Boardroom: The Trustee’s Role in Ensuring a Smooth Headship Transition

Fall 2022

By Peter Baily

Several years ago, during my tenure as a trustee at Moorestown Friends School (NJ), then-head of school Larry Van Meter, an alumnus with long family connections to the school, gave two years’ notice to the board of his plan to retire after nearly two decades. The significant runway he provided allowed the board to create a supportive and thoughtful head search and transition process. I served on the board’s head transition planning committee. 

Searching for and welcoming a new head of school—as well as saying goodbye to the outgoing head—is a critical opportunity for the entire school community. It’s a time to look back and forward, an occasion to celebrate leadership, and a prime platform from which to articulate the school’s aspirations and vision. Sensitive, intentional planning in support of the outgoing and incoming heads benefits the school’s operations, leadership, and reputation in the community. Perhaps most important, this kind of planning supports the energy and effectiveness of the school’s two most important ambassadors at this moment: the outgoing and the incoming heads. 

Leadership transitions, of course, are most likely to be successful and healthy in a unified school community when there’s ample time to plan and execute. In this scenario, where there’s plenty of notice and regular communication to stakeholders, a school can celebrate the departing head and prepare and plan for ways to support the new leader’s transition into the school. Unplanned transitions, however, have been increasing over the past several years. When a leader departs on short notice, the circumstances may feel awkward or strained. But even in a context like this, there are important steps that a board of trustees can take to focus on the positive dimensions of new leadership.

What We Learned

In my experience at Moorestown Friends School (MFS), the new-head search process, with the help of a search firm, flowed smoothly and intentionally from Van Meter’s fall 2016 public announcement of his plan to retire in summer 2018. His successor, Julia de la Torre, was announced in November 2017, and she would take office July 1, 2018. This valuable time frame allowed for important transition activities, and the board and senior administrators played a critical role. Midway through the search process, we formed a head transition committee composed of several trustees, including myself, and a senior administrator. We were responsible for helping to guide and support the transition, with a particular focus on opportunities for de la Torre to get to know the school, its strengths and challenges, and its various constituencies. The head transition committee was active from the time of her appointment through the end of her first year. Here are some of our considerations and my observations during that time. 

A celebration for the outgoing head benefits everyone. This approach is essential to a school’s ongoing success and to the next leader’s success. Honoring the outgoing head and their work also implicitly honors a school and its leadership. The MFS board felt it was critical to celebrate Van Meter through his final year in a variety of ways, including events for different stakeholders.

A warm welcome for the incoming head sets the tone. Just as important as celebrating the departing head is welcoming the incoming head, appropriately and over time. At MFS, the head transition committee did much of the planning, with support from one or more administrators and the board. We considered the timing of events and the desired impact. We wanted de la Torre and her family to feel at home, and for her impressions to be optimistic, encouraging, and accurate. As part of our planning, the board and the head transition committee considered the following questions:

  • How will we introduce the new head in print, on our website, and via email? Initially, the advancement and communications officers spearheaded this work, but de la Torre began to take an increasingly active role over time. 
  • What kind of in-person welcome celebrations will we hold, and when? We gathered multiple groups together over time, and, initially, those gatherings included at least some trustees, and, in the early phases, Larry Van Meter as well.
  • How often will the new head visit the campus, and for what purpose, knowing that the current head is still in charge? De la Torre visited the campus twice after her appointment and before taking office: once for school leadership purposes, and once as the parent of her school-age son, who was applying for admission. We intentionally kept the two purposes separate, so that de la Torre would have a chance to focus on being a parent during her child’s visit.
  • How will the outgoing head share wisdom, challenges, and ongoing projects with the new head? How often will they communicate? With the support of the transition committee, the heads scheduled weekly phone conversations, based on an evolving agenda that they crafted together. The incoming head also had periodic phone conversations with the associate head and with the transition committee. She had access to other senior administrators at the school, as needed. 
  • What decisions should be made together by the outgoing head and the incoming head? Are there any decisions that should be made solely by the incoming head? Because of the mutual respect and trust that the heads developed during their regular conversations, they were able to decide together how to make certain decisions, such as administrative hiring, budget forecasting, and any pending legal matters, most effectively. 
  • How often should the incoming head be in communication with the board chair? How can the board chair support the incoming head? The board chair and the new head were in regular, scheduled communication through the spring, before she took office. Many of these meetings became in-person, once de la Torre was on-site. Just as with the outgoing head, the new head and the board chair developed a relationship of trust and respect that was critical to the success of the transition, and the board chair made it clear that she was available to support and partner in every way possible. 
  • What else can we do to ensure the new head feels supported? On the MFS campus, there’s a house for the head. With de la Torre’s input, we were able to make some modest renovations and do some painting. On moving day, the board chair and an administrator stopped by with small gifts and food items. In another category of support, MFS offered de la Torre an executive coach’s services. While we recommended a coach with particular expertise in Quaker education, de la Torre could choose whom she wanted to work with for a full year. The relationship was entirely confidential, and at the school’s expense.
Ongoing support for the transition is essential. The transition is not over on July 1, when the new head takes office. In fact, it is just beginning. Van Meter, who moved about an hour’s drive from the school, remained in contact, as needed, and returned to the campus for events occasionally, always at de la Torre’s invitation. They continue to connect periodically, particularly with respect to the school’s long history and cultural dynamics. Seeing them together, in person or in photographs, sends a powerful message about the continuity and strength of leadership at the school and is a measure of the success of the transition. Beginning the fifth year of her tenure now, de la Torre continues to build on the legacy that Van Meter and his predecessors created, as she brings her own distinct leadership and vision to Moorestown Friends and its future.
Peter Baily

Peter Baily, a former school head, is the executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland & DC Schools. He just completed 10 years of service on the board of trustees at Moorestown Friends School in Moorestown, New Jersey, where he chaired the head transition committee.