Between the tensions of managing schools during Covid and recent legislative pressures around curriculum, leadership transitions have become commonplace over the past few years. Whether a school hires a new leader externally or someone is promoted from within the organization, new leadership impacts everyone—from the leaders themselves to those who report to them and the broader school community.
As authors Susan and William Bridges observe in their book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, “It’s not the change that will do you in; it’s the transitions.” Change is specific to an event, it’s situational: implementing a new schedule, changing the carpool line, welcoming a new head of school. Transitions, in contrast, are personal; they are how people deal with the feelings they have (such as loss, fear, anger) regarding change. In our work with school leaders and as school leaders ourselves, we have identified two core considerations that can help ensure a smooth and effective transition.
Clarify Your Mandate
What does success look like? Your new colleagues have expectations for the job you’ve been hired to do. Don’t assume you know what those expectations are, based on what you learned through the job description and interview process. Sit down with the board chair or head of school to make sure you are on the same page. Clarify your goals and deadlines; ask who will be evaluating you, and how. What does success look like from their perspective? If you’ve been brought in to make unpopular or tough decisions, ask how you will be supported if there is pushback. Clarifying expectations is important and should be one of your first priorities.
Manage first impressions: As you begin your new role, remember the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Malcolm Gladwell says it best in his book Blink: “We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.” Whether you are managing the expectations of staff, students, parents, or the broader community, be careful of the verbal and nonverbal messages you send.
Focus on the “we,” not the “I,” so everyone knows that you believe they are an important contributor. If you are in an independent school setting, get to know all your board members; if you are in a public school setting, get to know your superintendent and anyone else charged with overseeing your efforts. Invite them for coffee; find out what they do, what’s important to them, what they love about the school, and what they hope you will bring to the community.
Understand the health of the school: Particularly if you are moving into an upper administrative role, you should have a good understanding of the current health of the school, particularly when it comes to the financials. For public schools, what has the budget looked like for the last few years? How well has the annual budget allowed the school to meet its needs? For independent schools, what has enrollment looked like over the last five years? Who are the major donors, and how strong has annual giving been?
In all school contexts, what major challenges are facing the school today, and over the next five to 10 years? Do you have facilities in need of updating, and do you have any current personnel issues to address? Whether in a public or private context, it’s important for any new leader to understand the current health of the school.
Learn About the Community and What They Need
Acknowledge what came before you: Because of the recent pandemic and the accommodations that teachers and staff have had to make (working from home, working and taking care of their kids simultaneously, learning how to use online tools, etc.), there is an overall sense of trauma, pain, and strain in most school communities. Remember, many people see change and transition as something that happens to them, not something in which they take part, so the transition may bring with it a sense of loss or pain.
Give people choices about how they get their jobs done so they feel more like protagonists than victims. Show respect and empathy. Ask people how they’re feeling and what they worry about. Many leaders make the mistake of skipping this step, thinking that difficult feelings will dissipate with time or insisting that these are adults getting paid to do a job—they just have to deal with it. Bridges and Bridges warn: “Organizations overlook that letting-go process completely… and do nothing about the feelings of loss that it generates. Unmanaged transition makes change unmanageable.”
Build relationships: Identify key stakeholders and build relationships with colleagues. Connect with that longtime senior faculty member whose opinion holds weight; understand what they think you should know as you acclimate to your new role. Identify interpersonal differences with others. If you’re new to the school, was there an internal candidate who didn’t get the job? How are they feeling about the decision moving forward? Take time to get to know each member of your administrative team. What can they tell you about the culture of the school?
Get to know everyone: If you can, meet with all faculty and staff, even for 15 minutes. Ask them what they love most about the school and what keeps them up at night. Create more intimate, informal events where you can interact with your community, like hosting a barbecue and inviting faculty families. These opportunities show that you’re interested in the school as a whole and in the individuals that make up the community.
Your key purpose is to educate students, and constructive collaboration with parents is paramount to your success. Get to know families—ask about their aspirations and desires. Spend time in classrooms, and even shadow students from different grade levels, to get a feel for their day-to-day experience. All of this will help your community feel heard and understood and will help you make choices that reflect your community’s real needs and desires.
Ultimately, leadership transitions hold as much promise as they do challenge; new leaders bring new energy and ideas that can help the community grow and improve, but too much rapid change can have the opposite effect. It’s not your job to solve everything in the first few months, and taking the time to manage your transition intentionally, in ways that build community and a sense of shared voice, will pay dividends in the long run.