Dear Cooki: Smoothing Transitions
This month, we received two closely related questions. Looking at them together will enrich our understanding of the many issues and actions that surround transition in leadership. The questions are:
As a head of school who is leaving my position at the end of this school year, how can I help to ensure stability and a seamless transition to the new head? what steps should I take? Are there things I can do to help my successor as s/he takes over?
I will be assuming the position of a new HoS at the start of the next school year. what can I do prior to the official start of my contract to pave the way and ensure that the school transitions smoothly from my predecessor to me?
These two questions are opposites sides of the same coin, yet complex in nature. And to make things even more complicated, sometimes a school leader is simultaneously leaving one headship and accepting another. What, then, can be done to help ensure success?
As in so many areas of leadership, the first consideration should be clear, open and respectful communication. If you are the incoming head, regardless of the circumstances of his leaving, the current HoS deserves your respect. Don’t just show up and expect the staff to stop their work and help you. Ask when you may visit the school and when the head will have time to meet with you. Remember that the school staff members are still her employees, not yours, and alienating them at this juncture will hurt you later. I recall a situation when a new HoS visited and immediately appropriated the outgoing head’s office! Needless to say, not only was that school head offended, but the staff became fiercely protective of their current boss. Not a good first impression, to be sure!
It is extremely likely that the outgoing HoS has a great deal of field experience and wisdom that will be very helpful to you. Listen well; determine what factors have contributed to the school’s success and ask the current head about them. Ask him about the minefields (and every school has some). This is not the time to present your vision, and certainly not the time to critique or tell him how you will do things differently.
Know what you want to learn. Ask for specific documents, and give the staff enough time to get them for you. These may include copies of staff contracts, teaching schedules, curricular materials, handbooks (staff and student), fundraising letters and other outreach, financial statements and budgets, etc. You may have questions; ask for another meeting to explore those and gain additional insights. Listen for rationales for why things have been done a certain way, even if you are convinced that your approach will be better.
With the permission of the HoS, spend time in the school if you can. Walk around, watch how things are done, study the displays, get a sense of the behavioral norms—in short, familiarize yourself as much as you can without interfering. You may be moving to a new community; in that case, spend time getting a feel for the community as well.
And what can a head who is about to leave the position do to promote stability? Accept that you are turning your school over to another. Often that is a result of a choice you have made, but sometimes it is not. Regardless, your obligation is to the school. Be generous with your time and your information. Leave school documents, staff notes and student records in such a way that they can be easily accessed and understood by your successor. Answer questions honestly. There have been instances when the retiring head, feeling that he has been unfairly treated, has erased records and poisoned the atmosphere before the incoming leader arrives. Who suffers? The new leader, of course, but the real burden is on the school, the same school that the outgoing head has worked to build.
Paving the way for good relations between the new HoS and the staff is your responsibility as well. Be positive about the person who will be sitting in your chair—it is highly inappropriate for you to make derogatory comments about your successor. Similarly, refrain from making negative statements about the members of the board. Introduce the new head of school to members of the school community. Ask yourself what you would have liked to know when you began (or what you want to learn about the school to which you are going) and then share that information as best you can.
Transitions in leadership work best when there are good will and respect on both sides and a genuine and generous commitment to sharing information in the best interests of the school. That should be your guiding principle, whether you are beginning or concluding your tenure as head of school.