Member Voices: A Q&A with Suzanne Walker Buck

Fall 2021

IMG_0003-2-copy-2.jpgSuzanne Walker Buck
Head of School
Western Reserve Academy
Hudson, Ohio
Photo by Ty Bowling
This is an excerpt from the NAIS Member Voices podcast, from the series “Transitioning to Headship.”

Did you always plan to become a head of school?

Before becoming head of school at Western Reserve Academy in July 2019, I was head of school and rector at Chatham Hall (VA) for five years. Before that, I had been at New Hampton School (NH), where I was the director of enrollment management. In my sixth year there, a headhunter contacted me with an opportunity for a headship.
I told the headhunter that I wasn’t ready. And he said, “Suzanne, I wouldn’t have contacted you if you weren’t ready.” He said women usually wait three years too long before throwing their hat into the ring of a head search, and men typically enter it three years too early. He said, “I really mean it. I think you’re a viable candidate.” Hearing that from an external source made me think I could do this.

How did your experience in enrollment management prepare you for headship?

In enrollment management, you’re working with numbers. You’re looking at projections. You’re dealing with a budget. You are asking people to part with their most precious resources—their children and their money. You are counseling families and working very closely with them. You are engaged with board members. And you’re managing a team of people who need clear expectations and performance goals. These are all things that I do as head of school, so that position really prepared me well.

How did you prepare yourself for working with a board?

So much of working with a board starts with the relationship of the head of school and the board chair and establishing some basics of how you’re going to communicate. What is the cadence or the frequency of communication? What does the board chair find essential to know? How does the chair want to receive information—text, email, phone calls?
I found it really helpful for my administrative team to have a uniform format for board reports. Then the board could start to trust that in each board report certain topics would be covered. Everything would be communicated in service to annual goals and then later to strategic goals. When I first started, this gave the board a road map of what to expect from my team and from me.

What was the transition to being a new head like?

I think as a new head, it feels like you’re not well-versed in even the areas where you have some skills or training. It’s daunting because you’re in charge and everything is hitting you at 100 million miles an hour and from all directions. Very few school administrators, until they’re a head, have had to deal with insurance or legal liability, and many of us have not had a lot of HR experience. Having to deal with personnel issues and the legal aspects of that can be new territory.
It can be really helpful to work with your school’s legal team to understand what falls within their realm, what falls within your purview, and how you work effectively together to protect the school. You also need to learn how to have tough conversations with people.

When you haven’t worked at a particular school before, how do you approach adjusting and acclimating to that school’s culture?

The culture of an institution is everything. And trying to understand the rites and rituals that are really meaningful within an institution is incredibly important. The best way to do that is by talking to people. I think it’s really helpful when new heads of school create opportunities for every faculty and staff member to meet for 10 minutes and discuss what is important to them. Being observant, being willing to listen, asking questions—all of that is key to understanding culture.
But I think many schools sometimes confuse tradition with traditionalism. Traditions are those rites and rituals that have meaning to the people within the school culture. Traditionalism is the act of doing things repetitively just because that’s the way they’ve always been done. A big part of understanding culture is understanding what is tradition and what is traditionalism, and then using that to decide what things might be worthy of change.

What did you learn from leading in a pandemic that you think you’ll keep?

I’m always looking at how to pivot from an opportunistic lens. For example, at a boarding school, food and eating in the dining room are really important to us; our dining room or the kitchen is the place where people gather and share stories and come together in fellowship. But in a time of COVID, we knew that we couldn’t distribute food the same way. So, we started thinking about food in an outside-of-the-box way. We thought about how people love food trucks, and we decided to buy a food truck to be part of our food distribution. Then in the fall and in the spring, students could eat outside. We also knew that we couldn’t allow students to congregate in dorm common rooms, so we created an outdoor fire pit that kids could gather around at night and be physically distanced from one another but also be in community. We are carrying forward those types of things.
We’ve also learned how to use online resources in such an instrumental way that never would have happened pre-COVID. And we were able to do it with speed and alacrity. We recognized that we can be more flexible than we have been, and we don’t have to always do things in a way akin to traditionalism. We can change things up, and that change can be positive.

Is there any advice you received as a new head that you’ve carried with you?

Knowing that you’re not alone even if you feel alone is really important. You can always pick up the phone and call another head. They get it. They care. And they’ll always make time for you. I tell all new heads that I will make time. I will shove my schedule aside to answer questions or talk something through. Most heads of school I know are willing to do that, too. You’re part of an unbelievable network of people who care deeply about education, about students, about people, about the future. There’s beautiful insights they can share, and at the very least they share a sense of empathy and understanding for what you’re going through.

Are there any words of wisdom you’d share with new heads?

When you first become a head of school, you don’t really understand the adage “This too shall pass.” Whether it’s a student crisis or an employee issue or a liability issue, there are some really dark moments. And it’s hard when you’re within those moments to recognize that it won't always feel like it does at that moment in time. That’s something that I can recognize now. It still might not feel great when something occurs, but knowing it’s not going to feel this way forever is really helpful.
There are a number of areas in which you grow, and you don’t realize it. I look at my speechwriting or my writing of articles. It used to take me two or three times as long to get my ideas on a page. I realized that as I wrote my speech for last spring’s graduation. Things do get easier. 

Listen to the full interview on the NAIS Member Voices podcast. Download it now at iTunesSoundCloudTuneIn, or Stitcher. Rate, review, and subscribe to hear a new episode each month.
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