Appointing the Head of School

Now that my new book, Healthy Boards-Successful Schools, has been out for about three months, I’m getting a lot of encouraging feedback. Many of the positive remarks call out my use of “Case Stories.” These are fictional scenarios based upon what actually happens in independent and faith-based schools every day. They address a range of issues that shine a light on the relationship between the head of school and board of trustees.  I walk through what may actually be happening and engage individuals and groups with questions that guide meaningful thought and dialog. It is a process that begins with reflection that leads to action and, hopefully, a move forward to best practices.

You can explore this topic in Case Story #2; beginning on page 32.


Eventually, it will happen. The board will be faced with one of its greatest, if not its greatest, challenges – appointing the head of school. They’re often inexperienced in the process. But they need not be unprepared or unsuccessful as they face this challenge. Succession from one head of school to the next is a serious process with profound long-term consequences for the school. The selection of a new head of school is an intentional process with multiple moving parts and the involvement of numerous people.

The head of school is in a unique position to provide leadership that helps determine the course and direction for the school. This position requires special skills and responsibilities that must match the needs of the school. Few trustees are experienced in hiring this position.

What makes a head different that the Financial officer, Development officer, the Secondary or Elementary principal? The head must lead and manage every aspect of the school and do so successfully. This requires skills that impact people, budgeting, fundraising, marketing, strategy, organizational behavior, community relations, and, of course, forging a positive relationship with the school’s board of trustees. It’s not for everyone, and seemingly the more obvious candidates may not be the best fit. And when the board considers an internal candidate, the process becomes far more complex, as is the issue in this case story.

What’s unique about the head?

The head of school must build trust with everyone up and down the organizational chart, set the direction and priorities for the school, and lead in all circumstances. These are skills and characteristics that some board members may not have themselves, and find it challenging to recognize it in others. That is not a poor reflection on the board. Even excellent board members may be out of their element when it comes to interviewing and evaluating candidates for the position of head of school. And I haven’t yet mentioned building the pool of qualified candidates. An enormous challenge in and of itself.

When considering the damage that can be done when an ill-suited candidate is hired, boards must be willing to admit their own limitations in this area and employ the services of an experienced professional. The stakes are too high to do otherwise and the investment required is well worth it!