Sustaining Leadership: New Head Turnover Research

Spring 2020

By Anne-Marie Balzano, Jay Rapp, Margaret Anne Rowe, Amada Torres

On any given day, NAIS leadership team members receive calls from heads of schools asking critical questions related to good governance. Many of these heads seek guidance as they negotiate complex board relationships or difficult parental demands. Others need help working through challenges with possible legal consequences. What has become increasingly clear is how independent school leadership has changed over the past 10 to 15 years. 
The demands of parents are fierce and constantly changing; it is hard to keep up with them while maintaining a sense of integrity with respect to the mission and values. Faculty and staff are also a very demanding group of people to manage effectively. The head of school goes from one battle to the next and has to have the stamina for it.
Even with board orientations, I feel some board members struggle to understand their role and often fall into the role of representative of the parent community (or one segment of the parent community). They see themselves as parent advocate not board member.

These two quotes, from a head of school and a trustee, clearly reflect a growing sentiment among heads and boards about how governance issues have also become increasingly challenging in recent years. Whereas the head’s role used to be “lead” teacher, it is now more closely aligned to CEO. Heads of school are under more pressure than ever to meet the high expectations of parents, students, alumni, and their boards. Board chairs and board members face some of the same pressures and are often parents in the community, which can complicate matters. Lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities on both ends can cause a great deal of frustration and resentment.

The reality is that costs are increasing, competition is expanding, and the stress on boards and heads to keep their schools relevant, viable, and sustainable continues to intensify. Over the past two years, anecdotes about increased head turnover, particularly among new heads of school within their first one to three years of headship, have surfaced. To explore these narratives and more deeply examine the growing issue of shorter headship tenures, as well as to determine what factors could be contributing to unexpected head transitions, NAIS partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to conduct the “Factors Affecting Head of School Turnover” (FAHST) survey. The research focused on identifying what makes the head-board relationship successful and what challenges may prevent board chairs and boards from fully supporting their heads

The Survey and Findings

Prior to sending out the survey, NAIS researchers spoke with executive directors from various state and regional associations to gain a better sense of what they were experiencing in different areas of the country. We also held a focus group with heads, board chairs, and trustees to learn more about turnover trends. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a series of interviews with heads of school regarding challenges to their tenure. These conversations helped to identify themes and inform survey design. 

The resulting survey was created to determine the general health of independent school governance from three perspectives: the head, the board chair, and board members. Survey questions were designed to explore issues such as board education, head-board chair relationship, comfort with finances, leadership, and challenges facing boards and heads. Because these issues may be sensitive, the survey was anonymous, soliciting only the role of the participant and the geographic region of the school. In June 2019, NAIS sent the survey to all 1,400 member schools, which vary in size, geographic location, boarding/day, and single sex vs. coed; 466 heads, 108 board chairs, and 247 board members responded. Although the research and analysis is still ongoing, critical findings immediately emerged in several areas.
Transitions. According to the latest Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL) numbers, more than 20% of new heads of school in the 2019–2020 school year follow predecessors who left after three years or less, an increase from the 14% represented in 2015–2016 DASL data. Although more heads of school appear to be leaving unexpectedly—defined by NAIS as any nonrenewal or termination occurring within three years of hire not directly related to retirement, interim succession, or unethical or illegal behavior—they still make up a small percentage of all NAIS member schools; just 12% of schools have a new head in 2019–2020. Because NAIS does not track the human factors powering head transitions, it is impossible to fully distinguish unexpected departures from planned head turnover. However, 31% of all FAHST survey respondents reported that their school had seen three or more heads over the past 10 years, and their written responses to open-ended survey questions brought to light several key factors affecting the head-board relationship.  

Relationship issues/disconnects. Heads and boards tend to agree on the make-or-break elements of their relationships: governance and leadership training (or lack thereof), honest and open communication, lack of transition planning, and the corrosiveness of untreated stress in the headship. Relational strain seems to stem, in part, from the disconnect between what heads and boards perceive to be effective collaboration and responsibility. Only 65% of heads of school agreed that there is an explicit focus on collaboration and cooperation on the board, compared to 83% of board chairs and 74% of board members. This disconnect is echoed in respondents’ beliefs about whether board members accept responsibility for failures and mistakes: just 45% of heads agree, a far cry from the 78% of board chairs and 82% of board members who agree.

There is also significant variation by role in the perception of understanding and addressing critical issues. For example, 81% of heads of school agreed that board members understand the most important issues facing the school, while 95% of board chairs agreed and 92% of board members agree. However, there is a disconnect between the constituencies: Just 2 out of 3 heads of school agree that board members effectively address the most important issues facing the school, as compared with 9 in 10 board chairs and 8 in 10 board members. 

Training. While 85% of board chairs and 81% of board members believe that trustees work within the boundaries of their role, only 66% of heads agreed with this statement. This disconnect may stem from a lack of training. About half of the heads and board chairs indicated there is no formal training or support for the board chair related to the role. Without appropriate board chair training, it’s not surprising that new trustees feel they need support in understanding their roles. Only 58% of heads and 63% of board members reported their board chairs work on an ongoing basis with new board members. Moreover, only 23% of heads and 26% of trustees indicated there is an established onboarding process for board members to receive training related to their role. (The survey defined “onboarding” as “sustained, purposeful acculturation over an extended timeline.”)

At least 30% of the schools surveyed did not have a transition plan for heads. Similarly, when asked about an effective transition process after approving a new board chair, about 2 in 3 board chairs and members agreed, compared with 54% of heads.  

Without a clear understanding of their roles, adequate training, or an effective process for transition, boards and heads may have different perceptions about the support heads receive and their goals. More than three-quarters (76%) of heads of school feel they have adequate financial training for their position, slightly higher than board perceptions about head’s financial preparation (70%). In addition, 61% of heads indicated receiving board support in fundraising efforts such as annual giving and capital campaigns, in clear contrast to the more than 80% of chairs and board members who indicated supporting their heads in these efforts. Also, 55% of heads reported receiving professional support, like coaching, in nonfinance areas beyond the first year in the role, in clear contrast with 82% of board chairs, who believed such support was provided.
Perhaps the most profound disconnect the survey identified was around the demand of the head’s job and its goals. While all board chairs said they understand the demands placed on the head of school, only 76% of heads feel that they do. Whereas 87% of board members believe they understand the demands placed on heads, only 52% of heads agreed. Moreover, 77% of heads think their boards set achievable goals for them, compared to 95% of board chairs and 90% of board members. 

Recommendations and Next Steps

Although we are continuing to analyze the survey results to dive deeper into these trends and are planning additional qualitative investigations in the form of interviews and focus groups, there are some initial recommendations in four key areas. 

Board Chair Succession Planning
Leadership transitions can impact every aspect of the school context. In addition to nearly one-quarter of heads, board chairs, and trustees feeling unsure about whether an effective transition process for a new board chair is in place, 30% of heads agreed that transition from one board chair to the next is difficult for the board, while 22% were unsure. This is significantly higher than the board chair responses, which indicated that 18% feel the transition is difficult and 11% are unsure. This discrepancy aligned to the qualitative responses, which highlighted how fraught the transition from one board chair to the next is for the head of school. As one participant stated, “There would be significant improvement in stability if there were a system for education and succession for the board chair role.”

Given these data, we recommend boards have a clearly articulated transition plan for the board chair. The current chair, the head of school, and the governance committee should collaborate to determine a planning process for succession. While it would be inappropriate for the head of school to have a formal vote in the selection of the new chair, the governance committee should listen carefully to the head’s perspective on potential candidates. It is critical that the board and governance committee prioritize the nomination of a chair who can partner effectively with the head of school.

Onboarding and Ongoing Education
One of the most striking findings in the study is a lack of preparation for both chairs and trustees. As one board member stated, “We have no established way to clearly communicate board expectations to those who are not meeting them, and in my experience, we have never not invited a board member to serve a second term.” And as one head observed, “Governance is the crux of the issue in terms of head tenure. At my school, the board sees board education as a low priority because they are (self-proclaimed) ‘highly intelligent people’ and can ‘figure it out themselves.’ Very few board members have the training, expertise, insight, or time for strategic, generative, and even fiduciary responsibilities.”

For boards to function effectively, chairs must make onboarding new members and ongoing trustee education a priority. While most boards have an orientation program in place—which might include introductions to senior staff, a description of the school’s history, an overview of trustee responsibilities, and a school tour—the onboarding of new members realistically takes much longer. Chairs might choose to assign a mentor for each new trustee, as well as plan two to three sessions throughout the first semester focused on discussion of the school’s mission, clearly articulated expectations, and the unique context of the nonprofit board. In addition, the chair and head of school should collaborate around regular trustee education. This might include bringing in outside presenters on issues critical to the school or the community. Finally, as part of the succession-planning process, the governance committee should seek out training and professional development opportunities for new board chairs. NAIS, state and regional associations, and other governance organizations offer resources and programs available to support chairs in their leadership role.

Goal-Setting and Assessment
The discrepancy in responses between heads of school and chairs/trustees around goal-setting and assessment is another critical finding from the FAHST survey. For example, only 66% of heads agree that the board provides them with periodic feedback on progress toward meeting annual goals, while 94% of chairs and 85% of board members indicated they were offering such feedback. In addition, only 77% of heads agreed the board gives them adequate time to achieve goals, while 94% of board chairs and 92% of board members believed they were doing so. 

This misalignment between how heads and boards perceive change, and more importantly, the rate of change, was a common thread throughout the qualitative responses in all three groups. As one participant stated, “The biggest issue I have seen with sudden departures is when the board hires a head to do difficult things—move faculty on; be tough on discipline; make tough decisions. Then, when the head does them, parents and faculty complain to the board, and the board removes the head because she has lost the support of the faculty or parent body.” 

In addition, having clearly articulated and agreed-upon goals for the head of school at the outset is essential. As one board chair stated, “Our head of school felt ‘judged’ by some board members on factors that weren't part of the annual goals and educational choices that didn't match those board members’ beliefs.” 

This is an area where the head of school and board chair partnership becomes even more critical. The head and chair should collaborate on a set of goals with clear metrics and timetables for completion. Goals should strongly align to the school’s context, including mission and vision. Formative feedback throughout the year is also key. If goals or timelines need to be adjusted, the head of school should let the board know well in advance. Conversely, the chair should provide the head of school with periodic updates on perceived progress toward goals. The board should conduct an annual review of the head as well. Prior to accepting a contract, the head and the board should have an open and transparent conversation about the needs of the school and expectations around change management. 

Head of School Mental Health and Well-Being
The complexity of the headship today, coupled with the increased amount of stress heads feel in their role, was a consistent thread throughout the survey. Many heads report feeling the job has become 24/7 and that time off is no longer permissible. This has far-reaching effects on heads of school and their families as well. One head stated, “Being a head in the technology/global age is more intense than ever—emotionally, intellectually, and personally exhausting—and the take-it-to-the-next-level mentality that boards adopt (with good intentions) runs us heads ragged.” 

The overwhelming demands of stakeholders is another factor contributing to head-of-school stress. One head concluded, “The stress associated with increasing demands of parents and teachers, and to a lesser extent boards, was a factor in my decision (to leave after 13 years). There is an increased level of anxiety among independent school parents today about almost everything, and the expectations in terms of services and outcomes are also rising.” 

The role of head of school can be a lonely one. There are very few people, aside from the board chair, who the head can confide in regarding school matters. And while the chair should be a sounding board for the head, not all head-chair partnerships develop the necessary level of trust and transparency. For those who do, there is still the understanding that at the end of the day, the chair is the head’s employer and evaluator. Therefore, it is important that heads of school and board chairs have transparent conversations around boundary-setting, including expectations around availability and confidentiality. Boards need to be aware of the stress heads face and support them accordingly. 

During contract negotiations, heads might consider concessions around child care, gym memberships, or even house-cleaning services. In addition, heads should seek out networking opportunities with others in their position and build support systems of constructive collaborators on which they can rely. Executive coaching can also be helpful in reducing stress and feelings of isolation.

Leadership Sustainability

Leadership transitions, even when planned, can have a profound effect on the school community. Boards hiring a new head desire a challenging combination of skills that few individuals could manage.

They need to be relatable to a variety of different constituency groups from board members, to parents, to students, and alumni. They need to be firm but likable when it comes to leading both the teachers and other school leaders. They need to be fearless as they negotiate the difficult change their boards demand but mindful as they manage the effects these changes will create.

Yet despite these many challenges, heads of school remain energized and inspired by their work. They find joy forging strong relationships with students and their families, collaborating with faculty and staff to provide innovative learning environments, building institutional strength, and supporting a positive culture for their schools. As one head shared, “Heads of school have the coolest jobs on the planet. If I lose track of that, I need to find something else to do.”

As the independent school landscape continues to shift, our research highlights the importance of heads and their boards collaborating effectively to ensure the long-term viability of their schools. By acknowledging the challenges heads and trustees face and being deliberate in how they support one another, they can develop a solid foundation for leadership sustainability.

NAIS worked with Earl Ball, senior fellow/adjunct associate professor, and Michael Johanek, senior fellow/director of the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania, and Peter Horn from Horn Education Consulting, on the creation and analysis of the FAHST survey.
Anne-Marie Balzano

Anne-Marie Balzano is a former director of leadership and governance at NAIS.

Jay Rapp

Jay Rapp is a former vice president for professional development at NAIS.

Margaret Anne Rowe

Margaret Anne Rowe is a research analyst at NAIS.

Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.