Are Two Heads Better Than One?

Spring 2020

By Claudia Daggett

When I visited Laura Fuller, head of school at University School of Milwaukee (WI), in the spring of 2019 as part of my work as executive director of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS), our conversation quickly moved to the topic of her decision to complete her tenure in spring 2020. Reflecting on the two headships she has held over an 11-year period, she told me that the role has become increasingly complex and parent expectations, increasingly broad and pronounced. One of the biggest stressors of her job, she said, is feeling that she can’t be in all the places she should be. She reported that she can’t connect with as many people as she would like and struggles with adequately providing personal support on a consistent basis for her large faculty and staff. During our conversation, she wondered aloud whether co-headships would be a better model.

An appropriately defined co-head structure, Fuller pondered, could potentially significantly increase the personal contacts that could be made on a daily basis. “In a relationship-driven world like independent schools,” she said, “I cannot imagine a more important improvement that could be made than to double the opportunity for the head of school to build connections and community.”

Dual executive leadership is a common model in other industries, such as performing arts organizations, where managing directors and artistic directors both report to the board, but it is rarely used in independent schools. Most typical is the model in which the head is the one direct report to the board, often with an administrative team to carry out much of the work. Another established model features a president, often focused on advancement, who reports to the board, and a head of school who is focused on operations and reports to the president. In a model more common years ago, the head’s spouse shouldered some of the headship responsibilities, particularly in managing the expectation for presence at school events.

Heads of school are facing many new demands and increasingly difficult conditions, including a more volatile climate, unrealistic expectations from boards and constituents, a more prevalent customer-service mentality, enrollment management and financial sustainability pressures, a generational shift, and failures in forging an effective head-board partnership. Although the dual-head model has not been very widely explored in U.S. independent schools, given this landscape, is marrying two diverse skill sets and personalities the answer to managing stress and complexity?  

Dividing the Duties

The co-headship approach has most often been used during interim arrangements, when a head departs abruptly and the board taps an internal team to carry on for the short term. Appointing an interim leader from within the school allows for ready familiarity with the school mission, culture, history, and operations. When a single internal interim leader is not apparent, schools will sometimes ask a cohort to fill the role, dividing the responsibilities by skill set and experience. The distribution of responsibilities may be by internal and external focus, division leadership, or other allocation that fits the school structure and the particular personnel available. Recent examples in the ISACS region include Westminster Christian Academy (MO), Friends School of Minnesota (MN), Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy (KS), and Brehm Preparatory School (IL).

Embracing this model for the long-term is more rare. In the late 1990s, St. Mark’s School (MA) had a co-headship model filled by a husband and wife team, both holding the title head of school. The school now has a single head at the helm. Until very recently, University Lake School (WI) had a head of school and a head of administration, both of whom reported directly to the board. The head of administration now serves as the solo report to the board on an interim basis. Gary Weisserman, now head at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School (IL), served as head at Milken Community High School (CA) while the founding head reported to the board in the role of president. Milken currently has one direct report to the board: the head of school. This year, for the first time, Keith Country Day School (IL) has embarked on a co-headship model in which each head oversees a division in nearly all areas of operations; they both report to the board. One of these heads, when in the candidate phase, suggested the co-headship model based on her eagerness to share the work with a specific former colleague.

Co-headship is somewhat more prevalent internationally. When Rick Juliusson, now head at Friends School of Minnesota, was hired in 2015 as head at Monteverde Friends School in Costa Rica, he agreed to working with the former interim head as a co-head who would complement his nonprofit operations acumen with a strong background in teaching and learning. The model was disbanded after three years when Juliusson left the school.

The Holt School, in England, is among those using this model. After the retirement of the school’s head in 2016, the school’s two deputy heads proposed the new model to the governors. They moved into co-headship and hired a single deputy head for support.

According to BoardSource, which examines the broad field of nonprofit organizations including independent schools, there are critical elements of any dual CEO model, whether the titles are executive director, CEO, or head of school:
  • clear and separate job descriptions for each chief executive;
  • understanding of the shared responsibility and its consequence;
  • understanding of the mutual expectations and how the individual competencies interlock;
  • a proven communication system between the chief executives and the board; 
  • stress on common values;
  • personal and mutual control of private agendas and ambitions; and 
  • unequivocal trust between leaders. 

Identifying the Risks 

When Laura Fuller suggested a co-head model might be a way forward in the complex landscape, my first reaction was to catalog the risks.

Another layer of relationship building. Lenesa Leana—current trustee at Breck School (MN) who formerly served as head at Belmont Day School (MA) and interim head at St. Luke’s Episcopal School (TX)—had a similar reaction when I discussed the model with her. The idea of layering a complex, personal relationship with a co-head—navigating competitive perspectives and complicated feelings on countless issues—on top of the ordinary demands of school leadership seems untenable, she says.

“A head of school today is constantly juggling the competing priorities of financial sustainability, faculty salaries, student needs, technology growth, and parental demands,” Leana explains. “Considerable time is spent weighing different strategies and possible outcomes, pondering long-range goals and potential roadblocks. I value working with a strong team of administrators and an involved board, taking in information from every stakeholder and discussing issues deeply. But the final decision rests with the head who takes the responsibility for the outcome and stays for the fallout. It would be a rare partnership that could flourish in such a setting.”

Ego wars. The ingredient described by BoardSource as “personal and mutual control of private agendas and ambitions” seems particularly essential for such a partnership to work. Any subtle disparagement of one’s partner could send the model into a tailspin.

To be successful, each partner needs to be generous of spirit, willing to contribute to the work, and willing to help the other achieve goals without seeking personal benefit.

School community confusion on the lines of authority. In the Monteverde co-headship model, Juliusson found that, despite clear delineation of responsibilities—in this case distinguishing operations from academics—did not eliminate expectations that fell outside of the framework. While he was the head for operations, staff and parents would respond with disappointment when he directed them to his headship partner on topics of teaching and learning.

If any areas of responsibility fall outside of the framework altogether, the odds of confusion are higher. In these cases, repercussions could include neglecting an important concern or board members inappropriately wading in to fill the gap.

Challenges in resolving conflict. Whatever the division of labor, it is likely that the heads will need to share some decisions. If they cannot agree, stalemate could occur. Using the board as a tiebreaker hands operational decisions to the governing body, undermining the heads’ authority. The resulting confusion in the school community can have a destructive effect.

Burden on the personnel budget or less differentiation of leadership responsibilities. Adding a second head in order to divide the load adds significant expense. Rearranging the structure under the co-heads can solve this issue. For example, at Keith Country Day, admission and development positions were absorbed into the heads’ duties. Whether these two revenue-generation jobs can be as effectively managed when integrated into headship remains a question.

At Holt, where a configuration of one head and two assistants was shifted to two heads and one assistant, the number of leaders remained stable and the change has been “budget neutral,” according to the co-heads. 

A Closer Look

The Holt School co-headship, now in its third year, seems to be the best example of a thriving partnership in which both leaders report to the board. Anne Kennedy and Katie Pearce, co-head teachers, worked together for more than a decade and were long-serving senior leaders at the school before sharing headship. They know the school and each other’s strengths and expertise. Like the new co-headship at Keith Country Day School, the proposal for the model came from the pair.

When they launched this model in September 2017, the division of duties at Holt fell along the lines of their original deputy responsibilities: one tended to curriculum, teaching, and learning; the other, to responsibilities they describe as safeguarding, pastoral, special education, behavior, admission, and reviews and reports. They shared the areas of values and vision, governors, staffing, data, school improvement, self-evaluation, finance, structures, outreach, and the graduating class. Public presence responsibilities—such as meeting, greeting, and speaking at school events and meeting with the chair of governors—were done in tandem, and other duties, such as writing the head’s blog and chairing meetings, were alternated. As the model has evolved, they have found that they are inviting more overlap in their responsibilities and more shared decision-making.

There is an explicit contractual agreement that concerns the departure of one member of the partnership. In that case, the model is dissolved and the remaining individual reverts to deputy head status.

In their 2018 article, “Double Act,” published in Leader, the magazine of the UK-based Association of School and College Leaders, Kennedy and Pearce speak to the significant advantages of the model. The emotional burden of headship is shouldered by two. Ideas, initiatives, and key decisions are tested against each other, resulting in better, clear-headed decisions. Allowing for their different perspectives offers the opportunity for more creative decisions. As Holt parents and staff have noted, the co-headship doubles accessibility to the school leadership.

What makes it work? “We know each other well,” Pearce says. “That’s the fundamental thing. We share the same values.”

The Verdict? 

It seems that—at least so far—the successful co-headship is a configuration that has developed when two individuals with an established relationship with each other and the school decide that a partnership could be fruitful. Without these interpersonal connections and familiar, compatible personalities, it seems that the risks would outweigh the advantages of the model.

In most cases, the best approach to addressing the increased complexity of contemporary headship is a model with one direct report to the board and a strong, clearly defined leadership team with differentiated roles to which the head effectively delegates. The head then coaches, evaluates, and coordinates the work of the team.

In his October 2017 Harvard Business Review article, “To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well,” Jesse Sostrin describes this approach. He implores leaders to be “more essential and less involved,” articulating the reasons and standards for the work without serving as hands-on implementers. He envisions effective leadership as “seeing your own priorities come to life through the inspired actions of others.”

Leadership teams vary in configuration, and may include an associate or assistant head, division heads, directors of advancement and finance, deans of academics and student life, and any other roles. As we consider Laura Fuller’s original lament, the head would need to either delegate enough of the other work to prioritize personal connections or deputize members of the team to make some of those connections—and acclimate the community to the value of connection with those members of the team.

Could we build stronger administrative teams and better community understanding of the distributed leadership model, such that a single head can fully tend to the current key priorities for that role? 

Readings & Resources

Claudia Daggett

Claudia Daggett is the executive director of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States. She has served independent schools for more than 40 years as a teacher, head of school, consultant, and association director. In July 2020, she will open Independent School Board Support, a consultancy focused on building better governance in independent schools.