Measure the Treasure: Leadership Transition

The leadership search has concluded, and the appointment of the new head of school has been splashed across the main communication channels of the school and featured on the search firm’s website as an example of a successful placement. There is a sense of achievement for all involved, coupled with an exciting honeymoon phase filled with anticipation, wonder, and early stage contemplations of what might be accomplished. There may even be visits to the school, engagement with the community, and/or attendance at one or two board meetings, in order to pave the way for the transition.

Now, however, it is time to measure the treasure. Now begins the second, and arguably the most important, phase of the search process: schools and the newly-appointed head of school need to confront the realities of the appointment. Too many heads and boards consider the process as being ‘in the past,’ but, in reality, nothing could be less accurate…or less dangerous, as a perspective. Now is the crucial moment when boards and heads must chart the best way forward, relative to what we might term the FQ, the fit quotient.

Much may have been assumed during the initial phase of the search. For instance, the board may have been convinced of the head’s ability to accomplish several specific items because s/he has had experience in those domains in her/his current employment. In reality, this conviction (a notion referred to as CEO transferability (click here) is an anchor bias, one of many cognitive biases that could have influenced the Board during the search. An anchor bias is a cognitive bias by which one believes something to be accurate because of a particular hold on one’s memory (e.g., the association of a trait with the glossy memory-recall of another individual with that trait, and how s/he may have been successful in their own circumstances). The hold serves as a mental anchor, and it can be very challenging to un-anchor one’s self in order to see the fault in the anchor, to begin with. For example, inasmuch as a board might believe CEO transferability, the evidence base for such transferability shows that it is highly unlikely that a person can transfer such skills/knowledge and attain similar results. Context is everything: that person, at that time, in that school environment, in those regulatory conditions, etc. We might suggest a similar bias on the part of the appointed head toward her/his new board. Her/his experience with the board during the search may have created a mental bias, an anchor, that is so difficult to overcome that the new head has trouble seeing past her/his own anchor bias, making it challenging to consider the fit of the board. The notion of fit goes both ways, in other words.

Charting the way forward, then, involves the the balance of insight, respect, and candor. Recognising the new head’s strengths and areas for growth, the board would do well to construct goals and objectives around those areas, to the benefit of the school community, for the first months (or some variation on a block of time), then for the next identified period, and so on. The board chair is a key player in this process, as s/he will be the most important relationship with the head of school. The wise board chair would identify ‘sacred’ time to meet with the head for reflection on those goals/objectives, as those junctures approach. Separate from the goal-setting, the board should consider appointing a transition committee to support the head in any number of non-job-performance related ways, from x to y to z. A transition committee should want to ensure the success of the head, and that rests on the delicate interplay of any number of contextually-relevant variables.

If your school has just hired a new head for next year, how are you preparing to measure the treasure?

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