On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Thinking about Next September?
If you run a school (or multiple schools), you should be Near the end of every April, we get a series of calls from school, CMO, or district leaders all with same problem: a leader-less school and no solution in sight.  When these calls come in, we do our best to be helpful, but the situation is sub-optimal. By late spring, most top instructional leaders have chosen their paths, either choosing to stay in their current roles or deciding to make the jump to new schools. The school leadership talent pool that remains in April almost always comes with baggage. Rather than waiting to hear whether your school leader plans to stay or leave (and for the record, “no word” does NOT necessarily mean “no departure”), we recommend you proactively engage with your school leader several times throughout each school year to start the conversation - and the responsible planning of a future transition - if necessary.  We also recommend creating clear guidelines with your school leader around what an ideal “notice period” would be, both for the organization and for the school leader. Here's how:
  • Step One: Build Trust - Building trust doesn't happen overnight; trust is the result of open dialogue and a supportive environment.  The school leader needs to know that there is no penalty for sharing that she or he is considering a move. Surprisingly, many top networks take actions that discourage leaders from being open. In some cultures, people are terminated on the spot for expressing interest in furthering their careers outside their current school or organization. Ultimately, these practices encourage talent to be less transparent, which leads to sudden, unexpected departures at suboptimal times of year. You are far better off knowing in advance than being caught by surprise.  Build a relationship where your school leader feels comfortable sharing her or his thinking with you, even if their plans are uncertain.
  • Step Two: Ask Explicitly – Discussing the future can be tricky in a professional environment.  Often, one’s reasons for departure are connected to complicated personal situations such as a significant other, or a sick parent.  In a regular check-in, raise the question of the upcoming school year, acknowledging that there might still be uncertainty.  Ensure that your school leader knows that open uncertainty is preferable to secret uncertainty.  Understanding the specifics of how the decision about the upcoming school year will be made will help you plan early for a potential departure.
  • Step Three: Build a Succession Pipeline – In the event of a sudden departure, it’s great to have a member of your existing team that, with coaching and support, can step into the role of school leader on an interim or permanent basis. Consider your succession pipeline now, invest in professional and leadership development and plan for the future. Homegrown leaders know your culture, have produced great results and are generally less likely to fail. Moreover, by promoting from within, you are sending an important, positive signal to your entire staff.  If you don’t see a truly viable future leader on your existing team, address the problem now and find a possible successor. Finding a rising star with potential is always easier than finding a ready-to-go leader aligned with your school’s unique culture and approach.
By following these steps, you’ll be less likely to be left in the lurch. That said, despite the best laid plans, external searches are sometimes unavoidable. If you find yourself looking for an external successor, regardless of the month, we suggest that you market the role as soon as possible, and leave no stone unturned. Great instructional leaders are out there looking, at all times of year, for a variety of legitimate reasons. By activating a broad network, or by engaging a specialized search firm, you’ll be best positioned to find a great leader.