Your Questions Answered: How to Start Next Year Off Right as a New School Head

Your Questions Answered: How to Start Next Year Off Right as a New School Head
Your Questions Answered: How to Start Next Year Off Right as a New School Head

School Heads

The start of a new job is an exciting time—enthusiasm and a dose of apprehension often go hand in hand. For a new School Head, the imminent responsibilities and expectations are unique. We recently answered several questions about taking on a new School Head position. We want to share the answers with you here.

Q: What are the first things to do when starting a new job as School Head?

A: Most Head positions begin in early July—approximately two months before students arrive in September. During that time, there are three top priorities on which to focus: culture, budget, and Board.

#1—Culture

Meet with your Leadership Team as soon as possible to build the trust and camaraderie necessary to become a functioning, effective team. There is a significant amount of delegation needed as a Head; administrators respond positively to a task-oriented environment if a connection has been established and expectations are made clear from the outset.

Along these lines, it’s imperative to build this same symbiotic relationship with faculty and staff. Set the tone—let them know who you are as a person and as a professional, convey what matters to you, and be clear about your nonnegotiables. Communicate your dreams and intentions not only for the school overall, but for the internal culture you hope to foster.

#2—Budget

Talk with the school’s Business Manager or Chief Financial Officer (CFO) early and often. Remember that being a School Head means leading a business. A new Head inherits a budget that someone else designed, so it’s critical to become familiar with the overall budget structure in addition to minute details such as individual line items.

Ask questions:

  • Are we on track to meet the budget?
  • How is the school’s current enrollment lining up with admission and revenue goals?

Keep track of the institution’s stance regarding net tuition revenue, deficits, etc. Board members will want details about all revenue sources and expenses. Sharing this information will help ensure a smooth transition with the entire Board—especially the Finance Chair.

#3—Board

Social events are often held to introduce the incoming Head to members of the Board. These events are typically informal, allowing for small talk ranging from school issues to family pets.

The best way for Board members to learn about a new School Head on a professional level, however, is to schedule individual meetings. In one-on-one conversations, the new School Head can convey their leadership style.

Q: How involved should an incoming Head be in the winter/spring leading up to a contracted start date of July 1?

A. Balancing two jobs—your current post and the new position—can be tricky. Even though your upcoming job has not yet officially begun, it is likely your new school will want to involve you at higher levels, especially as the year progresses.

Strive to attend school events and meet faculty at the new institution whenever possible. This will not only make things easier on a social level, but it will also enable you to have input on important decision-making processes—decisions that could have a significant impact on your goals and vision for the school.

Q: I don’t always want teachers and administrators in attendance for the full length of Board meetings. What is an appropriate way to handle that?

A. Faculty and administrative interest in Board activities can be highly beneficial. However, usually it is advantageous to limit attendance at meetings. The School Head should never be the one to convey this message as it could be easily misconstrued as insulting or lacking in transparency.

Instead, Board leadership can invite interested teachers and administrators to attend the segment of a meeting pertaining to them, making it clear that they will not be allowed to remain for the entire meeting. When this is communicated with a positive spin, feelings and egos are often spared.

Q: Board members at my new school have held onto their roles long past their Board terms. Several of them are large donors. How should I proceed?

A. Handling delicate situations with Board members doesn’t have to be stressful. Look to the Board Chair for back-up and to raise the issue of Board term limits—which is likely supported by the bylaws.

Also, they can be invited to join committees that are designed for short-term needs.

Q: I’m one of the only persons of color to work in my new school, and the first person of color Head. I want to be seen simply as the School Head—I don’t want diversity issues to take precedence over all my other responsibilities.

A. Talk to the Board and Leadership Team before the school year starts. Ensure there are systems in place to help with racial issues so you don’t have to shoulder this alone.

Your school may have established a committee that can serve your partner as you deal with this issue. If not, encourage its creation. Find out what type of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work—if any—has been done. Be upfront with your Board Chair, so they are aware of what you are thinking and to better prepare for the new school year.

Learning more about the history of diversity and equity at your new school will prove to be helpful—an administrator or longtime faculty member may have institutional knowledge that can shed some light on a current situation or something that happened in the past.

Q: How can I cultivate a good working relationship with my Board Chair and Leadership Team?

A. There are often three distinct ways in which a Board and School Head work: The Head manages the Board, the Board manages the Head, or it’s a 50/50 ratio of management and collaboration. The latter is optimal.

Each Board is different. The best ways to develop a new Board relationship is for the School Head to learn about the inner workings of the Board itself. Establishing weekly in-person meetings with the Board Chair, especially in your first year, will prove invaluable.

Ask the Board Vice Chair to join your weekly meetings. Strive to establish basic expectations early on to set the stage for smoother communications down the road.

Q: I’m transitioning from Academic Dean to School Head. What are the things I need to know?

A. In your role as Academic Dean, you may have attended Board meetings and worked with various committees. However, be aware that interacting with a Board of Trustees as a School Head is an entirely different experience. There are several things to do to prepare for the changes and challenges ahead.

First, before the Business Manager or CFO sends any documents to the Finance Chair prior to the next Board meeting, you should meet with that individual and review the full budget to prepare for questions that may arise.

Next, as a School Head, you need an overview of each Board committee. This background information should be provided by the Board Chair.

Another important piece for new Heads to familiarize themselves with is data: including surveys that have been conducted. Learn what data has already been collected and what is still missing; determine who will disseminate, collate, and analyze the next set of data to ensure it’s used in ways that promote the growth and future of the school.


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Q: What books do you recommend for a new Head?

A. Start with The Art of Coaching Teams by Elena Aguilar and The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath. These books are helpful for both the School Head and Leadership Team—consider making them summer reading recommendations for faculty and staff.

As in any new relationship—professional or otherwise—the first year as School Head is a honeymoon phase, with everyone on their best behavior. By the second or third year, challenges have been met head on and the hard work is well underway. In the fourth and subsequent years, the success of that hard work will begin to pay off—a reminder why the role of School Head is ultimately so rewarding.

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