Advanced Placement

Spring 2015

By Marc Levinson

Over the past 13 years working with independent schools, I have watched many head of school transitions. Some have been very successful, some have been dismal failures, and none of them has been easy. Witnessing these transitions, I’ve wondered: Is the model broken?

In my experience, the typical model for head transitions involves an expensive search firm, a search committee that doesn’t always understand its marching orders, and a long, long walk to the finish line. The transitions feel instinctively inefficient and therefore at odds with the rapid-fire pace of educational evolution.

It is crucial that we examine and improve our head leadership transitions now because independent schools are poised to face a major head shortage by 2020. According to data in the 2014–15 NAIS TrendBook, “Nearly two-thirds of independent school heads are likely to retire within the next five years, yet few administrators are interested in pursuing the headship.”

Furthermore, the future leaders of our schools are millennials, who are much less likely than previous generations to look at 20-year career positions. This means our schools will be conducting more searches more frequently. Can we afford the money spent and the time lost? I’d argue that the answer is “no.”

Concerned about the headship transition process, I interviewed 27 people at numerous schools and consulting firms about their views on the subject. Their insights convinced me that rethinking headship transitions is key to independent school sustainability today. If we don’t move the issue to the front burner, our schools will inevitably suffer.

Problems with the Current Head Transition Model

To improve our approach to headship transitions, we need to acknowledge the problems in the current model.

It’s time-consuming.

The head search and transition process is a multiyear event (see Head Transition Timeline). This is partly driven by the board’s desire for conscientiousness in leading the school through a major change and partly by state and regional requirements regarding strategic planning. Most of our schools continue to have accreditation standards that require strategic planning on a five-year cycle. Heads will typically attempt to time their departures in order to minimize disruption to the school or its processes. This is a noble goal, but the outcome is typically a situation in which no major changes are happening at the school for a two-to-four-year period of time, which is, ironically, destructive to a school. In a world that operates at Twitter speed, two years feels like 20. A school can easily lose its relevancy in that period of time.

It’s expensive.

Search consultants charge either a flat fee or a percentage fee. A percentage fee typically amounts to 30 percent of a new head’s first year salary. Because heads’ salaries have increased over the past 10 years, this percentage fee has become a significant investment for schools.

According to National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) statistics, mean head salaries have increased from $184,000 to $260,000 from 2005–06 to 2013–14, or 41 percent. (These numbers reflect cash salaries — excluding benefits, deferred compensation, etc.) This means that the base cost for a search consultant is nearly $80,000. After interviewing people at several schools, it was clear to me that a school needs to budget upwards of $150,000 to cover all head search expenses, which may be manageable for a larger school but is prohibitive for a small school.

Several search firms with whom I spoke now charge a flat fee; at least two are charging a fee based upon the school’s size and resources. These base flat fees were closer to $35,000 –$40,000, which means the overall cost of a search would look more like a $75,000 investment.

If a school is only going through this search process every 15 to 20 years or more, the investment can be managed fairly easily. But it’s a different story when heads turn over after five to 10 years. And when a search is not successful (no new head was hired or a head stayed less than three years), the cost could be staggering.

Search committees aren’t experienced.

Trustees lead search committees. In recent years, independent schools have tackled their governance issues and have instituted stricter term limits for trustees. The average board chair may now only be in place for two to four years, and board members typically have a three-year first and second term (six years total). While the governance improvements are laudable, the unintended consequence for head searches is that the same board will not go through two head transitions, so it can’t learn from its mistakes. During my interviews for this project, several heads said, “The board that hires me will not be the board that fires me.”

While a search committee chair is almost always an experienced and respected member of the board, this person has rarely been trained to lead a search, and there are very few resources to help him or her. The source most commonly cited is The NAIS Head Search Handbook: A Start-to-Finish Guide for the Search Committee, which was published in 2006. The book is a compilation of chapters written by a number of search consultants and the information in it is, at best, nearly 10 years old. I believe it is time for our associations to take a careful look at this issue and develop a plan to provide resources and training for search committees.

John Chubb, president of NAIS, and several association leaders I spoke with expressed concern about the lack of resources and training for search committees. Most agree that hiring (as well as supporting and evaluating) leadership is the primary responsibility of our school boards, but most boards are ill equipped to tackle this assignment.

Search firms have limited candidate pools.

There are a number of well-established and well-known search firms that serve independent schools. In fact, many of these firms serve only independent schools and focus on head searches, the largest of which has approximately 30 consultants working on head searches.

The traditional firms are very focused on their databases of people within the independent school world that they have connected with over the years. In many cases, the search consultants are former heads themselves. This is not necessarily inappropriate, but it does limit the candidate pool to only “independent school people” and, in many cases, current (or past) heads at other schools. This suggests to me that the search is less of a “search” and more of a “placement.”

What Could We Do Differently?

Schools will no doubt have to make hiring decisions that work best for their communities. Here are a few suggestions that, overall, should help schools and the independent school community as a whole.

Hire internally.

In 2013 and 2014, approximately 80 percent of the new CEOs at the top S&P 500 firms were hired internally. These people were carefully groomed and selected to lead their organizations. It is essentially the opposite at independent schools, in which somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 percent of heads are hired externally (see Internal Hires).

It is unclear why our industry has moved so far in this direction. It certainly benefits the search firms to push external candidates, but I am not convinced that it serves our schools well. As the number of retiring heads increases over the next five years, boards may need to change their principle of hiring an experienced head. Also, given the current widespread transformation in education, it may be that the “experienced” heads are not able to bring the skills, innovation, and creativity to the job that they brought in the past.

Independent schools can also do a better job of vetting internal candidates. Rather than putting them through the same process as external candidates — which is not fair to internal or external candidates — they should be separated. As Pat Bassett, school consultant and former president of NAIS, said, “The best candidates may not be available because of fear that they may lose their current position if they are known to be looking. This is true for senior administrators as well.”

In his article “Growing Administrative Talent: A Case for an Increase in Internal Successions to Head of School,” Steve Robinson, president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools, suggests, “Prior to undertaking a national search, the board should first conduct a thorough review of any internal candidate and make a decision of whether or not the candidate will be offered the position.” If the board determines that no internal candidates are appropriate given the current situation at the school, move on to an external search.

Have better succession planning.

I have spoken with a large number of heads of independent schools, and only once did a head tell me that his board specifically tasked him with developing the next generation of school leaders within his school. This board has taken a page from the Spencer Stuart search firm’s 2014 blog posting, “CEO Succession Planning: The CEO’s Critical Role”: “When should succession planning begin? While somewhat counterintuitive, ideally, the process should start early in a CEO’s tenure, possibly when the CEO starts in the role.”

Even in our smallest schools, the head should be responsible for leadership development. As an industry, it seems we have defaulted to looking outside our schools to fill any and all leadership positions. In his 2013 monograph, Succession Planning and the Transition of Leaders in Independent Schools, Steve Robinson puts it well: “Ironically, even though schools are in the general business of talent development, most boards engaged in head searches seek talent that has been developed elsewhere. They choose external candidates despite risking the loss of programmatic continuity, cultural stability, and institutional memory.”

The independent school industry as a whole can do a better job of developing leadership talent. Independent school associations, typically the keepers of professional development resources, have not developed what feels like a consistent approach to cultivating leaders. While NAIS provides a yearlong program for aspiring heads of school, the process for joining it is not a selective one. Recently, John Chubb convened a steering committee comprising association leaders to help NAIS develop more robust leadership identification, development, and training programs. I believe that school trustees must be included in this work at some level. Ultimately, it is our boards that will need to be responsible for changing the existing leadership transition model and providing the leadership to develop talent from within our schools.

Rethink the head of school model.

The traditional career path to becoming a head of an independent school is through academics. Most heads begin their career as teachers. But is teaching experience the skill that is most important to being a successful head of an independent school? Given the fact that heads are CEOs of multimillion dollar institutions with oversight and responsibility for the financial sustainability, significant fund-raising (external pressures), facility management, etc., perhaps it is time to reconsider the skill set of heads and look beyond the independent school classroom to the talent pools of public schools, higher education, for-profits, and nonprofit organizations.

Another possibility for a new head leadership model comes from higher education, where there is often a president (more of a CEO) and a chancellor (more of an academic director). Certain (larger) independent schools are embracing this model. For example, Jackson Academy (Mississippi) has an administrative structure that includes a president (this year, the former CFO) and a headmaster (the academic leader of the school).

This does not discount internal candidates from pursing headship. It simply means we need to broaden our view of who would make great heads of school and to reconsider the parameters of the head’s job.

Sync up board chair transition with head transition.

During my interviews, one fact became clear: When there was a thoughtful discussion about board leadership with head candidates and again with the incoming head, and when the search committee chair was committed to board leadership (most often by becoming the new chair at the same time as the new head), the school enjoyed great success. The evidence suggests that committing to a thoughtful board leadership transition is a significant factor to a new head’s success.


Based on my research and interviews, here are a few key points I would recommend to schools as they think about the leadership transition process:

  1. Board leadership is crucial to the success of the head of school transition. I suggest that, as a best practice, search committee chairs be designated as the next board chair. This could be timed to coincide with the arrival of the new head or be a year or two later.
  2. Boards need to look carefully at the concept of succession planning and build this into their thinking and expectations for the head of school. It is clear that in the corporate environment CEOs are expected to groom people to succeed them. Even in our smallest schools this is possible.
  3. Leadership development must become a priority for our schools and the logical place for this to fall is with the associations that serve them. Succession planning will not be possible without the appropriate resources for leadership development. Some of this can be done internally at the school level, but more must be done on the state, regional, and national levels.
  4. Boards need to consider the skills required to lead a 21st-century school and that these may be different than what has been successful in the past. We are in the midst of a rapid transformation of our educational models and the traditional model of leadership is unlikely to be successful for an innovative, progressive school.
  5. Boards need to consider looking outside of traditional places for new heads. First, they must consider people who have had no experience as a head of school but who are knowledgeable about education and organizational leadership. Second, while not discounting people who have come up though the teaching ranks, they also need to look at people who have not been teachers. Third, they need to look outside of independent schools for more options. Again, the challenge is to match the skills required and the school’s culture with the person to lead.
  6. Finally, the search firms that have served independent schools well for decades need to consider changing their approach; otherwise nontraditional search firms will continue to gain a stronger position in this market.

I believe in the future of independent schools and the education that our schools provide for our children. In order for that future to become a reality, we need the best leaders we can possibly find. It’s time to get better at finding them.

Case Studies

Philips Academy Andover
Andover, Massachusetts — in its 237th year; coed, boarding-day, 1,138 students, grades 9–12

John Palfrey is in his third year as head of school, and by all accounts has established himself as a dynamic and respected leader in this community. Andover is one of the oldest schools in the U.S.; in its 237th year, the school is steeped in tradition with more than 25,000 alumni. Prior to becoming head of school, Palfrey was a tenured professor at Harvard University, having reached that status in his 30s — an amazing accomplishment.

Peter Currie, chair of the search committee, told me the story of a moment when he was on an airplane watching a young girl (about nine years old) spend the majority of the long plane ride using her iPad. He suddenly wondered if Andover would be ready for her in five years or so. His concern for his school was whether it would continue to be relevant to a new generation of learners. This helped him frame the search for a new head of school.

Hiring a nontraditional search firm (which asked not to be named) was a significant step for Andover. I would argue that if not for this choice of search firms Andover would never have had the opportunity to consider Palfrey as a head of school. He would not have been on the radar nor did he have any connection to the more traditional firms working for independent schools. Additionally, the willingness of Currie, the search committee, and ultimately the community and board of Andover to make this decision was in many respects very risky. Palfrey came to Andover with a great many skills and some understanding of independent school education from his experiences as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire), but he was an author and a college professor. Taking over leadership of an institution like Andover required using his skills in a different way. It was exactly the search committee’s commitment to finding a new leader with the appropriate skills that was instrumental in the decision to offer this position to Palfrey. These skills included well-honed governance and financial management experience — two factors that often lead to failures with independent school heads and that are not well developed in many new heads.

In some respects, the search process was very traditional, following a typical timeline and transparency. The community was very involved. The two finalists went through the typical two-day grueling interview process. The search committee initially considered internal candidates, but no internal candidates entered the process. When the external search began, it was clearly communicated that there were no internal candidates.

I believe that one factor that has led to the success at Andover (and other schools) was the decision early on in the process that the chair of the search committee (in this case, Currie) would become the chair of the board when the new person (in this case, Palfrey) became head. At Andover, this decision was communicated to the candidates so that there would no question about board leadership for the new head.

I asked Palfrey about succession planning. He believes in and has instituted programs at Andover promoting leadership development within the school. I also asked him what he thought was the appropriate tenure for a leader. His answer was predicated on the ability of the institution to change and the time and effort that this would take, as well as the challenges faced in changing the culture. He believes that anything less than five years would be too short and that much longer than 10 years is likely to be too long. At that point, he would expect it to be difficult (but not impossible) to continue to move the institution forward at the same pace. To Palfrey, 10 years seems like the right amount of time — enough time to accomplish real changes and meet his goals, but not too long that he would burn out or fail to perform at the highest level.

Saint Andrew’s School
Boca Raton, Florida — in its 52nd year; coed, day-boarding, 1,275 students, grades JK-12

Of the four schools profiled, Saint Andrew’s followed a more traditional search path and process. The departing head led the school for six years and had been hired internally. She had served 10 years prior to that as the school’s upper school director.

The board chair at the time asked trustee Mary Jo Finocchiaro to serve as the search committee chair. Finocchiaro was in the first three-year term of her trusteeship, but had assumed increasing levels of responsibility in her committee work and was on a clear path to board leadership. Board leadership transition is clearly a significant factor in continuity and success for the incoming head of school. She immediately read The NAIS Head Search Handbook and used this information, along with her extensive business experience, to lead the process. As with Andover, Saint Andrew’s followed a typical timeline and process.

The search committee interviewed four search firms. The committee was delighted with the qualifications of each firm, but Carney Sandoe and its two consultants presented the ideal fit, according to Finocchiaro. Among other things, she connected with the consultants personally and was persuaded by the fact that Carney Sandoe was responsible for the recruitment and placement of more people into independent school leadership and teaching positions than any other firm in the country. Carney Sandoe had also been doing this work for 35 consecutive years, longer than any other firm.

The search committee was relatively small and comprised only board trustees. The process was inclusive and transparent, but the committee decided that hiring the new head was a board decision and therefore the committee would consist only of trustees. As with Andover, only two finalists were invited to the campus for the final two-day interview process, and the search committee and board had consensus on the appointment. These are important factors. New heads need to be assured they have the support of the full board; consensus in the hiring decision appears to be a significant factor in foreshadowing successful transitions. Having relationship continuity — meaning that the search chair responsible for leading the effort to hire the head later becomes the board chair — is also an important factor.

From the onset, the Saint Andrew’s search committee was open-minded and considered internal candidates, rising stars, and sitting heads to lead Saint Andrew’s School. Finocchiaro described the candidates sourced by Carney Sandoe as exceptional, but as the search developed and the candidate pool narrowed through the various selection rounds, a very specific candidate profile emerged to steward the school’s mission and lead Saint Andrew’s School.

Peter Benedict II was appointed as the new head. Benedict has followed a traditional path to independent school leadership, starting as an English teacher and moving through a series of administrative positions, including one prior headship. He was a great cultural fit, as he was raised in Florida and his father was a long-tenured head of a Florida independent school. Carney Sandoe approached him early in the process. Carney Sandoe knew him well because it had helped place him in his prior position and had contacted him about other opportunities over the years. Benedict believes the relationship between the candidate, search chair, and board chair was a crucial element to the success of the process and that the transition has been smooth.

In terms of advice, Benedict encouraged any head candidates to look carefully at the school governance and leadership before making a decision. He did comment that the search process seems much too long and is exhausting for the candidates, especially if they are in multiple searches, which is common. In particular, the long process has a serious detrimental impact on the candidates’ current schools. He would like to see this process streamlined. I asked him about head tenure — he spent seven years in his prior headship. He agreed that anything less than five would not feel like a success for anyone and that the magic number may be as long as 15 years, but certainly not the 27 years his father had spent as head of one school. Today’s environment is not conducive to that long of a tenure.

The Madeira School
McLean, Virginia — in its 108th year; girls, boarding-day, 306 students, grades 9–12

Pilar Cabeza de Vaca is in her fifth year as head at Madeira — the longest of the heads in the four case studies and clearly long enough to declare her appointment a success. The search committee was co-chaired by Sarah Daignault, a long-term board member and alumna of the school, along with Jen Shakeshaft, also an alumna and board member. Shakeshaft was class of ’91; Daignault, class of ’66. This co-chair arrangement provided a significant generational balance for the committee leadership. At the time, Daignault also served as executive director of the National Business Officers Association and served on the board of the National Association of Independent Schools. She clearly brought a great deal of independent school knowledge and expertise to the situation.

As with the prior two schools, the timeline and process were fairly typical. The search committee interviewed six search firms, four that would be classified as traditional and two nontraditional. One of the nontraditional firms was selected. Since I was unable to interview anyone from the search firm, I will not identify them. One of the compelling factors in the decision was that the team from the successful firm consisted of four women with ethnic and age diversity.

As with Andover, this nontraditional search firm was not as constrained by the typical independent school candidates. Cabeza de Vaca had significant experience as a head of two international schools and at the time of the search was the executive director of European Council of International Schools. It is unlikely that she would have been in the candidate pool of a traditional search firm. This provides another example of a nontraditional firm bringing greater depth and variety to the candidate pool. All of the committee chairs, heads, and search consultants discussed the critical importance of fit for the school and the candidate. One described the process as a courtship; both parties need to get to know each other before they make a decision.

In this case, the search chair did not move into the board leadership role — she had already served as board chair for many years, and the transition was planned and known to the candidate. Even though that factor was not present, a clearly articulated board leadership transition is again an important factor in the success of the head transition.

The Watershed School
Boulder, Colorado — in its 11th year; coed, day school, grades 6–12,60 students

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a trustee of The Watershed School and was on the search committee. Sarah DeSouza was the chair of the committee and while this was a new experience for her, she has great experience in executive recruiting in her current government position.

Watershed is a very small and young school. The total budget is just over $1 million, making a traditional search with any of the common search firms prohibitive. Even with the discounted pricing offered by a couple of the traditional firms, the committee looked for alternatives and considered conducting the search without a consultant. Ultimately, the committee decided to hire a local consulting firm, HR Concierge, which consists of just one person, Christine Lipson. Lipson is an SPHR, has been involved in a number of executive searches, and has worked as the HR/operations director at an independent school for more than 10 years. She quoted the committee a flat fee of $12,000 to manage the search. DeSouza fully recognized that one piece Watershed would give up (to some extent) with this decision was the connection to people currently employed at independent schools. However, given the fact that Watershed is considered by some as nontraditional (I prefer innovative and progressive) the search committee knew it was unlikely that Watershed would attract the typical candidates and unlikely that they would be a good fit. Social media was used extensively in announcing the open position.

In most other respects, the search process followed a typical timeline and process. There were a couple of important differences, however. In an effort to conserve financial resources, the first round of semifinalist interviews (10 in all) was conducted via Skype. The added benefit of this approach is that it allowed the committee to evaluate candidates on their ability to use the technology appropriately, which is important for the school’s culture and programs. A second round of semifinalist interviews was also conducted via Skype. The next out-of-the-ordinary decision is that the committee decided there was only one person it wanted to consider as a finalist and that person was invited to visit the school. DeSouza was clear with the committee that this was not a decision to hire this person; if the committee was not satisfied, the committee was prepared to start over. The school had an interim head who had been at the school as dean of faculty, and although he was not interested in the permanent head position, the committee was confident that he would stay on as interim if the right head were not found. DeSouza did tell me that her only fear during the process was that the candidate would say no to an offer once we had decided to make one.

The school’s culture drove the process. The search committee included board members, nonboard parents, the interim head, and other faculty. Students were very involved in the interview process; during the candidate’s first visit to the school, most of the time was spent with students. The committee received feedback from the students and the faculty involved.

The new head, Greg Bamford, has worked in independent schools first as an English teacher and then as the English department chair, the only true administrative position he held at a school. He left school to work as a corporate consultant and facilitator, and later he founded a nonprofit focused on educational innovation. He decided to look at the Watershed position as an opportunity to take the work he had been doing as a school consultant and put it into practice. This is similar to the decision made by John Palfrey, head of Phillips Academy (Massachusetts), to step away from his tenured position at Harvard to move to Andover, and see if he could put into practice what he had been researching for years.

Bamford did tell me that the process was exhausting but also very rewarding, and it provided him with the opportunity to determine if leading Watershed, moving to Boulder, working with the board, etc. would be the right fit for him.

DeSouza did not move into the board chair role (she remains a trustee), and the board chair at the time of the search did leave the board. However, this was all transparent for the candidate, and the incoming board chair was very visible and part of the process. There were no surprises for either of the two new leaders of the school. Bamford is in his first year, so a determination of success will need to wait. The process was successful.

Marc Levinson

Marc Levinson is a contributor to Independent School Magazine.