This article appeared as "Partners First" in the Summer 2023 issue of Independent School.
In 2018, Head of School Ashley Harper and Board Chair Eileen Quenell began their positions at Wakefield School (VA) at the same time. Like any two leaders embarking on a professional relationship, they needed to figure out how to productively work together. Today, as they look back on their accomplishments so far, they recognize that they have established a shared leadership model, which Quenell attributes to a happy accident and their almost instant chemistry and mutual respect. In this conversation, they describe what shared leadership looks like at their school.
Eileen Quenell: I wasn’t familiar with the shared leadership model before joining Wakefield School. In shared leadership, trust is at the core—trusting that we can be vulnerable with each other, acknowledging what we know and what we don’t know, and setting our egos aside and using each other as a challenge team to make sure that we’re looking at a situation from multiple perspectives. Shared leadership doesn’t mean shared management or a shared visibility as leaders. Shared leadership does not mean that the board chair steps into the operations of the school.
Ashley Harper: This notion of “advise and consent” between a head of a school and a board chair or a board is important. There are times when we’re serving as challenge partners to one another, and you will say, “Well, is this an ‘advise’ or is this a ‘consent’ situation? Which hat are you wearing when you come to me with that?” Your openness to ask that question is one strong example of the role of the board chair in shared leadership. And sometimes there’s vulnerability when my answer is, “Gosh, I don’t know. Can we talk through that?”
Quenell: Some of the shared leadership was born out of necessity, right? The school was in a very different place in 2018 than it is now. We had some financial challenges. We had not really revisited the way we were running the school as a functioning professional organization. We often say we need to “professionalize” a component, whether a finance function, how we operate our physical plant, or how we evaluate faculty or the board. We needed a mentality that we’re running a corporation. It’s a nonprofit, but it’s a corporation. We’re charging a lot of money for the services that we provide. We need to make sure that we’re as professionally run as we can possibly be.
So, for me, in a shared leadership model, I need to know when it’s time to pull myself back and when to pull back the board. I am so blessed as a board chair to have such a giving and intelligent board with such a wide variety of expertise, but we are all mostly business leaders. And so, when a challenge presents itself, our reaction is to go fix it. I often find myself reminding the board that that’s not our job; that’s Ashley’s job. She’s wanting our feedback and opinion, but at the end of the day, she’s the decision-maker.
Harper: There’s a dispositional quality necessary in shared leadership. You must be able to set ego aside. You must be curious about what comes next. You must ask more questions than give answers. All those things are central to real shared leadership, which allows you to lean into curious spaces and come up with the very best answer on behalf of the institution. Those dispositional qualities become as important as who’s the next possible trustee who has a finance background. Who’s the next possible trustee with an HR background? Does this head of school have a development background? All those things are necessary, but there are dispositional qualities that are necessary as well.
Quenell: A big benefit of shared leadership has been the increased thoughtfulness in the decisions we’ve made. Which isn’t to say we haven’t made missteps. We certainly have, and we’re going to make more over the next year. But I think shared leadership has mitigated the “bubble think” that can happen when you have a single leadership model. It allows us to see around the corners of the decisions that we make.
Harper: When I have a question, it is safe for me to say, “I’m struggling with this one,” or “I’m thinking about this one. Can you give me your input?” In a shared leadership model, all those critical conversations become not only safe but expected. You are in a collaborative space that lends itself to better answers because you’ve got more heads at the table. You don’t have groupthink, but you have the intellect of the entire board and the head of school working toward what comes next.
Right now, we’re working on an incredibly exciting new strategic direction for our school. We’re realizing that things like five-year plans have a shelf life versus looking at where we want to go. What’s our vision? What’s our summit, and how do we know when we get there? As we’ve gone through this process with this shared leadership model, I keep visualizing a strand of DNA or a strong rope that’s braided together. The board is working on providing the basis for the financial and organizational stability to get there. The vision work—where we set our north star for where we want to go—is completely shared between the leadership team and the board. Finally, the operational plan comes from that and starts to define who we are as an institution.
Quenell: I wouldn’t say our board is never satisfied, but we embrace bold new directions and want to make sure the school is not just keeping pace with change but anticipating it and innovating around it. We’re revising our mission statement, the principles by which we are guided, and we spent untold hours on that as a small committee, to give [Ashley] that direction. That, to me, is the model of shared leadership because the head of school, the senior faculty, and senior members of the board were staking out this bold new direction. The next step is deciding what investments we need to make. It’s not the head deciding what investments to make or the board deciding. Based on your expertise you will tell us how we’re going to get from where we are today to where we think we need to be while being able to adjust as the environment changes. You can only do that in a shared leadership model.
Harper: I agree. It takes intentionality and making sure that you’re staying connected, that you’re testing yourselves as you move along. Shared leadership is the best of what school leadership can be because we’re working together in a relational business where our product is people. When there is an engaged relationship between the head of school and the board of trustees, you can distribute that down to the leadership team, the faculty, and the parents. And if we can keep that going for Wakefield School, the sky is the limit.
DO YOU HAVE A CONVERSATION TO SHARE? Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of—a great student-teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to [email protected], and we’ll follow up.