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Board Composition in Independent Schools and the Importance of Head of School Tenure

by: Smith and Howard

January 26, 2015

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We recently attended the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) Annual Conference in Atlanta and had the distinct pleasure of hearing educational consultant, John Littleford, speak about board composition in independent schools and the importance of head of school tenure.

We were particularly struck by Littleford’s points that today, the longevity of the head of school’s tenure is often too short to allow the individual to leave a lasting legacy.  Interestingly, the average tenure of an international school head is three and a half years and that of a US independent school head is less than six years.  According to Littleford, in order to leave a lasting legacy, one must serve as the head of school for upwards of seven years. He presented the question to the audience, why do many heads fail to survive the first five or so years? 

Loss of Institutional Memory

One reason for this is the loss of institutional memory on the board and the overturn of key search leaders who hired the head.  When those individuals responsible for bringing on the new head leave the board shortly after bringing on the new head, the institutional memory of the board and the school become endangered, which in turn can affect the longevity of a head’s tenure. 

Avoiding Loss of Institutional Memory

So how do the board and the new head avoid this pitfall?  Littleford suggests the formation of a Transition Committee.  Although he warns that Transition Committees can become “super boards,” micromanaging the head’s first days at the school, ultimately the job of a good Transition Committee is to ensure a healthy succession plan for the new head as well as for the board, which in turn makes it possible for the head to survive and thrive in the first five years of service.

In order to do this, the board chair who hired the head should maintain their position for at least the two years following the head’s start date, or the chair of the search committee should take over the role of the board chair and remain in that role for at least two years. This ensures that the relationship between the head and the board remain strong in the early days of a head’s tenure.

It is institutional stability and the successful transition of the head that depend greatly on the early stages of the head/chair partnership and that allow the head of school’s tenure to last long enough to leave behind a lasting legacy.

We found Littleford’s insight to be invaluable for those evaluating their board composition or head of school. Littleford, a former teacher, Head of School, and both Board of Directors member and chair of schools as well as nonprofit agencies, founded Littleford & Associates in 1994.  He has a wealth of knowledge on these topics, as well as a variety of other important topics on his website: www.jlittleford.com.  We encourage you to visit his website to see articles he has published and read more about the wonderful work he does.

Smith & Howard’s nonprofit team routinely advises boards on a host of governance issues, including board composition and searches for leadership team replacements. Please call Sean Taylor, Marc Azar or Paul Atkinson at 404-874-6244 for more information.

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