Is Your School Succession Ready?


A couple of years ago I took one of my teenagers on a little getaway trip. We spent two days in Yellowstone National Park, and it was glorious. Upon entry on the first day, awestruck by the beauty, we failed to grab a hardcopy map at the visitor center. If you’ve been to YNP before, you know that much of the park does not have cell service. So we quickly realized that relying on our ever-present Google Maps security blanket didn’t help much. Making our way around to a few of the things we wanted to see before we eventually found a map wasn’t all that difficult (we didn’t get lost or eaten by bears), but we could have avoided a couple frustrating moments. A good old map goes a long way.

When I get asked to do organizational structure consulting with schools, I will often work through a staffing roadmap exercise with them. It is not all that elaborate, but it’s profoundly helpful as schools consider current staffing realities and future personnel desires. A staffing roadmap is just that: it is a plan put in place to help us navigate when considering the organizational structure that will be needed to help us best accomplish our mission. It helps us avoid frustrating moments along the way.

You can complete this exercise for any level of an organization and find it helpful. Of particular importance, however, is what roadmapping–or succession planning–looks like for your senior leadership positions, namely your Head of School. It is critical that your school has a plan in place in the event of a transition for your Head of School. And as we’ve written about often at Vanderbloemen, succession planning is not just about a retirement plan. Your school needs to be ready for a Head’s transition, expected or unexpected, whenever it may take place.

If you do have a succession plan in place for your current Head of School, excellent work! Make sure you revisit it often for any updates that may be necessary. But if this is a new concept for your school, here are some questions to ask when getting started.

1. Have you talked about this before? 

A succession conversation can be an awkward one, but it shouldn’t be. Talking about what would happen in a transition does not mean that someone is looking for the exit door. It is simply charting out the map in the event it is needed. If you haven’t discussed this yet, you need to now. Life can be unpredictable. So be prepared. 

2. Who should be talking about this?

Make sure your Head of School is involved in these conversations. Too often I see a board craft a transition plan with zero input from their Head. Avoid this. The conversation needs to include honest communication between a Head and the board. If it needs to start with the Head and the executive committee or just the board chair, that’s fine. Other key stakeholders should be included down the road, but to get things started, make sure that an open conversation takes place between the Head and the board.

3. Do you have an interim strategy?

This is a must. Firstly, as mentioned above, life can be unpredictable, as in times of sudden illness, death, or a moral/ethical issue coming to light. Schools must be prepared to have an interim Head of School at any given time. While it can be uncomfortable to discuss, make sure to have the conversation before you find yourself in a moment of crisis. Secondly, even with a planned transition, searching for a new Head of School can take time. Depending on the time of year and the hiring cycle, your school needs to be prepared to keep things operational with an interim Head.

4. Do you have a communication plan?

Too often, this is an afterthought, but communication plans are critically important for a successful transition. Intentional planning is needed here as you ask who needs to know what and when. Give thoughtful consideration to all involved constituents in order to make sure the entire school community is abreast of the transition plan.

5. Have you completed a compensation analysis?

A common question I get revolves around compensation. Are we paying our Head of School fairly? Too little? Too much? If you haven’t analyzed this recently, transition plan or not, this would be a good practice to consider. However, if you are getting ready to search for a new Head, you’ll need to understand what a fair compensation package may entail, as well as what your school can realistically afford.

6. What will the outgoing Head do?

This will depend on the situation. If the Head is leaving the community completely, how can you help them exit in the most successful way? If it is a retirement situation and the Head will still be a part of the community, what will this look like? Will there be a temporary overlap of responsibilities with the new Head of School? Will there be ongoing involvement available for the previous Head? How can you faithfully care for the Head and their family during a transition? These and other scenarios need to be discussed.

7. How will you execute a search?

Your succession plan should include how the board will search for a new Head of School, should that need become a reality. Who will spearhead this search – the full board, the executive committee? Will you identify a search committee? And who are the key stakeholders who need to be involved? Will you partner with a search firm to help you navigate the process? Consider some of these questions ahead of time before it becomes an immediate need.

These questions, along with many others, need to be discussed as you consider what a potential transition may look like with your Head of School. Whatever you do, start the conversation. Plan ahead, and even with a simple roadmap, you’ll avoid frustrating moments along the way.