Interim or Permanent Head? An Important Choice for Search Committees

In his 42 years in independents schools, Dave Davies has served as head of the Deerfield-Windsor School (GA); a “founding” upper school head; an interim head, and a 27-year veteran of boarding school life. Here he addresses a key leadership transition issue: Should a school appoint an interim head or move directly to search for a new, fulltime head of school?

When a School Head decides that it is time for new leadership, the Board of Trustees is faced with many decisions. What priorities do they have for the school? What characteristics, strengths, and experiences do they desire in their new Head? How much time does the Board have to select and hire the new leader for their school?  Do they want to use a search firm and, if so, how do they go about finding, vetting, and contracting a consultant?

Among those decisions lies another: Is an “interim” or a permanent Head the better direction for their school at that particular time? There is certainly no “one size fits all” answer. And the decision is influenced by many factors: The school’s financial, enrollment, and personnel situation; the successes (or failures) of the departing Head; and the timing of his/her decision and subsequent announcements about it all factor into this critical decision.

By moving forward with the search for a permanent Head, the school has the advantage of

  • moving forward immediately with strategic plans and programs versus marking time for a year;

  • conducting one well-focused search rather than two;

  • saving time and money with a single search, not two; and

  • establishing continuity sooner within the school community.


There are, of course, advantages to appointing an “interim” head, for example

  • allowing the community to heal if the previous Headship did not end well;

  • providing distance for the school from previous practices, styles, and approaches, thus giving the new, permanent Head “space” to establish his/her own leadership;

  • empowering an “interim” leader to make any necessary difficult decisions without worrying about damaging relationships necessary for the new, fulltime Head’s success; and

  • giving the search committee more time to do a full search, especially if the previous Head announced late in the typical search cycle.

Indeed, the hiring cycle for Heads of School continues to advance months ahead of what, for many years, had been the “traditional” search calendar.  Given a dearth of Head candidates across the country and the fear of losing good candidates to schools that have advanced the timeframe, many schools are now launching searches in the spring, interviewing in the summer, conducting finalist interviews shortly after school opens, and offering Headships as early as September, nine months prior to the new Head’s succession.

As a result, if a Head’s departure isn’t announced until twelve months or less before his/her tenure concludes, the school is already behind in the cycle.  Although consultants can scramble to help in such a situation, some strong candidates may already be well along in other searches and decline to enter additional ones.  In that case, a one-year “interim” may be the best solution available.

Other factors may influence this decision. If there has been a failed Headship at a school for whatever reason, the community may be anxious about the next Head. In that case, if the “interim” can calm the waters, address some of the school’s issues and problems, and provide some distance from the previous administration, the new permanent Head will have a greater chance for success.

Also, if there are programmatic, financial, or personnel problems at the school, an interim Head can address many of these issues without the time-consuming process of developing the trust normally necessary to make difficult decisions.  Absent the need to develop long-term working relationships, s/he can move more swiftly to prepare the ground for the permanent Head’s tenure.

Of course, even though the process for finding an “Interim” is not nearly as time-consuming as a permanent Head search, the prospect of leading two searches in two years may seem daunting. However, if a Board has a deep enough pool of talent, tasking two different search committees with two different chairs would distribute the workload. Although conducting two searches may not be attractive to the school, that scenario might be less stressful and ultimately more beneficial to the school than rushing into a permanent Head search where the school either hires the wrong person or installs the right Head in the wrong situation, a problematic culture that leads to failure.  In the latter case, the school will end up doing two searches anyway, albeit under less than desirable circumstances.

N.B. In addition to permanent Head searches, The Education Group places interim Heads of School and would welcome the opportunity to explore this essential question with schools approaching the search process without obligation to engage us.