Head Search Handbook Excerpt: Leadership Succession Planning for Next Time

This is an excerpt from The NAIS Head Search Handbook.

By Siri Akal Khalsa, former executive director of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools

In its article “Building Leadership Capacity: Reframing the Succession Chal­lenge,” the nonprofit Bridgespan Group argues that succession planning is not a periodic event triggered by an executive’s departure. Instead, it is a proactive and systematic investment in building a pipeline of leaders with­in an organization, so that when transitions are necessary, leaders at all levels are ready to act.

Succession planning means both developing a planning mindset and creating a written plan to ensure the orderly transition of school leadership from your current head to your new leader. The planning mindset is as important as the plan itself because conditions change quickly in schools today. If not regularly reviewed and updated, plans can quickly become stale and irrelevant.

Succession planning rests on three principles:
  1. Changes in school leadership are inevitable.
  2. No position is more important to the success of a school than its head, so the right match is critical.
  3. Identifying, selecting, hiring, and sustaining the school’s next head are perhaps the most important tasks a board may have.
With that in mind, your school’s leadership succession planning process must address two different circumstances:
  1. Planned leadership change, when, for example, a sitting head informs your board of a desire to leave the position by a certain date
  2. Unplanned change, when, for instance, your school head unexpectedly re­signs; suddenly has the employment contract terminated; or has an accident, injury, or serious illness that might result in an interruption in leadership
 Successfully managing either type of change requires planning that incorpo­rates both “hard” elements, such as budgeting for the expenses associated with a search, and “soft” aspects, such as identifying the ideal qualities the next head will possess. 

Planned Leadership Succession

Everyone is familiar with the advice that the best time to search for a job is when you don’t need one. Similarly, the best time for your board to begin succession planning is when it doesn’t need to. The board can benefit by taking advantage of the relative calm of the current head’s tenure to plan for the school’s next leadership, even if that change appears to be years in the future or seems nearly unthinkable. When this type of planning happens before any leadership change, it provides a strong foundation for a search when the time comes and enables the search committee to be much more agile in its work.

At the formal level, succession planning includes these steps:
  • Budgeting for the financial resources needed to support the level of search the board anticipates (internal, local, regional, or national; with or without a search consultant)
  • Building board consensus on the future direction of the school and on what its ideal state will be in five, 10, and 20 years
  • Developing board agreement on the professional and personal qualities the ideal next head of school will possess
  • Defining the skills, expertise, attitudes, and understandings the ideal search committee will possess, and ensuring that the board has or will have those people to call on
  • Strategic communications planning
Leadership succession planning also requires thorough board-level conversa­tions about these issues:
  • The fact that no candidate will possess all desired qualities and how the strategic deficits of the best candidate will be mitigated
  • How the strategic deficits your school currently faces will be addressed so that the next head can step onto a platform of strength and not into a minefield of weakness
  • The need to support the current head during the transition out
  • The need for the sitting head to support the change
  • Who will be the board chair in the first year of the new head’s tenure
  • The possible viability of potential internal candidates
  • Identifying and addressing the needs of the school’s many constituen­cies—students, parents, trustees, alumni, community stakeholders— during a time of change
One note of caution: Because leadership succession planning is essentially a strategic plan for the continuity of leadership, it’s possible that members of your school community might start to worry that it’s a disguised strategy to oust the current leader. Any hint of this type of talk should be dispelled, early and often. Engaging the current head as a proactive partner in succession planning is one reassuring way to do this. 

Unplanned Change 

There are times when the head of school’s tenure is interrupted unexpectedly. Pressing family situations may demand the head’s immediate and complete at­tention; health issues may require short- or long-term leaves; matters may arise that require the sitting head’s resignation or, possibly, termination. Any circum­stance that significantly interrupts the head’s ability to lead has the potential to disrupt normal school operations, unsettle faculty and staff, distance parents, and fracture boards.

Although your board cannot foresee every possible crisis, it can reduce the potential negative impact leadership crises may have by creating a plan that ad­dresses the most probable: short-term leave; long-term leave; and sudden de­parture due to resignation, termination, or untimely death.

Asking and answering the following questions—in detail and in writing— will give your board the tools it needs to keep the school on course and the com­munity feeling engaged and informed.
  1. Who is in charge of the school during a short-term absence of the head of school? Long-term absence?
  2. In case of the sudden departure of the head, who will be running the school on a day-to-day basis? How will that person be supported? Com­pensated?
  3. What is the process for communicating headship changes in a way that will sustain the confidence and trust of the different school constituencies?
  4. What role will the board, and specifically the executive committee, need to play in order to support the head and the school through the crisis?
Even though it may seem premature to do so, creating this type of “leadership emergency plan” with your new head of school as soon as the individual gets settled in is highly recommended. Schools have crisis management plans that cover almost every circumstance imaginable. Why shouldn’t unplanned leader­ship change be part of that thinking and planning?
For more guidance on succession planning and the entire process of leadership search, see The NAIS Head Search Handbook: A Strategic Guide for the Search Committee, available in the NAIS Bookstore.