Change Leadership

Spring 2015

By Pearl Rock Kane and Justin Barbaro

Independent school leadership transitions are in the air. According to the 2009 NAIS leadership and governance report,1 68 percent of sitting U.S. independent school heads plan to retire or change jobs by 2019. We are now in the midst of that transition, and the numbers will likely accelerate as the baby boomer school heads who delayed retirement in response to the financial crisis begin to leave their jobs.

To add to the challenge, job persistence rates remain lower than in previous years. In U.S. independent schools, the average headship tenure has dipped slightly, with current heads serving an average of 12.6 years, while their predecessors held the headship role for an average of 13.1 years.

In international schools, not only is the turnover rate for headship much higher than in U.S. schools, but the development of new schools, all requiring new leaders, also provides unprecedented challenges. The Journal of Research in International Education estimates the average headship tenure in international schools at 3.7 years,2 and current projections of accelerating change estimate the number of international schools will increase almost 450 percent, from 2,584 in 2000 to more than 12,000 by 2024.3

Given this volatile landscape, we decided to examine headship transitions in both U.S. independent schools and international schools. A comparative study of U.S. and international school transitions offers several advantages over a study of U.S. independent schools alone. The exponential growth of international schools has implications for U.S. independent schools and their educators. For instance, U.S. teachers and administrators are being aggressively recruited to fill a growing need for school personnel abroad - so the findings of sector differences should be illuminating to those contemplating such a move. In addition, as boundaries between the two sectors become more fluid, enthusiasm for potential advantages of fostering globalism in U.S. independent schools may be diminished by potential losses of talent at home. And while we did not set out to study the implications of short tenure on international schools, those findings may be instructive as job persistence in the U.S. headship declines.

On the micro level, transitions are major events affecting every school constituent. A poor match can undermine morale and destabilize a school community. The high expense of the search process can strain finances. For a school head, a poorly handled transition that results in dismissal may thwart a career in school leadership. Despite the potential destabilizing impact, there is minimal empirical research concerning how schools and heads plan for and execute smooth transitions.

What follows are key findings that emerged after more than 40 hours of interviews with transitioning school heads, governance board chairs, and search consultants. We are indebted to those who gave us their time and shared their wisdom with us. We also appreciate the support of the National Association of Independent Schools and the European Council of International Schools in conducting this research.

Phases of Transition

Despite the abundance of popular books and articles marking the transition period as the first 90 days on the job, heads revealed that their transition often began months before the first 90 days and extended well beyond this three-month period. In fact, we identified four different phases that comprise the transition period of both U.S. independent and international school heads: pre-entry, arrival, the first 90 days, and the second 90 days (see Table 1 on page 54).

The pre-entry phase extends from the signing of a contract until arrival on campus. This phase, lasting up to 12 months in U.S. independent schools and 15 months in international schools, characteristically involves the newly hired head in communication with key administrators, board members, and stakeholders while still retaining responsibilities at the school of current employment. All heads in the study were fully employed as school heads or administrators at the time of hire. These interactions provide opportunities for the incoming head to gather information concerning the school’s recent history, identify key issues, and learn about traditions. Often, the incoming head has been involved in filling one or two administrative positions during this time, given his or her stake in building a leadership team.

The second phase, which we call arrival, spans the time between relocation to the new community and the opening day of school, often lasting between one and two months. During the arrival phase, the transitioning head and any accompanying family members adjust to the community, locating essentials such as housing, appropriate medical care, and schools for the children. Not surprisingly, school heads transitioning to a school in an international culture cited the importance of adjustment during the arrival phase more often than U.S. independent school heads.

The third phase encompasses the first 90 days on the job, roughly equivalent to the first school semester. While the board usually provides directives for the year, the head must first get to know administrators and faculty, establish a relationship with the board chair and key board members, and learn how the school functions. In the process, heads discover realities about the school, some that had not been previously disclosed. Among the heads we interviewed, these undisclosed realities sometimes included difficult personnel problems and financial challenges that were more serious than described. The intent of most heads during the first 90 days is to build credibility and achieve small wins, but some of these larger challenges required their immediate attention.4

The final phase of transition, the second 90 days, lasts approximately the length of the second semester, during which the head of school works to achieve first-year goals established with the board. In most cases, the completion of this phase corresponds with the end of the school year and the board’s first formal evaluation of the head’s work.

Transition Assistance

We asked transitioning school heads if they received help from the board, the school community, a transition team, the search firm, or others. With few exceptions, heads of both U.S. and international schools said they received only minimal assistance during any phase of transition, shouldering most of the transition burden alone. This is not to say that heads received no help. In the United States, heads were more likely to receive help from their administrative team, their board chair, a board member, or the outgoing head. Search firms were sometimes useful during the recruitment phase but not during the transition itself. Most of the U.S. school heads couldn’t recall whether they had a transition committee; those who did said they were not sure what the committee was supposed to do.

For international school heads, transition assistance was equally scant. They did say that the board chair, the school’s business manager, or an outside mentor offered some help. For many, the outgoing head was the greatest source of support. However, when the departing head was leaving involuntarily, the board discouraged his or her interaction with the incoming head. Transition committees were not mentioned by any of the international school heads in the study.

When asked about the sort of assistance that would have been helpful during each of these phases of transition, heads were forthright in offering the following recommendations.


During the pre-entry phase, both U.S. and international school heads underscored the need for space to fulfill their current job responsibilities. Heads in both contexts were currently employed in other positions at the time of their hire and communicated a need to complete the responsibilities associated with that role before moving into their current headship. One head expressed a sentiment shared by most incoming heads: “I think it’s really important that the [receiving] school respect that you still have a full-time job.... I was up to my neck in work, and I wasn’t going to let things go ’til the last day of that job.”


The second phase of arrival represents a crucial transition period. For married heads in international schools, ensuring that their family and spouse were settled in their new communities abroad was paramount. While any move requires adjusting to a new community, the international context introduces challenges in proportion to the degree of difference in the culture.

First 90 Days

During the first 90 days on the job, transitioning heads in both U.S. and international schools stated their desire for help in facilitating relationships with key community stakeholders. Heads stressed the importance of being introduced to key board members, staff, and school families - to begin building relationships.

Second 90 Days

During the second 90 days, heads of both U.S. and international schools say they focus on accomplishing the priorities set by the board. To guide them in this effort, heads expressed a need to receive formative feedback on their performance at the end of the first 90 days. Such feedback would allow them to make adjustments and deal with perceptions as needed. They saw this as more helpful than waiting until the end of the school year, when boards traditionally offer summative feedback.

Greatest Challenges

Heads were asked to cite their greatest challenges once in the job. Below are the three most salient challenges.

U.S. Heads of Schools


Financial issues represented the most common transition challenge for U.S. heads. Eleven of the 16 U.S. heads interviewed described the magnitude of financial stress as ranging from concerning to dire, and most felt ill-equipped to address these issues. On entering the job, they faced enrollment problems, debt refinancing, and staff reorganization issues that in some cases required them to let go of teachers to make budget. With the latter issue, they had to deal with the fallout of low faculty morale. Furthermore, first-time heads overwhelmingly said that managing finances presented a new challenge for which they were unprepared. For first-time heads, zeal for getting the job and optimism about one’s ability to make a difference can obscure headship realities. Prior to entering the job, many of the surveyed heads appeared to have underestimated the fiscal challenges while overestimating their ability to confront these challenges.

Transferability of Job Skills

U.S. heads, particularly first-time heads, discovered that skills that led to success in their previous job did not necessarily contribute to success in the new position. For many, this discovery was a major challenge and setback. Skill in building interpersonal relationships and being hands-on with staff, for example, was highly prized by new heads who had been division directors in their previous schools. However, given the demands on their time, these heads quickly learned they had to let go of functions they like and do well to allow other administrators to take care of matters that fall within their responsibilities. Heads also found that transferability of skills had to be mitigated by the new school’s culture. A head who was a skillful consensus builder in her previous school needed to understand how to function effectively in the new school culture. “At my former school,” she said, “the greatest sin would be to not consult. I tried to use some of the same systems here and found there was a great deal of impatience with that among the faculty.” This forced her to change her practices rather than expect the school culture to adjust to her preferences.

Prioritizing Competing Demands

Heads new to the job talked about being overwhelmed in the effort to tackle problems according to their priority when there were multiple priorities and competing interests for financial and physical resources.

International Heads of School

Adjusting to the Political and National Culture

In the international schools represented in our study, third parties - national governments, multinational corporations, and nongovernmental organizations - subsidized almost all tuition. So financial matters did not top the list of concerns. Rather, the greatest transition challenge confronting international school heads is adjusting to a new political and national culture.

An extreme but telling example is the first-time international school head who found himself in charge of a school located in a country unexpectedly thrown into war before he had established connections with the local U.S. embassy. The head learned quickly the importance of connecting with the embassy early on and learning about a country’s culture, including the social organization and government structure and local manners, beliefs, customs, laws, religion, and values.

U.S. private schools are largely exempt from state laws for public schools. In contrast, other countries often exercise a great deal of influence over private school practices. One international head described a situation in which the ministry of education changed the age requirements for kindergarten shortly before the school was slated to open - precipitating structural changes with financial consequences.

Understanding the School Culture

International schools often serve as the center of community life for expatriate families, particularly since an accompanying spouse or partner is usually ineligible to work in the country. Thus, besides serving children, the school may be a recreational or athletic center for families.

The head has to know what the community holds sacrosanct and try not to interfere in those matters if they are not central to school effectiveness. A head of a school in Asia provided an illustration of innocently violating a valued tradition. He wanted parents to finish jogging on the school track before the school day started so that parents would not be in the changing rooms when students arrived. “All I did,” he said, “was have a conversation with some parents, [saying], ‘We’d like you to finish jogging 30 minutes earlier if that’s OK.” But this seemingly innocuous request led to a parents’ petition objecting to what they considered to be his efforts to root parents from the school.


Transience is part of life in most international schools. The turnover rate is high for everyone: school heads, teachers, students, and board chairs. Of the international school heads interviewed, 10 out of 16 planned to stay five years or less, one planned to stay six to ten years, and the others said they weren’t sure how long they would stay. The average tenure of international school heads is 3.7 years, and most international school communities anticipate their tenure will be short. Given that heads readily find other jobs, there appears to be no stigma to leaving. Heads estimated that 30 percent of the teachers rotate annually. They gave similar statistics for students. Boards, whose members are primarily elected, were equally mobile.

The effect of this transience was noted in several ways. While schools do not appear to want for students, heads and other administrators must regularly engage in the time-consuming process of recruiting teachers, and schools must work to acculturate both students and teachers to the school. Another outcome of transience is that expats who choose to stay at the school often amass disproportionate power. Heads described resistance-to-change efforts from groups of teachers, parents, or staff who wielded inordinate power because of their longevity in the school.

Our research study used data collected from 32 interviews with transitioning heads of school, including 16 international school heads and 16 independent school heads. Due to the relative stability of U.S. headship, compared with international headship, we chose to interview second-year U.S. heads and first-year international school heads. We also selected heads based on a diversity of personal factors (gender, nationality, professional experiences, etc.) and school characteristics (location, size of school, type of school, etc.) in order to increase the findings’ applicability to the larger population of school heads. International school heads came from all inhabited continents outside North America, with nine from Europe, four from Asia, and one each from Africa, South America, and Oceania. Transitioning heads were selected from lists generously provided to us by the National Association of Independent Schools and the European Council of International Schools. We interviewed each transitioning head either in person or via Skype. In addition, we interviewed seven board chairs and four search consultants to gain their perspectives on the transition process.


While U.S. and international schools provide different contexts for studying headship transitions, they share common problems that can be addressed with similar approaches. In both cases, the schools and school heads need to plan for transitions, mindful of the distinct phases of transition - pre-entry, arrival, the first 90 days, and the second 90 days. Each phase requires different forms of support that can be provided by different people within and outside of the school community. Notably, that support can be provided with minimal financial expense, and the task can be shared so that it is manageable. Absent in most schools studied is a strategy to ensure that the needs of the transitioning head will be met so that conditions for advancing the school are optimal.

The findings also reveal that U.S. independent schools and international schools face distinctive challenges. Most notable in U.S. independent schools are the problems of financial sustainability. It may not be coincidental that the schools in our study have experienced recent headship turnover. As most heads hired for these jobs are new to the headship, we may speculate that independent schools with the greatest needs are being led by heads with the least experience. Given that these heads are hired not to maintain the status quo but to improve their schools, savvy boards would do well to offer heads strong support in the transition period, encourage opportunities for financial education, and provide time and assistance for exploration of entrepreneurial approaches that would help strengthen the school.

Other challenges cited by independent school heads included the realization that success in one context does not necessarily transfer to another and that heads must be offered guidance in dealing with competing school demands.

For their part, international school heads planning short commitments to schools must be attuned to the political context and national culture of the countries they are entering. They must also become proficient in learning the cultures of their new schools. If the schools we studied are typical, heads must also adjust to a school that is in a constant state of transience. Boards of international schools may also be wise to incentivize longer commitments to reap the benefits of stable leadership.


1. National Association of Independent Schools, “The State of Independent School Leadership 2009: Report of Survey Research Among School Heads and Administrators.” Washington, DC, 2010.

2. John Benson, “An Investigation of Chief Administrator in International Schools,” Journal of Research in International Education, 10(1), 2011, pp. 87-103.

3. Benson, pp. 87-103. See also “New Data on International Schools Suggests Continued Strong Growth.” ICEF Monitor (March 18, 2014). Retrieved from

4. For more on this stage, see Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
Pearl Rock Kane

Pearl Rock Kane is the Klingenstein Family Chair Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Justin Barbaro

Justin Barbaro is a Ph.D. candidate in education at Teachers College, Columbia University.