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Board Members are accustomed simply to approving an annual percentage increase in the faculty salary pool. Few understand how salary system design can make teachers into winners and losers.

One international school embarked upon an extensive process of reviewing its faculty compensation and benefits package. The Board’s goal was to rein in escalating salaries and costs. The Administration’s goal was to have the ability and flexibility to recruit and retain top notch faculty in a competitive international market and a high cost local setting.

This project had potentially conflicting goals. Yet, the School took the plunge and engaged an external Consultant to get a read on its culture, faculty morale and their quality of life for each career and family group (single, married or with children).

The base salary for teachers at the top of the scale was over 110,000USD equivalent for as few as fifteen years at the School. However, entry level salaries were about 85,000USD. This gap between the starting and the highest salaries of less than 40,000USD created salary compression. The School provided neither housing nor medical but the quality of life was perceived to be excellent.

Yet faculty groups were faring differently. Expensive housing and an overall high cost of living meant that singles were struggling financially whereas overseas teachers who came as a pair were doing very well in a low tax environment.

Through the engagement of board members, administration and teachers in listening and dialogue, the School made several changes to the benefit plan and to the salary system. It now offers a modified career ladder by which a teacher not only moves “up” by staying another year, but based upon a number of criteria can also move laterally by meeting professional growth and other “stretch” goals.

This School’s system is designed in part to value and reward the career classroom teacher. Worldwide, most salary systems today reward teachers for taking on more extracurricular roles, positions of responsibility, or titles like department head and grade level and 1B coordinators. Discouraging great teachers from remaining in the classroom is becoming a crisis and actually costs more money.

A School in the US recently also engaged in a professional dialogue with teachers, board members and administration. This Head’s goal was to define teacher workload in the context of a total commitment to children in the classroom and in advisory, coaching, and extracurricular life. Boarding schools and traditional day schools often call this a “triple threat” model that commits teachers to the development of the whole child. This School, however, is in an urban setting where teachers are accustomed to coming and going when they are not teaching, and they have had historically few requirements outside of the classroom.

This Head’s task has been challenging because he is redefining a full-time job in a major way. But he has initiated a change in the school culture by proceeding deliberately and with political astuteness. The benefit package is clearer and some of its elements are improved; there is a bump in salaries to make them more competitive locally; teacher evaluation is more substantive; and professional growth is enhanced.

At another US day/boarding school, a new Head inherited a traditional lane and track salary system. Over time, particularly valuable and assertive teachers had negotiated many special and one-off deals around this system, and one might argue that the best came to the top in terms of pay. On the other hand, the lack of transparency, the number of deals made, and the fact that some excellent teachers did not know how or want to advocate for themselves created resentment that arose just as the new Head was about to arrive.

The new Head has now launched with outside assistance, a complete review of the salary, benefits and evaluation decision making processes. Board members paired with faculty are an integral part of this discussion. All are attempting to work towards the best long term interests of the staff and the School, and they are also building trust among all parties.

What do these schools, and others have in common?

  1. A need to revisit salaries and benefits systems that are no longer equitable or effective
  1. A desire to develop a mission based philosophy of compensation and a salary and benefit system that reflects that mission
  1. A desire to recruit, retain and nurture the best of the best
  1. Faculty participation in a process that affects them professionally and personally and that builds trust by connecting boards, teachers and administrators in a carefully designed way

Littleford & Associates has helped to launch this process successfully at over 2500 schools since 1983. The goals are meaningful dialogue, higher staff morale, better understanding of how money is spent, valuing teachers and students and allowing teachers and board members to walk in each other’s shoes.

The Head’s Contract: Getting it Done

Since 1983, thousands of boards worldwide have retained Littleford & Associates to help them benchmark the compensation and benefit package for their head of school. Many undertake this process annually in order to ensure that the package is competitive relative to the marketplace. Schools also need to be attentive to the head’s personal and professional needs and goals while keeping in mind the school’s budget. Finally, for US based schools, this benchmarking process establishes compliance with the Intermediate Sanctions Act governing executive nonprofit compensation. If our US based clients have not heard of “The Rebuttable Presumption of Reasonableness Checklist”, (an IRS required document), please give us a call.

I. The Head’s Contract is Often the Last One to be Reviewed and Finalized

One of the most disappointing trends of the head compensation process worldwide is that boards often overlook the head’s contract right up to, and even past the actual contract deadline or neglect it completely. We have always been amazed that boards and board chairs assume that a head of school will demonstrate the “care and feeding” of the faculty by ensuring that their contracts and compensation agreements and packages are in place on a timely basis. At the same time, however, these board leaders forget that the head of school’s contract is up in six months or less or is already past due.

There is the expectation that the head should “not sweat it”. But the reality is that in delaying closure on the head’s contract the Board takes a risk that the head, feeling overlooked and unimportant, will walk away from the school to accept another offer. This delay also puts the head in danger of not securing another job should the board/head relationship fail.

Many boards value and respect their heads highly and have no intention of dismissing them. And yet, by early spring many heads still do not have their compensation decisions and contracts formalized for July 1 of the same year. It is embarrassing for a head to have to ask the board chair, “By the way, my contract ends in twelve months (or in eight, six or in the next three months), and when does the board plan to address it?” Can you imagine how the head’s spouse, family, friends or professional colleagues, who may know about this lapse, feel? Many self-effacing heads simply worry silently, and even the most extroverted types find the entire compensation review and contract renewal process awkward and even demeaning.

This is unprofessional board behavior that hurts the board/head relationship; damages the board chair/ head partnership; and can seep down into the ranks of senior administrators if they get wind of it. Senior administrators may lose confidence in the board and wonder about the security of this profession and of their own jobs.

That is how Littleford & Associates started its head compensation services in 1983 and why our Firm is still among the leaders worldwide in this business. We have come to understand these patterns and the integral relationship of the head’s contract and the head’s tenure to the school’s health and stability and the satisfaction of the constituent groups.

II. Consequences of the Board’s Failure to Address the Head’s Contract in a Timely Manner

A sudden head of school departure with less than twelve months’ notice always sends negative messages: the board fired the head or the head resigned with very little warning and took another position due to feeling overlooked and unappreciated; or in many cases, it points to a poor relationship between the head and chair or between the head and the board. Such a departure signals a lack of professionalism, trouble in the school house and results in a weakened ability to launch a healthy search on a timely basis and to sign a strong candidate. Increasingly today the expectation is that both parties should give the other eighteen months or more of notice. This Consultant, however, believes that more than eighteen months results in an unnecessarily protracted search.

Why would very attractive candidates be available on very short notice? Most sitting heads have a strong moral compass and would not leave their current school high and dry with limited prospects for finding a capable successor. What message does it send to viable sitting heads of schools or to rising second tier leaders that a school is launching a last minute search? Most of the schools that find themselves in this position should go with interim heads, but few do so.

Boards of independent and international nonprofit schools have one employee and that is the head of school. Hiring the head, evaluating and supporting that person and ultimately, if necessary changing the head represent one of the key strategic roles of a board. To forget or overlook this role is more than unfortunate or unprofessional. It is dangerous.

It takes many years for a school to build an enviable local, regional and even global reputation but a board’s failure to nurture and affirm a valued head can damage that good name in a very short time. There is a flip side to this, of course. Heads who look around for a new job every year while still expecting to hold on to their current post and thinking they will not rub raw the feelings of the board, are skirting close to the edge of being dismissed.

John C. Littleford
Senior Partner

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

Branding is Powerful: Proven Strategies

Your mission statement counts, but only if it can be readily known and interpreted.

A prominent Canadian School for boys has a “tagline” that is also its mission: “Men of Character from Boys of Promise.” That resonates with the entire School community from a five year old child to alumni. That tagline is omnipresent on the website and reflected in the pictures of daily school life. What I like so much about this School, for which my Firm did board governance and strategic planning work among other assignments, is that the tagline drives the discussions and the benchmarking and differentiates it from the competition, a cross-town behemoth. A tagline, when it is used properly and often and when it permeates the school’s leadership initiatives and faculty conversations, becomes the driving force which successfully separates a school from its competitors AND embodies its mission.

Branding starts with mission. Branding should result in a unique and powerful tag line emblazoned across the home page of the School’s website and visible in all forms of social media. Our Firm reviews thousands of websites for branding and benchmarking purposes, and “Men of Character from Boys of Promise” is one of the very few where the tag line just STAYS THERE. The words themselves, the boldness and the constancy together make a strong statement: “This is who we are. This is true. We act on this.”

There is an historic School for girls that had a wonderfully effective tag line: “We will find a way OR we will make one.” The School still uses it, but in this Consultant’s opinion, it is unfortunate that it is no longer displayed as prominently. Think about it. Fifty years ago, how many occupational choices did women have in the workplace? Teacher? Nurse? Secretary?

Another School for girls has a simple but compelling tagline that does drive programs: “Girls Can Do Anything”. Because it appears in small script in the corner of the home page of the website, the message is somewhat lost and its impact weaker.

An international boarding school in Europe situated in the mountains and surrounded by incredible views, had a successful capital campaign a few years ago based upon the slogan, “Reaching New Heights.” In this Consultant’s opinion, THAT would be an ongoing, eye-catching tagline for this School with wonderful opportunities for skiing, mountaineering and outdoor expeditions; a strong track record for college placement; and a tight-knit network of alums worldwide.

This Consultant worked with a School in China to develop carefully a tagline that would resonate equally well in both the Mandarin and English languages and would convey what local Chinese and international families seek for their children: challenge with a “softer” side. Their website now says: “Empowering and Inspiring through Challenge and Compassion”. The tagline needs to be displayed more prominently, in this Consultant’s opinion, but the message does please both Chinese and non-Chinese cultures, and this is not an easy task.

Many schools talk about the same deliverables: excellence, inspiration, integrity, respect, responsibility, passion, empathy, etc. These are not inherently weak words, but when used in a tagline, they need to be put together in a unique, succinct and powerful way. A successful tagline will have these four qualities:

  1. Memorable: Once one hears it, just once, one remembers it.
  2. Genuine: It is true, or evolving as a truth.
  3. It differentiates the school from the local competition.
  4. It sends an emotional “chill” down the spine.

And most important, it must drive board policy and administrative actions and decisions. The head should be like a clergyman speaking from the pulpit where he or she takes every occasion in front of students, parents, alumni, faculty and the larger community to talk about these core words and how they translate into empowering children to be able to lead successful, healthy lives.

The process of choosing a tagline has to be undertaken carefully. Commercial branding and advertising firms may not be sensitive to the politics and history of school cultures and how to position a school successfully within its main peer competitive group. In choosing a marketing consultant, knowing the competitive grouping is crucial; knowing faculty cultures is imperative; and knowing how to work with heads and boards is essential.

John C. Littleford
Senior Partner