With a great wave of baby boomers retiring, we are in the midst of a generational shift in school leadership. At the same time, schools themselves are changing with rapid technological advances and a new 21st century focus on, among other things, STE(A)M, project-based learning, blended and online learning, innovation, mindfulness, global education, and social-emotional intelligence.
I have been facilitating heads’ dialogue groups in the San Francisco Bay area for 25 years and consulting nationally, and have borne witness to this dual phenomenon and its impact on exiting and entering heads. I have observed leadership transitions closely through many school foundings, retirements, deaths, premature departures, unexpected crises, and turmoil, as well as through carefully timed and seamless “passings of the torch.” All of this has informed my consulting practice and has solidified my belief that systems thinking and understanding the presence and power of institutional history and culture are essential in managing successful leadership transitions and in leading institutional innovation and transformation.
The challenge for this in-coming generation of school leaders (trustees, heads, administrators, teachers, and parent-leaders) — or for any current leader hoping to successfully reshape a school program or enact change— is to have a deep awareness and appreciation of school culture. Much is written today about organizational culture, yet the concept continues to perplex too many leaders as they attempt to build or grow a sustainable, adaptable, and innovative organization.
Understanding School Culture and the Head Transition
What is culture? In essence, it is the embodiment of core values, attitudes, and beliefs that sustain an organization across time. Edgar Schein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar and consultant, adds that culture comprises the many lasting artifacts and traditions of an organization, as well as the underlying assumptions about how things are really done. Chris Argyris, the late Harvard professor and organizational theorist, described an aspect of culture as “espoused theories vs. theories in use,” and advocated for “double loop” organizations in which “theories in use” are recognized, named, and openly discussed.
One of the most vulnerable moments in the life of a school is the head transition. It’s a time when “espoused theories” collide with “theories in use” — when new organizational ideas smack up against tradition and well-worn routines and practices.
As heads exit schools, trustees and hiring committees tend to focus on the “next chapter” and the kind of leader desired. However, if schools do not have transparent and authentic norms for honest conversations about what works and what doesn’t work, what they value, and what changes are truly needed, they may draw leaders who, while capable in their own right, will not know what they have inherited, and worse, may not be the right match for the school at that particular time in its history. As a result, entering heads can become vulnerable to forces often beyond their awareness and possibly their skill set.
Here are three examples of difficult head transitions (amalgams):
1. A board chair suggested that a new head meet with me, since I had consulted to the school during the difficult transition from the previous head. The board chair wanted me to share observations about the school’s complicated culture and history with the new head. When we talked, the new head told me he was not into what he called “looking back,” and said he was going to start anew. In his mind, it was a fresh day. Even though he knew there had been upheavals before his entry and that families and teachers had left in considerable numbers, he did not think it necessary to have a detailed historical sense of the landscape, people, and place. He believed there was a shared optimism about his arrival and renewed hope for the future. And there was... for the honeymoon period.
2. A head followed a longtime beloved leader who had been maintaining the program for years, but not growing or leading innovation at the school. Many constituents, especially the board, expressed a pent-up appetite for change. When she arrived, therefore, the head felt no trepidation in introducing change. In fact, she was given that mandate specifically by the board and thought that the various constituencies would be behind her in enacting changes, large and small, almost immediately.
3. A head struggled with whether or not to leave the school in his third year after recognizing the inability of the school to come to terms with the founding cultural mixed messages regarding “who is in charge.” He felt as if he were constantly in a tug of war with the board, parents, and teachers — fighting what felt like an unrelenting uphill battle.
In the first two cases, the heads were asked to leave within a few years, having been identified as a “bad fit” for the school. In the third, many felt that the head just did not understand them and was a bad fit as well.
In my mind, all of these heads were part of a systems breakdown (for more detail on systems thinking see my 2014 Independent School article “”). They arrived with one set of assumptions and expectations — including what, how, and when change should occur — but without understanding the inherited culture and history, and without taking or be given the time to listen, observe, analyze, and learn the school community, especially its historical and cultural texture. In short, the heads made decisions too quickly based on general beliefs and early assumptions, not on cultural reality.
Furthermore, they were set up for failure, unintentionally, by having been given unexamined mixed messages by the board and others regarding the needs of the school.
In the first case, the search team did not do the deep work in the search process to look at and make sense of the complexities of the school’s tumult before the selection of the next leader. As a result, the school drew a leader who was overly optimistic about effecting change, but who did not know, nor understand, the necessity for recognizing the school’s history and cultural components that shaped the present and served as a platform for the next institutional chapter.
In the second example, the board and many parents had the strong desire for immediate change, but did not recognize the steps it would take to create long-lasting transformation. The head did not appreciate or embrace the passion and experience of many teachers and staff, many of whom also wanted change, but who needed the process to be inclusive, thoughtful, and carefully scaffolded.
In the third example, it took the toll of exhausting and often underappreciated hard work by the head to finally, and sadly, choose to leave the school, having recognized the breakdown between “espoused theories” and “theories in use.” In this example, the faculty and staff had gained enormous informal power over the years, were ambivalent about any head’s leadership, and over time were able to outweigh and out-wait changes a new leader may have wanted to implement, even collectively. In many cases similar to this, the schools were founded as parent or teacher cooperatives, and were still developmentally struggling with how to transition to a head-led model with clear boundaries regarding teacher and parent voice, inclusion, and appropriate authority. In these cases, it is particularly important for boards to understand these dynamics and their role in creating positive change.
In all of these cases, as organizational expert Peter Drucker put it, “Culture ate strategy for breakfast.”
How can boards and schools more fully understand this critical transition period, the power and impact of culture, and hope to ensure they have hired the right person? What is missing in the search process, and what can be learned from failed searches?
The Search Process and Culture
Searches need to surface more of the underlying assumptions and ways of doing things—revealing the complexity of school cultures passed on from generation to generation. It is essential that schools come to terms with the context — the institutional narrative — that defines this particular moment of change and transition before they seek the actual person to become their next head.
Without this deep work, a newly appointed head is often either the antithesis of the former head or cast in the former head’s persona. It’s possible that either of these personalities could work for the school, but it would mostly be a matter of luck. To ignore the cultural reality, or to be unaware of the power of origins and culture throughout the history of the school, is to set up a new leader for potential failure and, worse, institutional suffering or even demise.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Organizations are the lengthened shadows of their founders.” Founding principles and stories always inform the present and the future. Schools that continue to live and reflect what is true and valuable across time — their founding North Star — are those that draw aligned and successful leaders.
Learning the Culture
Given the pace of change today, it’s understandable that search teams and boards would be anxious to have incoming heads make an immediate impact. But new heads actually need to move more slowly.
Too many are being asked to get prematurely involved in the life of the school — sometimes even before they officially start. I am now seeing a quasi-model develop in which appointed heads are being asked to make critical decisions even as the current head is still in the saddle. Besides often leaving the sitting head feeling diminished and undervalued, such impatience potentially sets up the new head for trouble. How can the appointed head truly grasp the nuances and historical/cultural backdrop of decisions he or she is being asked to make before even formally landing on the school grounds?
I know of entering heads who, before they officially arrived, were already in email contact with personnel and otherwise involved in the school’s life in ways that potentially undermined a healthy entry plan. These heads told me they felt as if they were holding two full-time leadership jobs from the day they were appointed. For their part, board chairs often become the brokers of these pre-arrival decisions, which in many instances move the chairs deeply into school operations, where they don’t belong. The potential therefore for mixed messages and confused systems exists before the new head has officially stepped into office.
The 18-month search period — a fairly standard practice, but one worth rethinking — is a large part of this transition problem. Entrances and exits in all systems destabilize the culture for a period, creating not only a vacuum of leadership, but on the human side, potential anxiety, unrest, and grief.
This long good-bye, therefore, often leaves a school in limbo for a year and a half, and can be unsettling and disorienting to all constituents. One example of this potentially confusing period could be a pattern I have seen emerging in which search committees ask the new-head candidates what their vision already is for the school — not just their vision as a leader in general, but for this particular school! Do school communities really want a head to come in the first day and dictate a new vision from on high? Can they?
I think this expectation reflects not only the nature of boards and institutions today but is also an attempt to fast track the school after what can feel like an untenable period of waiting. Schools, however, are unique cottage industries that create and live their missions in collaboration and through connection.
What I believe schools really want from their heads is someone who is inspiring, has hopes and dreams, and who eventually can eloquently articulate and embody the institutional vision, give name to the forces and values of the past, and herald and embrace the honest needs and realities of both the present and the anticipated future. They desire leaders who bring the humility of one who is a learner and leader, who has the acumen to recognize where the winds of change are headed and the wisdom and gravitas to know when and how to put stakes in the ground. They want leaders who understand how to rally the hearts and minds of all constituencies around a shared vision while genuinely attempting to live and lead the school’s mission every day.
The role of head has been evolving in recent years, with many heads being asked to serve as CEOs — more externally focused, more data-driven, more involved with their boards than faculty and staff, therefore delegating the program and operations to others internally. This may be the future leadership model, but if it is, the trend even more urgently reinforces that entering heads need to understand their inherited cultures as soon as possible, and be seen as compassionate, wise, and forward-thinking leaders who know and appreciate the core values of the school they are now leading.
Change management needs to be clear, focused, paced, and timed. Upon entrance, the new head must be given examined and aligned messages from both the board and key constituencies. He or she must have enough time to learn the culture, work with appropriate constituents, and fully understand the complexity behind every potential large change. He or she needs to build circles of teams, authentically delegating to others and ensuring that everyone in the organization is known and has clarity about the big picture and their role in it.
Change is a given; adaptation optional. In any change effort, personal to organizational, everyone wants to know, “What will become of me? What will become of us?”
Answering these questions takes time and intentional teaming with key school leaders. It requires heads to know as many players in the community as possible.
It also explains why culture change takes three to five years, and why the first five years of a new headship are so critical to the long-term success of the new head and the school.
So, rethink creating that long-awaited strategic plan, kicking off a capital campaign, asking the new leader to spend more hours with the board than with the faculty and staff, initiating many changes large and small during the head’s first year. If change is required early on, be mindful of the cultural landscape, the land mines, and the political and human capital that needs to be acquired for long-lasting acculturation.
Of course, if there is an early crisis that requires attention, or if there are decisions that have languished for years and now need immediate attention for the long-term health of the school, the timetable may need to move more briskly. But even then the new head should know and prepare as much as possible for the fallout that inevitably occurs when things change.
How can a new head work to understand the inherited culture, its richness, strengths, and challenges? How can he or she continue to appreciate the complexity and gifts of the community while often feeling pressured to effect change ASAP?
Historical-cultural mapping is an analytic inquiry tool I have developed to systematically support leaders and their organizations in making sense of the moment in reaction to challenges or as they plan for the future. It can be used as a stand-alone exercise through the head transition, but can also be applied to key personnel searches and transitions, strategic planning efforts, innovative enterprises, and everyday decision-making throughout the years. I’ve used it in small-group collaborations and creative ventures, problem-solving and conflict resolution, crisis management, large-scale systems change, and team and community building.
It supports systems thinking, open dialogue, and contextual framing, discerning between organizational symptoms and recurring underlying systemic cultural themes and patterns.
Historical-cultural mapping on a large scale, or in a search process, works because it asks key questions about origin stories, founders and foundings, organizational highs and lows across the years, financial indicators, growth patterns, and culture shifts. It helps reveal and explain the developmental age and stage of the school, key personnel changes, including leadership exits and administrative expansions, as well as the creation of sacred cows, artifacts, and traditions; governance and leadership shifts; the role and influence of parents and alumni; and cultural norms, attitudes, and behaviors. It takes into consideration external influences such as the economy, global concerns, diversity trends, technology advances, demographics, competition, shifting parental expectations, and new teaching and learning paradigms — all in the work of preserving what matters to the school today as it envisions its viable future.
During a head transition, historical-cultural mapping can be used in three vital ways:
1. Before a head search, it can strengthen institutional awareness regarding “where you have been and where you are,” and more critically define the kind of leader best aligned for the next chapter. It not only honors the past but also transparently builds upon it. It reveals culture, separating out espoused theories vs. theories in use, identifying what is real and true, what matters most. Done well, it also identifies the key epochs in the school’s narrative, and reveals its current stage of development while highlighting the needs of the next chapter. In so doing, it actually contributes to drawing in the leader you want and need, ultimately laying the groundwork for ongoing organizational success and sustainability. And in some cases, it may support boards and schools in actually doing some deeper work with their schools and cultures before the arrival of a new head.
2. The new head can use it separately with the board, administrators, faculty, or any constituency as a team/community-building exercise or problem-solving/strategy tool, depending on its intended purpose. It supports clarity about the landscape the new leader has inherited, the real opportunities, the real challenges, with deeper organizational awareness and clearer leadership expectations and mandates. It becomes the foundation for a genuine entry process in which the head is given the time to learn the culture, listen deeply, ask questions, and build relationships across the constituencies.
3. It is useful across time as it captures the strengths and challenges of the moment from the boardroom to the classroom, highlighting the systemic work that needs to be done regularly regarding clarity, alignment, and accountability.
As a large-scale endeavor, it can bring “the old guard” and new staff and faculty together in a dynamic, authentic, and meaningful way. It incorporates and strengthens all leadership teams, especially administration and the board, and applies to all constituencies and stakeholders. It is a wonderful process to underscore and remind everyone of their group communications norms, and advocates honest and open dialogue.
In general, veteran personnel, trustees, and parents often say they learn so much more about people, systems and place through these exercises, even after being in a school for years. Some are actually taken aback by how assumptions they had about certain colleagues and other constituents were reactive or unfounded. New members in a team-building exercise also find it invaluable in getting on the same page fast and early. As one new administrator said, “This was a crash course in culture.”
In addition, the Historical-Cultural Mapping tool has an added feature of intensifying creative problem-solving, clarifying connection and communication, resolving difference and conflict, and strengthening teams and the community itself.
One caveat: It is essential to plan this kind of team-building exercise thoughtfully. Leaders should be aware of timing, issues that will surface, and how deep to go in a first or one-time session. Knowing your audience is key. As in planning any event, fully grasping your purpose and hoped-for outcomes forms the basis of its design. In addition, it is often recommended to have a skilled outside facilitator to guide the work and “hold” the room.
Culture Does Not Have to Eat Strategy for Breakfast
Culture does not just eat strategy for breakfast; it can eat it for lunch and dinner. Even after the first few years of a headship, there are ways culture resists needed change, and heads are wise to continually apply the historical-cultural lens reactively and proactively. More schools and heads these days are aware of the hearkening calls of culture, and therefore are managing change and transition more thoughtfully and successfully.
How do you seek to ensure that culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast? Knowing is the brass ring. It is the essential first step in all successful leadership, in personal development as well, and ultimately forms the foundation for all potential organizational growth and transformation. Do your homework, know your culture, appreciate that it is not static, and stay present to its vicissitudes and the forces that play upon it. Make sure your strategy works for your school culture at this particular time. In so doing, you will draw in and retain leaders and loyal constituents who reflect the needs of your culture today and tomorrow, and who are aligned with its genuine, articulated, and living mission.