Research Insights: Why Heads Stay at Their Schools

Fall 2021

By Kevin Yaley

Independant-schools-Magazine-image-2-final-Michael-Driver-(1).jpgIndependent schools across the country continue to experience an increasing number of head vacancies, both expected and unexpected. Other than the departures by heads who are retiring or chasing greener pastures, the reasons why an increasing number of heads are departing at a disquieting rate are as enigmatic as the departures themselves. And there is no easy mechanism for researching what factors might influence these departures. Information is hard to come by because of both the need for confidentiality as well as the desire for schools to communicate departure decisions in an amenable and mutually beneficial manner to minimize the inevitable disruptions.
However, what can be researched are the factors that might influence the retention of heads—in particular, heads who are currently enjoying a longer-than-average tenure at their current school. Undoubtedly, there are many motivating factors that influence a head’s level of job satisfaction and, therefore, their ongoing decision to remain at their current school.
With the support of NAIS, in summer 2020, I conducted a research study of 312 heads from independent schools across the country. My research, including interviews with 15 heads, sought to identify potential factors that motivate them to stay or go, including relationships between heads and board chairs, and investigate to what extent these factors influence the heads’ job satisfaction and their decisions to remain in their current positions.

The Head-Board Chair Partnership

The results of the research study reinforced the idea that building and maintaining a strong partnership between the head and board chair is vital. A compelling argument has been made time and again that the head and board chair partnership is the single most important relationship in the school. The results of this study provided empirical evidence to support this claim. When this partnership is strong, the overall job satisfaction of the head, the likelihood of the head remaining in partnership with the chair, and, thus, the desire to continue to serve a school would presumably increase. This, in turn, benefits the overall health, stability, and success of the school. When this partnership is unstable, fractured, and/or unhealthy, the risk of a head departure seemingly increases, inevitably leading to some degree of disruption, uncertainty, and strain on the school.
The research surfaced three aspects of the head and board chair partnership, all of which influence, to some degree, a head’s decision to remain at their school.
Open communication. The quantitative phase of the research included an analysis of the heads’ responses to and rankings of the key aspects to building and sustaining a healthy head-board chair partnership. The 312 heads surveyed ranked open communication as the most important aspect to maintaining a healthy partnership, with 58.6% of the heads saying they strongly agreed, 25.2% agreed, and 9% somewhat agreed
In the qualitative findings, all participants commented specifically on the critical importance of maintaining open and honest communication. In response to one of the open-ended questions pertaining to the qualities critical to maintaining a healthy partnership between the head and the board chair, 53% of heads singled out open communication as the single most important quality, while the other 47% noted open communication was at least as important as the other four qualities, including moral support, respect for expertise, advice and guidance, and less operational support.
Finding the right match. Heads said that having considerable influence in the selection or nomination process for the board chair significantly influenced their job satisfaction. The majority of heads interviewed said their boards generally understood that it is critically important to work in concert with the head to consider which potential successor is the right match at the right time. Heads also agreed that discussions with the board early in the selection process helped identify a chair who they could work with productively.
The partnership must be grounded in mutual trust, respect, and support. As such, heads were resolute in their conviction that like any healthy relationship, the future partnership between the head and board chair needs to have time to grow, develop, and earn the trust upon which it rests. While all of the heads acknowledged that the ultimate decision to approve the board chair rests with the board per the written bylaws or generally accepted institutional practice, all felt they had always been appropriately engaged in the exploratory and vetting stages of determining the next board chair.
Flexible term limits. In my interviews, the heads—whose tenure at their current school ranged from five to 18 years—said that hard-and-fast board chair term limits (most commonly set at two or three years) significantly arrested their ability to develop a strong partnership with the board chair. The ability to extend the length of the board chair term was widely celebrated by all of the 15 heads. Accordingly, all agreed that their current practice, and in the case of a few schools, current policies that allow for the extension of the current board chair term—two or three years in length—was undeniably beneficial to the school overall.

Purpose and Autonomy

While this study suggested that at least one extrinsic motivator—compensation—contributes to a head’s level of job satisfaction, this research showed that experiencing a sense of purpose and autonomy in their work carries equal, if not greater, weight in their decisions to stay at their school and for how long.
Compensation was considered such a strong extrinsic motivator due to the undeniable fact that the demands placed on the head of school are unrelenting and dogged, and, according to all 15 of the heads interviewed, are only getting worse. No other extrinsic motivator (length of contract, professional development opportunities, public accolades) came close to its rating or ranking.
When ranking the intrinsic motivators (autonomy, work-life balance, mastery, and purpose), the 312 heads ranked purpose the highest, with more than 95% of heads considering it to be either extremely important (61.9%) or very important (33.3%). Autonomy was a strong No. 2 intrinsic motivator, with 89% of the heads saying it was either extremely important (48.4%) or very important (40.7%).
Analysis of the results from the second phase of the research confirmed these findings. Twelve of the 15 heads called out purpose as one of the, if not the, driving force behind their continued work, with one head stating matter-of-factly, “There is no question in my mind that purpose is the most important influence on my decision to be—and remain—the head of a school.” Autonomy, which is understood to be the desire to direct our own lives, was called out by nine of the 15 interviewees as one of the top intrinsic motivators to remain in their current position.

Work-Life Balance

One of the most curious discoveries from the research study deals with the perceptions of maintaining a healthy work-life balance and the extent to which this concern influenced the heads’ decisions to remain at their current school.
The survey results showed that maintaining a healthy work-life balance carried a relatively small amount of sway in the heads’ decision to remain in their current position. When asked to rank the five intrinsic motivators, for example, maintaining a healthy work-life balance was a distant last place, and of the five factors, the fewest number of heads believed it to be extremely important (30.5%) or very important (24.4%).
When I analyzed the qualitative responses, not only did I validate this finding, but I discovered critical information about why this factor carries such little influence with heads. It is not that that heads do not long for a healthy work-life balance, but that this type of balance is, in their real-life experiences, simply impossible to achieve. 
During the interviews, a number of the heads literally chuckled at the notion of maintaining even the slightest likeness of work-life balance. For example, one head commented, “I smiled at the work-life balance bit. Do you know any heads with work-life balance? I’d like to talk with them.” Another head shared, “I think heads need to commit to the absurdity of the job in terms of the time demands. My partner always reminds me that heads don’t have jobs—they have lifestyles. And any notion of a life-work balance is a fallacy.”

Better Together

Above all, the results of this study reaffirm the primacy of the head and board chair partnership and the significant influence it has on the level of satisfaction heads experience leading their school. Given this, boards and board chairs should invest time and resources in supporting and fostering this partnership.
Board chairs want nothing more than to see their schools thrive, and they understand that the success of the school begins with hiring and supporting the head of school. To that end, if the findings from this research are accurate, then a deeper and more focused investment in the head-board chair partnership and an understanding of the preferred manner in which heads choose to lead should be at the top of the list of board priorities.

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Go Deeper

In fall 2018, NAIS partnered with the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education's School Leadership Program to explore head of school turnover. This culminated in the “Survey on Factors Affecting Head of School Tenure” (FAHST), administered during summer 2019 to heads of school, board chairs, and other board members at all NAIS member schools. The results of this survey helps heads of school and board members assess their relationships and governance practices and consider ways to strengthen every aspect of their leadership and partnership. Read more about the findings at
Kevin Yaley

Kevin Yaley is head of school at Francis Parker School in San Diego, California.