WHEN MY PHONE RANG one October day near the end of the last millennium, with an invitation to apply for an immediate opening as an interim head of school (the current head having fallen seriously ill in September), I had no idea that I would be entering a new career, nor that I was joining one of the fastest-growing professional groups in the independent school world. Now that I have held six interim headships in as many years, my antennae have become attuned to the striking rise in interim headships. In one recent issue of The Blue Sheet, for example, of 85 U.S. schools listing openings for the next school year, 32 (38 percent) were being run by interim heads.
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The most common reason for schools to seek an interim head is, of course, the sudden and untimely departure of the current head, whether because of illness, job change, or mutual dissatisfaction between head and board. With more and more schools gearing up head searches 14 to 18 months in advance, schools with even a November departure may feel they are getting into the search too late to have the deepest pool of candidates available. This reality, together with a growing number of "retired" heads filled with energy and unwilling to fade away, but not comfortable with a multi-year commitment, have made interim searches commonplace.
In addition to the abrupt departure of a current head, there are other reasons why schools choose an interim head over an immediate search for a new, long-term head. One scenario, notes Mimi Baer, executive director of the California Association of Independent Schools, is following a long-term, successful headship. In these circumstances, the board should be aware that the school constituencies will need time to become accustomed to life without the familiar head and to become open and accepting of a different style of leadership. It may be preferable to hire an interim head for a year or two so school constituencies have time to adjust prior to installing a permanent head.
Another scenario is when there are no strong candidates. Often, after months of a search, and perhaps loss of some attractive contenders to other schools, there is no candidate who seems "right." The search committee and board feel pressure to install a new head, both because the school constituencies might view an incomplete search as a failure and because the board does not look forward to another year of searching. But the selection of the wrong person can have greater negative effect on the community and cost more than to continue the search into another year. In this case, it is preferable to choose an interim head.
Finally, notes Baer, an interim head can be a good choice when major changes are needed. If the board wishes to make major changes in the school, including changes in faculty or programs that will be unpopular with some school constituencies, an interim head can better make these changes, because he or she will not need to be concerned about expending political capital. Though, in hiring an interim as a change agent, the board should be very clear about its expectations for change.
Whatever the school's reasons, my conversations with other interims, association professionals, and others have led me to believe that there are certain conditions essential for the success of an interim headship.
First, schools should understand that an interim headship is not an admission of failure, nor is it a hiatus in a school's development. It is, perhaps more often than is realized, the appropriate response to a school's current circumstances, and, given the right match, it can be a time of significant progress for the school, as well as of preparation for long-term gains. Patrick Bassett, president of NAIS, observes that "the interim headship is almost always a win-win situation for schools and for heads. For schools, it allows breathing space to decompress from the anxieties that always accompany leadership change and to avoid ‘rebound effect' choices regarding the next head. For the interim head, the temporary leadership allows the opportunity for candid assessments and for ‘speaking the truth to power' (on the board, among the parent body, and most especially to the faculty) that any leader would love to have the license to do but few feel comfortable doing when the appointment is permanent."
The church world has long seen the importance of interims. Since 1981, the Interim Ministry Network, a national organization, has gathered hundreds of clergy from 25 denominations, to discuss, promote, and train individuals for
|CHOOSING AN INTERIM HEAD
Schools should consider the following when choosing an interim head.
> Consider carefully whether an inside or an outside candidate is the best choice for your school's needs.
> Make clear from the beginning whether the interim can be a candidate for the permanent position, and stick to the decision once made.
> Remember that your interim head will need a great deal of support in learning about and becoming known to the community very quickly.
> Be sure the chemistry between your choice and key board members is excellent — they will need to establish a quick and strong rapport.
> Give your interim head a very clear and concise list of priorities for the year.
> Rush the hiring process so quickly that parents or faculty feel entirely left out. Finalists should have a chance to meet both constituencies if at all possible.
> Assume that your successful candidate will have an exactly parallel experience to your school in terms of school type or presenting issues; look for broad and deep knowledge of schools.
> Limit your interim to the priorities you have given him or her; take the year to listen to their advice and concerns for the school.
> Neglect the interim's needs and activities while focusing solely on the long-term search.
> Over- or under-involve the interim in the search process.
Within the less formal world of independent schools, interim selections are often made with the help of a search consultant, and the pool of candidates grows every year. My last school, for example, even working without a consultant, had 22 applicants and interviewed seven semi-finalists. The principle issue I would like to discuss is, therefore, not how to find an interim, but how to be an interim (though search committees are welcome to consider the rest of this piece from the perspective of assessing their own needs).
There was an advertising slogan a couple of years ago that declared "You only get one chance to make a first impression." This is unusually true for interim heads. Given an anxious community, either traumatized by a sudden loss or shaken after an unsuccessful era, everyone looks to the new head to "do something," and judgments are formed more quickly than they might be about a head from whom a long tenure is expected. There are two key parts to this first impression: being approachable and present as quickly and completely as possible, and taking a few prompt, decisive actions — often very small ones — that convince the community that the interim is not merely a time-server.
Being present begins immediately. Interims who serve for one calendar year can spend a sixth of their tenure in a hot school building, filled only with office and maintenance staff, before the first students arrive in the fall. Informal summer events where parents, and often their children as well, can meet the new head, as well as open office hours, together with direct requests for all the faculty to come in and visit, are good ideas for all incoming heads, but I believe they are essential to an interim's success. A head who can call each teacher by name at the opening faculty meeting is off to a good start. A head who has learned from these encounters something about the school culture has an even better chance of making the right moves, and avoiding the wrong ones, as the year begins. The learning curve will be steep, and often a rocky one. At one of the schools where I served, the kitchen's most prominent decoration was a drawing of a grizzled cowpoke with battered ten-gallon hat, and the caption: "There's a helluva lot they didn't tell me about when I joined this outfit." Interim heads may well agree, for two reasons. First, the processes of both courtship and "engagement" for interims are far shorter than in conventional searches. Sometimes a school will only interview two or three finalists before making a decision, and if there is a two-stage process, the period between semifinal and final interview is often only a week or so. In contrast to traditional searches, the new head may have as little as six to eight weeks before taking up the post — fewer, if there has been a death or illness. At the same time, the departing head, if available at all, is not necessarily a source of unbiased information for the transition. Second, boards that have seen reason for an immediate change of leadership will frequently have recognized only a fraction of the school's real problems. One interim head, for example, was told in June that there were "only a few positions" to be filled, but found on arriving and examining the roster that 14 of 44 teaching and administrative jobs were vacant on July 1.
BE READY TO MAKE DECISIONS
To continue the metaphor, the honeymoon for an interim is even shorter than the courtship and engagement. Interims may have to make essential decisions about budget and staff or tackle an unresolved problem almost before they hang the first picture on the wall. Half of my own interim jobs, for example, have been at schools with significant shortfalls in enrollment and consequent financial difficulties. In one case, having been given the mandate to reverse a steady decline in enrollment, I arrived for my first day of work in mid-summer. At 9:30 a.m., the admissions director announced he was taking a teaching job elsewhere, and at 1:30 p.m. the assistant director informed me that she was moving to the admissions office of a neighboring school. Five hours, one mandate, no staff — a sure formula for getting one's feet wet quickly. Whereas other heads may be able to take the advice to "do nothing but drink coffee and listen for the first few months," interims should carry their coffee in travel mugs as they move quickly to resolve pressing problems.
In some circles, an interim is seen as a place marker, someone to make sure the boiler is working and the hiring is done. My contrasting view may be influenced by a youthful experience: when I was a student at a Jesuit high school, Pope John XXIII took office, written off by many as a short-termer because of his age. But in his four-plus years, he set the Roman Catholic Church on a new course that altered over a millennium of practice. Interims who are willing and empowered can make profound changes in the ethos and direction of a school: interims have quadrupled annual giving, helped schools with strategic planning, re-organized faculties, and galvanized long-stalled building projects, besides repairing rifts previously thought to be endemic to the school. Frequently, I hear trustees, parents, and teachers expressing astonishment at the change of tone and the growth of enthusiasm under an interim's leadership after only a few weeks. The essence of this change, of course, is commitment. A good interim needs the experience to recognize what solutions to similar problems have worked elsewhere, discernment to see whether they will work in this situation, and a willingness to serve "in the moment," without regard for the brevity of the relationship. As Alex Uhle, a six-time interim head, puts it, "you're not in it for yourself; it's about stewardship. You're not the school; the kids and the faculty are."
FIND SMALL VICTORIES
A key to beginning an interim headship is to find small, quick victories that can convince the community that the interim knows what's needed, and can either change a negative mood or solve a small festering problem. Adding more frequent faculty meetings to give an unempowered faculty a sense of voice, decreasing the number of meetings to allow an overburdened faculty a few free hours, or just providing better quality coffee in the staff room, may be
Accepting the Position of
|Candidates for the position of interim head should keep the following in mind when considering a school.
> Ask all the questions you can about the current state of the school.
> Be sure this is a school about which you can be enthusiastic, despite whatever wounds you are being asked to heal.
> Help everyone at the school look forward, not backward.
> Be an active head, not just a maintainer.
> If you're an inside candidate, consider what you will do after the interim year if you not invited to apply for, or aren't chosen for, the long-term position.
> Assume that you will face fewer crises or problems as an interim than would occur in any typical — or atypical — school year.
> Spend much time listening to those who want to tell tales about the previous head.
> Believe everything you hear — or that you have heard everything.
> Promise more than you can deliver in a single year.
> Start looking for next year's job at the expense of doing this year's.
Thanks to experienced interims Peter Esty, Trudy Hall, the late Archer Harmon, and Alex Uhle for help with this list.
Besides a wide knowledge of school cultures and issues, no skill is more vital to a successful interim than hiring ability. The departure of a head is frequently an occasion for re-evaluation on the part of many staff members, and the changes an interim makes may well be a further catalyst for faculty and administrators to make a career move during the interim year. The longest-lasting effect an interim can have is probably to leave behind several well-chosen hires who can be core figures well into the next administration. Again, one school of thought argues that the new head should have the chance to choose his or her own team, but opportunities will come soon enough in the permanent head's tenure without any special effort on the interim's part to leave gaps to be filled. Whenever I check in with a former school, my chief question is whether those I hired are working out, and my greatest satisfaction is to hear that those I put in place are of continuing value to the school.
Finally, there is a paradox in the personal qualities needed by an interim. While an interim may have to lead a great deal by presence and personality, because there isn't adequate time to mold an administrative or faculty team, or to build a schoolwide ethos, being an interim also demands a healthy dose of humility. Trudy Hall, current head of Emma Willard School (New York), who, like many others, began her tenure as an interim, speaks of the tension between "the intensity of the involvement necessary to be successful and the reality that your heart should probably be left at the door for safekeeping." After all, for about half of your tenure, the main interest of the board will be in the efforts of the Search Committee to find your successor, and for the other half, the school will be preparing for, welcoming, and otherwise discussing the new head's imminent arrival. Most board meetings will end with an executive session in which the search committee will make a presentation, and many younger children will ask "Why are you still here?" shortly after the new head is announced or introduced. Your status as the Nearly Headless Nick of your own Hogwarts, just barely visible to the students and faculty around you, is sometimes brought home vividly. Standing at the back of the room at one assembly during which the departed school head was being lauded as the school's seventh leader, and at another, a month later, where the incoming head was greeted as its eighth, I wondered what fraction might be used to mark my tenure.
At these times, it is best to remember two simple facts. First, this is what you signed on for, and these children need you no less because you are only there for one year of their educational lives. Second, your status as an interim is only the logical extension of any head's condition. I once heard a speaker refer to himself as having been interim head at one school and permanent head at three — leading me to realize that "permanent head" should be seen for what it is, an oxymoron. (One experienced interim suggests substituting "ongoing" for permanent.) Just as I counsel parents that each year of their child's schooling should be an end in itself, not merely a step on the road to something else, the rewards of headship, whether for one year or 21, lie in the experience of serving, giving, meeting, and doing, and must be viewed as ends in themselves. We are all in place for a limited time, but this does not limit either what we can accomplish or what satisfaction we can obtain from a job well done.