Preparing the Charge to the New Head

Wickenden Associates
September 3, 2019

Head of School candidates frequently ask, “What are the three or four most important issues that will face the new Head during the first few years?” It’s a reasonable question, and one to which the well-organized Board will have a ready response in the form of “The Charge to the Head.”

This written charge helps to translate the mission statement into a set of action items for the new leader. Later, it will serve as the basis for the Board’s evaluation of the Head. Faculty, students, parents, trustees, alumni, and community leaders expect the Head to listen to them. They also expect the Head to do their bidding, despite the fact that these constituencies often have conflicting demands. Faculty members might lobby for higher salaries, students for more arts or athletic facilities, and parents for tuition relief. But the budget is finite. The more that is allocated to one pressure group, the less there is for the others.

Thus the Head must constantly perform a delicate balancing act. Just as referring to the school’s mission and operational statement may help the Head make fundamental decisions about the future of the school, so a written charge can help the Head balance and define priorities. To prevent the new Head from being pulled in different directions by the ever-present and always-competing political factions, the Board’s charge should specify the issues that are uppermost on the institution’s priority list. If a strategic plan exists, it can be consulted in developing the charge. If the strategic plan is outdated or non-existent, the Charge to the Head might include instructions to begin the process of developing one. Unless the school is in crisis, the Charge should not include items that will require the Head to address highly controversial issues or make unpopular decisions during the first year of his or her tenure.

To protect the Head from those who do not share the Board’s priorities, the Charge could be shared with faculty and staff. If they know that the Head has been asked to develop an integrated, coordinated, and articulated curriculum, he or she will find it easier to decline opportunities to become involved in interesting but time-consuming civic responsibilities. On the other hand, if the new Head has been charged with the task of heightening the visibility of the school within the community, he or she might welcome the opportunity to become involved with the United Way or sit on the Board of a hospital.

Ideally, the Board will begin developing the Charge shortly after the search is launched so that a draft of its contents will be available to candidates at the finalist stages of the search. The mission statement and Charge to the Head offer a welcome roadmap to a stranger arriving in a strange land. Boards unwilling or unable to provide these guideposts should not be surprised if their new Head wanders off course.

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