commonly from the board chair in the form of distancing behavior, visible frustration and/or frequent stated or implied criticism. Any board meeting, or meeting of the executive committee or small groups of trustees, without the head, is an almost certain sign of an impending termination.

    A lengthy delay in contract renewal or getting the contract signed and delivered MAY be a sign of loss of support. The head may mistakenly assume the contract is harmlessly buried in a pile at the lawyer’s office.

    Any public protest, “town meeting” or “open forum,” in which the head comes under attack or serious criticism and board members do not publicly and firmly support the head, is another signal of a weakening of board resolve.

    Heads who are absent too much for professional or personal reasons, seem isolated or appear consistently defensive about criticism, may also be courting trouble.

  3. III. How May A Dismissal Be Conveyed?
    1. The Civil Approach

      In some schools, the head is given sufficient notice to allow time for a reasonable search and departure. The board leadership is also willing to articulate support to head hunters and potential employers. In these cases, the outside world may not really see a “dismissal.”

      If the contract stipulates 18 months or more notice of non-renewal, and the head’s contract is not renewed, this termination usually will end with “honor”. Unfortunately, in our experience only about half of all terminations occur with this kind of professionalism.

      In order for this more graceful ending to occur, there must be a contract in place, the stipulations of termination “without cause” must be clear and fair, and the board must have sufficient goodwill not to force the head out without honoring the terms of the contract. Boards learn these important behaviors from good governance training. These are boards where the committee on trustees has done careful screening and selected trustees of high moral character with a sense of “fair play.”

      This form of separation allows both parties to remain “whole”, to acknowledge the positive aspects of the head’s performance internally and externally and to minimize rancor and disruption within the school community.

      However, there are two other very unpleasant forms of dismissal.

    2. Immediate Termination, No Legal Cause

      In our firm’s experience, this form of termination occurs in about a quarter of all dismissals. In mid winter, early or late spring, the head is notified that even with the contract still in force, he or she must depart by late June. This presents grave difficulties for the head since finding a new position on such short notice is nearly impossible. The head’s reputation and livelihood are also likely to be severely damaged from these actions. The head may need to seek legal counsel since an implied breach of contract may have taken place.

      Boards generally make this move only if they have already lined up someone-usually an insider, division head or another school head who has been solicited “off the record”- to accept the new headship on either an interim or permanent basis. International schools need a shorter time frame in which to find a new head as many of their candidates come from US public schools or other international schools.

      In these cases, most boards have decided they will pay the sometimes considerable severance stipulated in the contract. In a few cases, unscrupulous boards will rely on the head’s lack of personal resources and “stomach” for pursuing legal rights and not pay the compensation due under the contract.

    3. Immediate Termination: “Cause” Attempted

      In this case, either the head may have no written contract or no contract in force currently. The contract may have expired, and perhaps the head just assumed it would be renewed or felt it would be gauche to press to have a formal contract review. Perhaps the board’s attorney wrote the contract, and the definition of “cause” (no severance for dismissal) was broadened. The head either did not notice or did not have his or her own attorney check the contract language carefully.

      In this case, dismissal for “cause” might be stated to include: “insubordination”, lack of meeting the board’s goals, or a number of other softly worded indications that the contract can be terminated without compensation and without great legal or financial risk to the board.

      Often, very honorable trustees allow the school’s attorney to put in the head’s contract language terms that will leave the head helpless in case of dismissal for “cause.” The attorney believes that he/she is operating in the best interests of the school (the client), and the trustees are unaware of the potentially harmful implications of that language to the head’s future.

      The situation does not become dangerous until the board feels that the relationship is no longer working and wants out, but does not have the resources called for in the contract. Boards will sometimes then “reach” for a provision within the contract to push the head to leave and force him or her to take whatever settlement is offered.

      In most cases, boards should not agree to contracts of more than three years duration, with an “evergreen” clause. Contracts of greater length, if a separation occurs, may further press the board to consider breaking the contract, often hunting for reasons to do so to save the school the specified large pay out.

      Clearly, the board has the right and the need to terminate a head for lack of performance. In the world of independent schools, however, we have seen many instances in which terminations have been launched by political forces, fed by disgruntlement over a particular policy or administrative decision. This may not represent poor leadership on the head’s part. Such political actions often follow the departure of one or more staff members.

      When heads are terminated precipitously and without the opportunity to move successfully to a new position, they suffer real harm. Heads hope to avoid this latter situation by allowing issues to be resolved before they come to a crisis and by having an appropriate contract in place. Female heads, in particular, should not make the mistake of not wanting to appear too “aggressive” or “confrontational” and thus not insist upon a fair, well-executed and current contract.

  4. What To Do Next?

    Once word reaches the head, or suspicions are very high, that a termination is possible, the head should contact a few treasured friends and legal counsel. Legal counsel should not be someone connected to the School. While seeking an attorney may anger some powerful trustees, it is our experience that negotiations and dialogue tend to be unfair without legal counsel on both sides of the matter.

    When it is clear to the head that he or she is about to be dismissed, the first concerns are about one’s spouse, the children, their education, the school owned home, one’s reputation, and the ability credibly to seek another headship, once the “word” gets out.

    If the head is well connected, has built relationships with multiple head hunters over the years and key board members are willing to provide written and verbal support, then life will move on in a positive direction.

    A wise man once said: “Always have options.” Heads of school are wise to keep acquaintanceship active with several head hunters and to be seen by them as viable members of their “stable” of potential candidates. Active head participation in regional or national organizations may also keep channels open for search options.

    The most difficult scenario is one where the head receives notification in late spring, will lose occupancy of the school owned house, and where the children may be not be allowed to return in the fall. Even if the children are allowed to remain, and the house occupancy is extended for one more year, the head will live with discomfort and embarrassment. In our experience it is far better, therefore, for a head in such circumstances to negotiate a severance package that provides coverage for housing and for the education of the children elsewhere in the upcoming year.

    Most heads will try to keep the situation amicable, even if faced with a resignation letter placed suddenly before them. This unexpected scenario unfortunately occurs every year in some of the world’s most prestigious independent and international schools.

    No board should do this. No head should become passive and tolerate it. When the board simply wants the head “gone” as soon as possible for perceived poor performance and demands a signed letter of resignation, the head should ask for the reasons for the dismissal, in writing, and for time to consider them. Most often the recent evaluation process contained no clue of what may be occurring now. No discussion should occur in these circumstances no matter how hard pressed the head feels, unless that head is being accused of a legal violation. In that case, legal counsel is essential in any case.

    If the head involves an attorney, it is better NOT to put that attorney face to face with the Board leaders. It may be that no such discussion may need to take place. Thoughtful, analytical, legal counsel for the head may be enough.

    Boards are advised NOT to corner a head without options. If that occurs, a head worried about his or her future and family security may resort to actions that could damage both the school and the head’s own future options.

    No head, when evaluating a new position, should fail to explore at length and in depth under what circumstances the previous head left and how that head was treated in the departure.

  5. What Options To Consider If There is No Headship?

    Heads may not NEED to have another headship or highly compensated leadership roles unless they WANT them. Many school heads these days have set enough money aside in deferred compensation accounts so that they do not NEED to work again after age 58-60. Deferred compensation plans, when in place long enough, will provide a comfortable retirement. The standard retirement plan alone will not provide this cushion.

    Most heads, who do not want or cannot obtain another headship after being fired from a previous one, try consulting. Most do not succeed. Heads may have excellent skills as administrators and analysts, but they often underestimate the sheer volume of hours and energy which must be expended on marketing. Most heads, even if articulate, well liked and connected, mistakenly presume that their experience will put their services in sufficient and steady demand.

    Many other former heads, especially those who have led prominent schools, try their hand at “head hunting.” The success rate is low here as well because success is highly dependent upon influential connections. There are an extremely small number of ex heads serving in this capacity. Furthermore, many head hunters today are professional, corporate search firms which include non profit head hunting in their line of work.

    What else is available? Most heads do not want to hire ex heads as subordinates. The fear is that the former head may be so accustomed to power that he or she will not be able to serve in a capacity less than a headship. This is not true for most ex heads, who might actually be content and very effective as admissions directors, deputy or assistant heads, development directors, division heads or college placement directors. It can be quite a relief to move off the firing line, yet it remains difficult to reassure current heads of this reality. Former heads of school, however, represent a largely untapped reservoir of very skilled talent, and current heads might well consider hiring them.

    Very few business or foundation opportunities are available although a few ex heads with powerful connections do land foundation assignments.

    It is important to keep in mind that age discrimination is powerful in this business, as it is in many occupations. This is particularly so against males especially once a head reaches his mid to late 50’s. Women heads tend to come later to headships than men and face far less age discrimination when seeking new positions.

  6. Concluding Advice

    The key for all successful heads, who want to lead successful happy lives AFTER being a head, are simple:

    1. Do not let the job consume your life. You NEVER define the school’s identity.
    2. Always have options as a head of school and possibly in related fields. Always explore them carefully but discreetly on a regular basis and maintain your visibility with search firms.
    3. Ensure that if you have a spouse, he or she is securely employed, assuming that is possible and desirable within your family.
    4. Negotiate a solid contract with the appropriate legal safeguards and provisions in place. If possible, encourage the board chair to hire an independent consultant to oversee the design and approval of the compensation package to the benefit of all parties involved.
    5. Request a generous deferred compensation plan as part of the package. Deferred compensation has become one of the most important tools for retaining, rewarding and attracting heads. This is true worldwide.
    6. Remain optimistic. Keep in mind that the vast majority of “fired” heads land on their feet and find another headship, one where often they are happier than in the previous position.
    7. Remember that headship, while a risky profession, can also be a very rewarding one.

Littleford & Associates provides mentoring and coaching services to new heads, as well as executive counseling to experienced heads, in order to avoid the pitfalls and difficulties described in the article above.

On the topic of head compensation, Littleford & Associates has been retained by the board chairs of over 1350 schools worldwide to assist boards with the design, content and structure of head compensation packages and to benchmark these packages with comparable schools. The Firm works ONLY for boards on this matter and CANNOT be retained by a head of school for consultation or advice.

John Littleford
Senior Partner