Boardroom: Building Relationships During the Head Search

The head search has an obvious function: to find the new head. When seen in a larger, more strategic context, however, the process can achieve much more. Imagine finding a new head and creating a firm foundation for the future, built on a strong partnership between the board and the head. 

In compiling the latest edition of the NAIS Head Search Handbook, one of my chief goals was to set the head search in the context of strategic school improvement—including stressing the importance of the board–head partnership. In serving schools as both trustee and head of school, I’ve learned ways to help build the board–head partnership from the start of the search.

The Succession Plan

The comment that the chair–head relationship is like a marriage is meant to be comical, but the joke is based in a familiar truth. Search consultant and former school head Tony Featherston points out that the relationship “benefits from trust, open communication, some division of labor, and shared ownership—and the primary beneficiaries are the children.” 

As a result, the change in board chair is among the most disruptive factors a head can face. That makes it a force that is best managed when predictable and smooth. As head candidates enter the search and begin learning about their potential new school, they are surely wondering, “How long will I be working with this chair?” or “Who will be my next partner?”

Answering these questions helps a head anticipate a critically important change—maybe even building intentional transition into the process. As prospective heads interview and explore the position, the person they are getting to know the best is the search chair. That connection is often a significant factor in attracting the candidate and school to each other. 

Therefore, an appealing practice is to align board chair succession and the new head to the same start date. In other instances, the chair may be plotted to be in place for the foreseeable future. Sometimes a current chair will want to do “just one more year,” usually “to transition the new head” into the school. This indeed can be helpful, but it also bakes in a major disruption early in the tenure. It’s important to be clear to potential heads about what they can expect in the partnership.

Whatever the reality, schools thoughtful enough to plan their upcoming board chair transition—and even to envision their intent for the next one—reap the benefits of being able to communicate stability and predictability to potential heads. That, in turn, gives both the new head and the board confidence in what to anticipate and opportunities for thoughtful transition—with the school as the ultimate victor.  

A State of Transition

Transition means change. And change means discomfort and potential missteps. A well-established transition committee provides an ideal opportunity for planning, orientation, and reflection. Including the committee as part of the full search timeline from the beginning can help strengthen the board–head partnership.

The board gains in its relationship with the new head if it can identify by the finalist stage that there will be a transition team and who its leader will be. Some schools will want the new head to chair the transition, acclimating people to the new leadership in the time between hire and arrival. Others may opt for a search committee member, someone who has been watching the whole process and understands what’s necessary to effectively bring the new head into their role. 

On the volunteer side, the transition chair is then considering communication opportunities, team membership, and transition activities throughout the search process. This allows for an agenda that is intentional and has a high degree of predictability after the hire is made. For the finalists being interviewed, it demonstrates that the board has been deeply thoughtful and removes any guessing game about what will happen after the hire. An early jump on transition committee leadership relaxes the agenda and gives more opportunity for communication and relationship-building. Being able to say something like, “If you’re the successful candidate, you and Sally will be co-chairing the search committee,” sets an early tone that the board is serious about working in partnership with its new head and about assuring success.

All in the Agreement

The contract negotiation is one of the first signals of what the board–head relationship will be and one of the earliest opportunities to establish trust between the parties. No matter how much good planning and strong relationship-building has gone into the search and transition, it can falter with petty bickering, hard-nosed tactics, or surprises in the negotiation. Boards can approach the work in advance, with open communication throughout the process.

Benchmark a compensation range from the start. It’s important to know what aisle a search committee should be shopping in. Discretely gathering salary data for area heads, particularly at competitor and comparator schools, helps a board understand the immediate market. Reviewing farther afield by region, school type, and financial position gives broader context. With this framework in mind, the board can focus its search on appropriate candidates. The board can always consider a stretch for an outlier down the road, if necessary.

Discuss whether there are any special compensation considerations. Some candidates have circumstances or preferences to be considered as part of a compensation package, and it’s important for boards to understand what these might be. Moving expenses, education assistance, child care, club memberships, off-campus housing, or executive coaching are all factors that might be relevant. It’s helpful to anticipate and learn about these as part of the finalist process.

Use a term sheet to smooth the negotiation. A summary of key terms, as opposed to a full contract, provides a helpful start to an agreement. Some schools present this only to the nominee once offered; others will present the sheet to all finalist candidates once the interview has concluded, to help prepare a “yes” at the time of offer. Developed with the school’s legal counsel, the term sheet should include salary and benefits, deferred compensation, duration, renewal or extension terms, terms of separation by resignation or termination without cause, and noncompete and other professional obligations clauses.

Planning these steps early in the process helps mitigate the risk of setting the wrong tone in the earliest days of headship or losing a candidate in the last stage of the search. After a respectful negotiation, the board and head are poised to build on a strong foundation of trust.

Priorities Pass

An accurate, candid needs-assessment made in advance of the search benefits the school, the board, and the candidates. Thinking of mission, gathering input, and understanding the school in its broader context helps set a pathway to a data-driven, new-leader profile. Once complete, the position profile helps identify, recruit, and measure candidates on the way to choosing the right fit.

This effective work should not end with the selection of a new leader, however. The assessment should be extrapolated to another step: dictating early priorities for the new leader. Too often, the head and chair sit down to discuss goals for year one after the new head has started. Surely there are goal-worthy topics to discuss, but the school’s needs-assessment and any extant strategic plan should already articulate what matters most. These can be used to set goals for as many as two or three years, reflecting the more realistic length of the true transition period. 

Why lose sight of these important institutional planning and assessment factors just because the new head has begun their tenure? A deep understanding of institutional needs provides a hull to strengthen continuity in transition. With that continuity comes clarity of purpose, momentum, and success in a strategic context. The head has plenty of opportunity to put their own fingerprints on the school, and doing so in an institutionally established context provides a helpful frame. 

Search Success

A head search will find a head. Is that enough? The board–head partnership can be bolstered as it is being built. If approached in a strategic context that considers the institutional follow-through as much as the transactional hire, the search process will provide other strategic gain. Acting on these takeaways will increase predictability and expectation in a time of change. In turn, the board and the head will be on the same page well before day one. A strong partnership will have begun!


Go Deeper

Want more insights and information about critical governance and leadership issues? Check out The Trustee Table, NAIS’s lastest podcast, which is for trustees, board chairs, and school administrators. Each episode includes a discussion on a specific topic or challenge in independent schools. Rate, review, and subscribe to hear a new episode each month

Originally published in Independent School Magazine. By Vince Watchorn

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