The Intentional Path to Headship

Fall 2010

By Marc T. Frankel and Judith L. Schechtman

Schools are demanding ever more sophisticated executive skills from heads these days. As a result, the headship position is beginning to resemble that of a “chief executive,” while at the same time retaining all of the academic and interpersonal components of the past. Many schools require their heads to at least understand, if not be proficient at, debt financing, business modeling, labor negotiations, working with municipal planning and zoning boards, construction management, and more — skills that would only rarely have been called for from earlier generations of school leaders.

The growing complexity of the job means that those educators interested in school leadership in the near future need to think carefully about their route to the headship. It also means that the independent education community in general needs to be more intentional about nurturing its next generation of leaders.

The Evolving Model

Historically, the road to headship has been paved through the ranks of academic administration. To be sure, there always have been individuals from advancement, business, admissions, and athletics who have matriculated into headship, but for most, the surest way to become a head was to first teach, then chair a department, lead a division, and maybe serve as an assistant/associate head of school. Yet, while academic administration offered an abundance of opportunity to become adept at dealing with difficult parents, coaching and evaluating faculty, and preparing for accreditation site visits, it seldom afforded one a chance to delve deeply into financial issues, report to the board, or negotiate benefit plans for personnel.

In short, independent school heads, following in the British tradition, have more typically been “head teachers” than chief executives, coming by their business ability post hoc to becoming a head. But that tradition is coming to an end.

For a long time, higher education, including schools of the health professions (medicine, dentistry, etc.) followed a similar pattern. Because colleges and universities became complex institutions far earlier than independent schools, however, most of them shifted away from this model years ago. Today, the model for senior leadership in higher education differs from the independent K–12 education sector in two important ways. 

First, the role is typically bifurcated between a president and a provost, with the president serving as chief executive while the provost acts as the chief academic officer. Presidents deal primarily with finance, external relations, governing board matters, and acting as the public face of the institution. In government-supported universities, it is the president who goes before the state legislature to present the school’s argument for setting tuition and floating bonds.

Complementing the presidential role is that of the provost, who focuses his or her attention mostly inside the institution and mostly on matters of academic quality and faculty performance. The provost almost always interacts with boards, but only about academic issues or to support the president’s request for, say, additional funds for faculty salaries. Significantly, it is inside the provost’s office where questions of tenure and promotion — always serious and fraught — culminate after recommendations from departments and deans.

A second difference between the two sectors is about leadership preparation. For years, higher education has been home to a number of extremely well-established leadership development programs aimed at growing new generations of leaders at various levels. National bodies — often with funding support from the Pew, Kellogg, or similar foundations — have sponsored such programs. The aim of these programs is to equip presidential candidates with grounding in the business and political skills they might otherwise lack, thereby shortening the learning curve once on the job.

In both of these areas, independent schools are starting to change. While independent schools have persisted longer in vesting both the president and provost roles in the same leader — the head of school — some of the more complex schools have gravitated toward a facsimile of the president/provost model (with the provost usually called a principal instead). No doubt the slower adoption of a bifurcated model in independent education reflects a preponderance of smaller schools and cultural factors, but we are clearly following an accelerating trend toward the president/principal model even at smaller and less complicated schools.

At the same time, the independent school community has begun to look more carefully at leadership preparation. Without question, the growing complexity of the job — whether a school invests all the work in one person or divides it between two — requires that independent schools be far more intentional about leadership training than they have been in the past.

Intentional Preparation for Headship

In the mid-1990s, apart from the Klingenstein programs at Teachers College and the National Association of Independent School’s Institute for New Heads, few formal leadership-development opportunities existed in independent education. And neither of these programs, at the time, specifically focused on helping potential school leaders develop their financial, interpersonal, or legal skills. In fact, until recently, to aspire to headship was, itself, considered somewhat unseemly — behavior to be avoided in favor of a more indirect “accidental” approach.

The past decade has brought the beginnings of a change in this “accident” of headship, in part due to an understanding of the growing complexity of the work, but also to the independent school community’s realization that, with the imminent retirement of many school heads from the baby boom generation, quality leaders may be in short supply. NAIS, among others, decided to be forward-thinking about the problem. In particular, with the creation of two institutes specifically designed to develop leaders at every level within schools, NAIS brought some of the same methods and metrics that had proven useful in higher education to the independent school sector. NAIS’s School Leadership Institute (SLI) offers any person in the school an opportunity to explore aspects of leadership and to experience multi-rater feedback on their leadership competencies. The Aspiring Heads Leadership Institute (AHLI) goes further to specifically target individuals interested in eventual ascension to headship.

We mention these two NAIS programs because they are the ones with which we are most familiar, given that we have been involved in designing and running both. But there are other good intentional leadership training programs focused on independent schools, including those at the Klingenstein Center at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, as well as shorter institutes at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Some independent school leaders have also gone through the school leadership program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Regardless of the program, perhaps the major benefit to be realized from intentional preparation for headship is understanding both one’s strengths and potential derailment factors as a leader. Decades of research at the Center for Creative Leadership and elsewhere suggests a remarkably consistent set of skill deficits associated with premature termination in senior executive positions: insensitivity to others, lack of empathy and understanding, poor listening, inattention to detail, and dishonesty and duplicity, among others. Feedback from others remains the most effective and reliable way to know whether one is perceived to have such potential derailment issues; therefore, most leadership development programs include a mechanism for receiving safe, honest feedback.

As a consequence of good leadership programs, the pursuit of headship is becoming much more intentional than accidental. However, individuals aspiring to headship can prepare in a number of ways beyond such formal programs, not unlike high school students building a résumé in preparation for university applications that includes experiences gained outside of the classroom. The most basic and time-honored method is by making sure that potential leaders have solid experience in each of five categories most crucial to successful headship: finance, advancement, handling parents, hiring and evaluating teachers, and working with a board. 

Competencies for an Increasingly Complex Job

The NAIS leadership programs include several core components of leadership development in common with many of the higher education programs:

1. Academic treatment of leadership methods and models — with the goal of broadening participants’ horizons regarding their leadership styles and approaches;

2. Feedback through assessment by self and others — with the goal of increasing self-awareness and reducing vulnerability to blind spots;

3. Experiential learning through case studies and simulations — with the goal of discovering and practicing new approaches to leadership challenges; and

4. Coaching by peers, mentors, and consultants — with the goal of personalizing and applying the insights learned through the above activities.

As we designed both the SLI and the AHLI curricula, we deliberately created programs that offer a smorgasbord of components, immerse leaders in those most essential to their growth and development, and lay the foundation for lifelong learning about leadership and followership. Lofty goals, these, but we believe them worthy enough to suggest as a benchmark right from the start.

In the 14 years that we have worked with school leaders in both the SLI and AHLI programs, our competency modeling identifies 14 domains that are highly relevant for headship: adaptability, mentoring and coaching, financial acumen, decision-making, diversity, school mission and values, leadership, social awareness, managerial effectiveness, personal effectiveness, teamwork, communication, vision, and emotional intelligence. While different school contexts might prioritize these domains differently in terms of how important each is at a given time, all are salient to the work of a head. For example, a religiously affiliated school might rank school mission and values as more important than, say, decision-making, but that does not mean decision-making becomes trivial, just relatively less important.

In our experience, search committees skew toward vision when hiring heads of school. They advance candidates who are able to describe what a more successful and sustainable future might look like, while avoiding those who are less clear about the direction the school is heading. Yet, what sometimes gets new heads in trouble is being inattentive to execution — that is, to the day-to-day running of the school. In short, too much focus on what gets a head hired (vision) may be just the thing that ends up getting him or her fired (too little attention to execution).

The importance of what some call “soft skills” cannot be overstated. Knowledge is important to headship — successful heads almost always have a solid understanding of curriculum and school sustainability on multiple dimensions — but a constellation of personality factors seems of equal or greater importance, and certainly correlate more strongly with derailment, the premature unwinding of a headship career. Among these, emotional intelligence — empathy, social awareness, impulse control, and more — seem to be increasingly important to success as a head. 

Context matters, too: the head at a large, multi-divisional school may be able to compensate for his or her deficiencies by populating the administrative team with leaders capable of making up the difference. Not so for the small school head, for whom almost all of the above roles and competencies must be compressed into a single persona.

Apart from the increasing complexity of the job itself, another notable shift we are seeing is in the number of prospective heads emerging from backgrounds other than that of academic administration. For the most part, deans of faculty, academics, or students — as well as directors of admission, marketing, communications, diversity, and other specialized programs — will need another job (or two) before becoming a credible candidate for headship. Some search committees, for idiosyncratic reasons, might deliberately seek candidates who are especially strong in admissions or marketing, and might be willing to hire candidates that come from these domains, but this is still more of the exception than the rule. 

The number of college and university presidents selected from outside education has grown, though still a minority of those currently in the role. Notably, the state universities of North Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri have tapped leaders from business and politics, rather than within academia. While no more than a handful of independent schools have done something similar, and then with mixed results, one can only wonder whether alternate paths to headship of all sorts is a trend-in-the-making, especially for the biggest schools. For the time being, most search committees still seem to focus in on the five categories of experiences, and want finalists to have credible knowledge and experience in each. 

We are sometimes asked what advice we would give someone aspiring to a career as an independent school head. Some of the recommendations would be timeless: know yourself — especially your strengths and liabilities; see yourself through others’ eyes via 360-degree feedback; develop a portfolio of experiences that include finance, governance, supervision, dealing with parents, and raising money; and be conversant about the common issues facing independent schools. However, just as important are the “new” capabilities of political skill, negotiation, and understanding and using data to guide decision-making. In short, the complexity of headship preparation closely mirrors the growing complexity of independent schools. The accidental path to headship is becoming, well, so yesterday.
Marc T. Frankel

Marc T. Frankel is a senior consultant and partner in Triangle Associates, an educational-focused consulting firm in St. Louis, Missouri.

Judith L. Schechtman

Judith L. Schechtman is a senior consultant and partner in Triangle Associates, St. Louis, an international consulting firm specializing in leadership and organizational management.