Three Basic Questions Head Candidates Should Ask About the Planning Document

Vol. 15 No. 4

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Most School Head candidates familiarize themselves with a prospective school’s history and general prospects. They typically review various advancement and marketing materials, the website, and social media efforts. They may even seek constituencies’ viewpoints on issues, goals, and opportunities that may impact the next headship.

Most schools have an official planning document (a strategic plan/strategic financial plan, long range plan, or accreditation report serving as de facto planning document). Head candidates should review this information before they make an on-site visit.

As a candidate, assess the planning document. Then ask the three following basic questions designed to assist you in determining whether a particular school would be a good match for your skills and leadership approach. This is particularly important if your experience with planning documents is limited to one or two that you have helped develop.

1. How old is the planning document?

If the planning document has been in effect for five years or more, it has almost certainly exceeded its usable life span. In that case, the new Head will presumably be asked to help spearhead developing a new plan. Go into great detail, as a finalist for the headship, to ascertain whether:

  • a basic direction for the school is simply assumed (and, obviously, whether you are a “fit” for this assumed new direction), or
  • you will be expected to take the lead in formulating a process from which a new plan will emerge.

If the planning document is relatively new (one to three years old), in your interviews with the Board and others, focus on what has been accomplished. How much of the new Head’s time and effort will be dedicated to implementing the remaining components? It may be that your job responsibilities for the first few years are clearly set out in the plan!

2. What process was used to develop the planning document?

If the school where you are a Head finalist uses a Board-developed plan, try to learn from interviews with non-Board members whether the plan has widespread support (or not) from its constituents. An obvious lack of non-Board support does not necessarily make the plan a “bad” one. However, it may make this headship less attractive, depending on the challenges you’re willing to assume.

If your prospective school’s plan is either constituency-based or an accreditation report, examine the financial implications with extreme care. Often, this type of document has not undergone any strategic financial testing and reshaping, and there are no costs or revenue sources assigned to the various items. As a result, it is nothing more than a wish lists or a series of vacuous recommendations.

This, too, does not mean the headship is wrong for you. However, as a Head candidate, you will want to alert the school’s leadership to the fiscal narrows around the bend. You may be exactly the right person to save the ship from imminent danger. (Bear in mind, however, that people often don’t want to hear this information. Calls to fiscal responsibility, while appreciated in retrospect, are seldom popular or exciting in prospect.)

3. What process has been used (or will be used) to implement the planning document?

Determine how your prospective school moves, or expects to move, from plan to action. Be wary if the Board’s traditional approach is to:

  • operate with many standing committees;
  • determine committee membership in part by voluntary “signing up” processes; and
  • allow committees to set their own agendas. This suggests that you can expect little when it comes to Board-level implementation of the planning document.

On taking over as the new Head, you could introduce operational approaches that focus on the planning document. However, unless the Board offers strategic support, the Board may be unable to keep pace with your administration. This could easily cripple your efforts. If this is the case, try to discover the Board leadership’s willingness to adopt a less bureaucratic approach, one that relies on committee action to carry out the planning document.

Bear in mind, however, that the greater danger to your headship may be a bureaucratic Board’s propensity to languish in “current events” discussions at Board and Board committee meetings. Nothing will frustrate, and perhaps defeat, your new headship more quickly than a “little-picture” Board wallowing in the operations minutiae of your fast-paced administration.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for School Heads Vol. 15 No. 2 10 Reasons You Were Meant to Be a School Head
The Source for School Heads Vol. 14 No. 5 19 Qualities of Superior Academic Leadership

Additional Resources for ISM Members:
I&P Vol. 38 No. 5 Financial Questions the Head Candidate Should Ask During the Interviews
&P Vol. 28 No. 16 Board/Head Relationships: Brutal Facts and Eternal Faith

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