Principles of Good Practice for Leadership Transition

The items below can easily be reduced to one simple word: PLAN. Planning is everything, both in process and implementation. The board of trustees and the new head cannot plan enough in the transition of leadership at a school. More specifically, here are some of the characteristics of the “ideal” transition of leadership:


  1. The Contract: All of the new head’s responsibilities – both “operational” ones and special “charges” – as well as compensation, perquisites, benefits, terms of contract, etc. – should be clearly articulated by the board in his contract and should be the main criteria of his formal evaluation. At this time the terms and schedule for evaluations should be specified, at least one of which should be conducted at the time of his contract extension for the coming year.

  2. The Spouse: The board should make clear its expectations of the head’s spouse regarding her role at the school and develop clear understanding with her. This is often one of the most sensitive and difficult matters in transition and can be pivotal in the success of the new head.

  3. The Departing Head: The board should develop a clear plan for the departure of the outgoing head of school, mindful of these factors: (a) his unquestioned authority to lead the school until the conclusion of the school year; (b) proper celebration of his outstanding service; (c) a promise of his support for his successor; (d) an opportunity to serve the school as an adviser to the new head as appropriate; and (e) an understanding of his role in separating gracefully from the school to optimize its growth and progress in the future.

  4. The Transition Committee: The board chair should appoint a Transition Committee to welcome the new head and his family and to facilitate their move and smooth adjustment to the community, beginning with visits to the school prior to their official arrival. The committee, for which the board should establish a clear agenda and charge, might include one or two members of the search committee.

  5. Welcoming the New Head: Trustees should make clear in word and deed their excitement about the new head’s appointment, to build enthusiasm within the school community and to reassure him of their support. This can take many forms, including welcoming the new head and his family into the community with social gatherings, thoughtful notes, and introduction to important members of the school community.

  6. The Head and the Chair: After the announcement of his appointment, the new head and the board chair should begin corresponding regularly – by phone, e-mail, or face-to-face meeting – to forge their relationship (it’s the most important one at the school) and to begin making plans for their future work together. However, the school should be respectful of the new head’s ongoing responsibilities at his current school and allow him to leave that school in good stead.

  7. Homework: The new head should be provided important material for study about the school: e.g., financial statements, recent audits, and budgets; minutes of previous board meetings; strategic plans; evaluation and accreditation reports; a summary of valued traditions; if available, a written history of the school; and the former head’s “tickler” file and list of key events or “flash points” in a typical school year. He should also be alerted to significant financial and legal issues as well as potentially explosive unresolved problems that exist at the school. Ideally the new head should have studied material of this kind well before his arrival on July 1. Also, if possible the school should make available to the new head enrollment in a summer workshop for new heads.

  8. The Senior Staff: The new head should begin as soon as possible to build his relationship with his “senior staff” of administrators. In preparation for those meetings he might ask them to prepare a statement of the issues, goals, controversies, and priorities that they believe should have his attention early in his tenure.

  9. The Entry Plan: The new head should prepare a comprehensive “entry plan,” generally for the “pre-entry period” (before July 1); the three-month arrival period; the First 90 Days (basically the first semester); and the Last 90 Days (the second semester through June 30).  That plan might include notes on all of the key issues that arose during the search; possible ways to address them; preliminary priorities for doing so, etc. The head might prepare a questionnaire to survey each faculty member and use it as the basis for individual meetings with each of those teachers. He should meet as well with staff members, students, parents, and trustees, and visit the mayor, council members, fire chief, public high school principals, etc. in his new hometown. Additionally, the new head should prepare his first talks to faculty, parents, students, and other key constituencies, clarifying the themes and goals with which he hopes to make a “first impression” in the school community. Finally, unless he is charged by the board with immediate, urgent “fixes” to address in the first year, the new head should be encouraged to watch and listen in his first year, gaining as much knowledge and insight into the school as possible.

  10. State of the School: At a time agreed upon by the board chair and the new head (perhaps at a year-end retreat), the new head should address the board on his evaluation of the “State of the School,” in particular assessing the school’s mission, vision, and strategic plan; all of its programs (academic, athletic, extra-curricular, financial, advancement, etc.) – everything – and his recommendations for modifications or changes in them: in other words, the head’s vision of the school. The end of the year is also an appropriate time for a summary evaluation of the head, conducted by the chair and at least one other board member.