Appointing a Transition Committee

Wickenden Associates
September 10, 2019

More than one new Head of School has gotten off to an unnecessarily rocky start because of a political stumble that could have been avoided. To help the new Head make the best possible first impression, the President of the Board should appoint a carefully selected Transition Committee whose members will serve as guides and perhaps, occasionally, as guardian angels.

The Transition Committee need not be large, but the choice of its members is critical. The group should include individuals who are widely respected and well connected in both the school community and the larger community in which the school operates. The incoming President of the Board is a logical choice, and the Head’s Executive Assistant could provide invaluable help. Also important are one or two members with a flair for arranging successful social and ceremonial events.

Among the immediate tasks with which this group should be charged are the following:

  • Ensuring that the new Head receives all needed relocation assistance pertaining to housing, employment opportunities for his or her spouse, and guidance in the areas of school placement or child care, if needed.
  • Planning the installation ceremony.
  • Introducing the new leader to Heads of other independent schools in the area.

Next, the committee should ask itself: What—and whom—does a newcomer to this school community need to know to function smoothly? The group should develop a list of key people within the school community to whom the new Head should be introduced as soon as possible.

Business meetings or small social gatherings can then be planned to accomplish the introductions. This group might include large or long-time donors, former trustees who have recently rotated off the Board, particularly influential parents or teachers, or retired faculty members who remain beloved in the community. Prior to each of the meetings, members of the committee should brief the Head about the particulars of each participant’s relationship with the school.

The arrival of a new Head presents an opportunity to win back the loyalties of former school supporters who had become disaffected (alumni who broke off ties after a switch to coeducation, for example, or a donor who has opted not to fulfill a pledge because of a disagreement with the school’s leadership). Making an effort to introduce the new Head to persons in these categories could mark a new beginning in their relationship with the school. Similarly, some schools experience thorny relationships with homeowners living in close proximity to school property. A courtesy call from the new Head before problems arise could pay dividends later.

An effective transition committee serves two vital roles. First, it can help the Head to avoid major mistakes early in his or her tenure. More importantly, though, the work of this committee sends a message to the school community that the new Head is not operating in isolation but is supported by and is an integral part of a Board-Head leadership team.

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