Leadership Lessons: 3 Things First-Year School Administrators Need to Know

I learned a lot my first year as a school administrator. I learned about the organization, new colleagues, how to perform daily tasks, and best practices. And yet, there was so much I didn’t understand about the role and what kind of administrator I wanted to be. As I grew into my role as an enrollment professional, I became a mentor and confidant to women across independent schools, consistently hearing women’s stories of frustration and burnout on their path to leadership. I had a similar experience.
As school leaders, women face and overcome obstacles and challenges every day. We think about how we could have done things differently. When we’re in the thick of it—head down, driving change, responding to the needs of so many (especially when crises arise)—it isn’t easy to see the bigger picture. When we do have a moment to breathe and venture to be proactive, we still find ourselves focused on operations rather than strategic relationships, communication, and responsibilities. Why is this? Many high-achieving women struggle with perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and imbalanced responsibilities at work and at home. Though these things are not exclusive to women, they affect them disproportionately and also impact their journey as leaders. After all, most school leadership positions were designed by and for men. There’s simply a lack of focused career growth resources for women.
As more women enter the ranks of head of school and other senior leadership positions at independent schools, I want to spotlight the need for support, training, coaching, and mentoring to retain these highly competent female leaders. And that’s why I’m sharing a few things I wish I would have known my first year as a school administrator. 
Being trusted is more important than being liked. As women, we’re taught from a young age that being liked is critical to professional success. Our culture reinforces it with language that posits a dichotomy of “likable” or “bitchy,” often with little evidence to support the subjective analysis. We see the critique of women leaders worldwide: She’s too pretty, too ugly, too young, too old, too quiet, or too outspoken; this implies that a woman who fits the narrow definition of a successful professional rarely exists. If we veer from that definition, lest ye be judged, or worse, get fired. Most scrutiny has little to do with a woman’s ability to lead.

I see women contorting into more likable versions of themselves by being overly jovial, affable, flexible, and people-pleasing. This might mean saying “yes” to unfulfilling tasks or serving as the eternal notetaker in meetings. Instead, I’ve learned that maintaining an expectation of civility and kindness for myself and my community—behaviors such as refraining from judgment, clearly communicating, and being an empathetic listener—shifts the focus to building trust among all constituents. Being trustworthy is more important than being liked. So how do you build trust? 

Authentic and clear communication will help build trust. Female school administrators can ask themselves: When meeting with parents, teachers, colleagues, and students, do I listen for understanding or only to respond? How do I take action? Do I follow through or make empty promises? Am I transparent, or do I hide information for fear it could lead to confrontation? How am I empathizing with the people around me?
No matter how capable, intelligent, kind, funny, or charismatic a female leader is, not everyone will like them. The sooner this fact is acknowledged, the sooner they can shift their focus to becoming a trusted partner. 

Collegial relationships will change. For women, friendships are essential to self-care, mental health, and feeling connected to a community. But as many women move up from faculty or staff positions into leadership, they often leave behind colleagues with whom they’ve forged close relationships. As responsibilities shift, the nature of those connections will look different. Leaders may even find themselves supervising a former colleague. Rather than shy away from the conversation, why not address it head on? Together you can work to set clear boundaries before issues arise. 

When taking on the administrator role, women should establish expectations for communication with their close colleagues. Previous conversations that included banter, opinions, or venting take on new meaning in a leadership role. Confidential information about decision-making or personnel issues cannot be shared. Also, showing favoritism based on friendship rather than merit can undermine other relationships at school.
This is the time for female leaders to find a new group of confidants through affinity groups, associations, or other cohorts where sharing information won’t compromise their position.
Get clear on the responsibilities. Becoming an administrator is exciting and overwhelming. I remember wanting to make decisions and have an impact on the community in ways I hadn’t been able to before. However, it quickly snowballed into taking on responsibility for things that were not mine. I found myself choosing paint colors for a hallway because, as the admission director, I was responsible for tours, and therefore, the appearance of the building, and therefore, the paint choices.

Women are taught to be helpers, leading to feelings of responsibility over any and everything around them. We need to silence the voice in women’s heads, “If I don’t do it, who will?” They need to find the person responsible for that thing, delegate, and return to their job. They were hired for their expertise and staying in their wheelhouse allows them to maintain a trajectory toward their goals. Women can use admin meetings, one-on-ones with heads or supervisors, and committee discussions to share concerns and solutions about more strategic or schoolwide initiatives. Achieving goals while reducing burnout is a win-win.
As any parent will tell you, no matter how desperately someone tries to prepare you for life with children, you just don’t know until you’re in it. That doesn’t stop us from wanting to provide guidance and support to newly minted parents. The first year as a school administrator has a similar vibe. You’ve been working in schools, and you know what administrators do. You feel confident you can do it, yet nothing truly prepares you for the responsibility. Regardless, I’m determined to help the next generation of school leaders by sharing stories, strategies, and lessons learned in the hopes they can avoid a few unnecessary missteps.

Rebecca Malotke-Meslin
Rebecca Malotke-Meslin

Rebecca Malotke-Meslin is the owner of Pleasantly Aggressive Coaching and Consulting, empowering women working in independent schools to confidently own their leadership.


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