Is Leadership Transition the Weak Link of School Innovation?

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Is Leadership Transition the Weak Link of School Innovation?

imgresTwo remarkable, leading schools I know of are undergoing leadership changes.  Many people have spent time, treasure, and, most importantly, professional risk capital to lever these schools off of the a worn out path and on to visionary trajectories of the future of learning.  Now comes the test: will these schools survive a leadership transition with their visions for a deeper learning, student-focused learning experience intact? Or will they fall backwards into the gravitational pull of tradition and safety?  Is an entrepreneurial model of school transformation possible?  Or is the inertial pull of the status quo just too powerful for most schools to break free?

90% of start up companies fail in the first ten years, many because they are not able to make the transition from entrepreneurial to sustainable mode. Much of this failing is due to poor leadership development. Start up entrepreneurs are notoriously weak at sustainable management and maturing organizations just work differently than start-ups.  If transforming schools requires an entrepreneurial leader, one willing and eager to take risks, should we expect a 90% failure rate amongst transforming schools?  Will most “innovative” schools fail to build the kind of systematic, sustainable culture of innovation that will overcome the transition from a charismatic founder/leader?

The obvious answer is “yes”, which does not bode well for those courageous educators and community leaders who are forming the brushfires of school innovation. So what can schools do to improve the odds, to build a culture that enables them to overcome leadership transitions when they are in the early stages on real innovative transformation?

Based on what I see at many schools with which I work, here are a few key recommendations:

  • Distribute leadership capacity amongst the ranks.  If teachers and non-executive leadership have the skill set of strategic thinking, they can provide the continuity required to jump the transition gap. Leading sustainable change is a learned skill set; it is just one that we don’t usually teach in graduate education programs.
  • Build and implement a “north star” vision, a manifesto developed and validated by the community about what is really most important at your school. These are non-negotiables, embraced by all stakeholders, which transcend the transition and guide new leadership.
  • Re-brand the role of executive leader (principal, head, or superintendent).  If the weight of school transformation really lies on one individual, then any progress arc is fragile, just like at a for profit company if only one person knows the formula or recipe.  Today, school executives should be “lead leaders”, not royalty.

I will be watching these two schools, and others, closely.  The future of a truly transformed K-12 education landscape may very well rest on the success of these early stage leadership transitions.


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  1. Mark Crotty November 10, 2015 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    Your post echoes back to something you’ve written about before and we’ve discussed—that many boards never really have discussions about learning and the implications for school. In many ways, it’s not their focus and their told to stay out of educational areas. But I think there is a right way for those crucial discussions to take place and trustees stick to their proper roles. Similarly, boards often like things where they can see tangible markers of their hard work, i.e. new buildings, the likes of which don’t necessarily impact the quality of learning. They also still believe in those grandiose strategic plans that are more like a kids’ Christmas list and often become outdated rather quickly. There has been—although this seems to be slowly changing—an emphasis on quick results and trigger-happy responses when they don’t come.
    Schools are becoming a bit more nimble, and some adopt changes more quickly. But it takes time for things to seep into the culture or, to use another of your metaphors, for the ecosystem to evolve. It’s why I also worry when a school seems to be just glomming onto every new idea and tacking it on rather than aiming for that north star.

    • Grant November 10, 2015 at 10:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Mark; as always we seem to agree! I wonder how long it will take for indy school boards and heads to get this message. Certainly the kind of thing that the new Center in Dallas will focus on should be a good boost in the right direction, and my sense is that other more traditional PD outlets are starting to see this as well.

  2. […] Two remarkable, leading schools I know of are undergoing leadership changes. Many people have spent time, treasure, and, most importantly, professional risk capital to lever these schools off of t…  […]

  3. Mike Ziemski November 11, 2015 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Grant – great article, and a very interesting perspective! While new leadership of a school has its challenges, there seems to be a responsibility on the part of the outgoing to leader to provide sufficient notice regarding the change. The board can then seek input relative to the necessary qualities of the new leader, conduct a search, and evaluate candidates to determine if the candidate’s vision is congruent with the desires of the board and the greater school community.

    The more difficult transitions, perhaps, are the second-tier leaders – the CFO, the advancement director, the principal, the dean of students, the IT manager, etc. There may be notice provided, but perhaps not a sufficient amount to allow for a new candidate to be found and transitioned. Usually, the term “transitioned” isn’t even considered since there’s usually no overlap between the former staff member and the new one. The IT manager gives 2 weeks notice, a search is conducted, perhaps an internal staff member is appointed interim manager until the search can be completed, and perhaps the internal staff member is also a candidate. If a new department director is brought in from outside the school, there’s always a learning curve involved – not only pertaining to tasks, but also to staff attitudes, skills and abilities, the work environment, and communication with the head of school. These transitions are especially difficult. If the previous Advancement Director departs from a position at a school, and there’s no “overlap” regarding the start date of the new Advancement Director, the previous personnel member may carry many of the relationships developed with them to their new challenge, while the new person learns the ropes of their new environment.

    • Grant November 11, 2015 at 2:32 pm - Reply

      I very much agree, Mike. And of course there is the matter of frequency; those second tier positions change more frequntly en toto. The two schools that prompted this thinking both are undergoing “unscheduled” leader transitions; sometimes these happen. No doubt there will be searches conducted for the permanent replacements, but we all know that, despite asking the right questions during searches, there is always a treat that schools end up hiring someone who is not as aligned with the vision of innovation as the predecessor. Sometimes it takes a fair bit of time for the new leader to really feel she has the support to take similar risks.

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