Long Term Administrators: Stability or Stagnation

Does your school have a plan to manage declining performance in longtime administrators? Do you have a plan for cultivating young talent and preparing them to take the leadership reigns? Is your school actively scouting outside talent to bolster or refresh programs with new ideas? There are always multiple schools of thought when it comes to administrative teams at boarding schools. In decades past, administrators, including heads of school, were likely to be long-serving faculty members who moved up the ladder as opportunities for advancement arose. From time to time new administrators would be brought in to “refresh” the team or bring in a specific necessary skillset. However, more often than not, faculty who ascended to administrative positions remained in these posts for years, possibly decades. One view is that this progression is perfectly logical and affords the school an administrative team that is both stable and possessing great institutional knowledge.

The opposing view would be that this model produces entrenchment, stagnation, a lack of alternative experience, and a clog when it comes to providing leadership opportunities for talented and ambitious younger faculty. In essence, this method is more like what was found under the spoils system or medieval patronage and not based on meritocracy, utlity, or pragmatism. Both of these views are accurate to a point and this is where the challenge comes. How does a school create an administrative structure that is stable, organizationally aware, broadly aware of other school’s methods, and open to newcomers? A close friend of mine, who is a head of school, once told me “Greg, if you want that position here you simply need to wait ten or twelve years for the person in it to retire. Then it’s yours for as long as you want it.” This struck me as odd. It wasn’t about who was a better fit for the job, simply who was already in it. The person in the position was effective and a great leader, however, there are numerous examples where this is not the case. How do schools balance moving people out of administrative positions if they have become ineffective or if there is someone better suited for the job? Would this cause instability or would it allow for “fresh eyes” to reinvigorate a program?

On the opposite point, schools with administrative revolving doors face numerous, and often more pressing challenges, due to the lack of consistency that comes with high administrative turnover. In this sense, the school needs to focus on creating a stable administrative team to make it through a full graduate cycle (5 years) to provide consistent leadership and vision that can become part of the school’s overarching culture. Frequent administrative turnover is a red flag for families, potential hires, and faculty, since it alludes to the school being unstable. While there is an element of truth to that idea, it is the optics that are most damaging even if programmatic impacts are minimal. Leadership turnover can have a destabilizing impact on faculty morale and culture, as faculty members are unsure who is truly in charge or how much to back an administrator if they are likely to be gone within two years. Parents are unsure as to the value of the school if leaders are departing regularly.

So then what is a possible “middle path?” How can schools strike a balance between short term administrators and “lifelong” appointments? To start, schools should review the composition of their administrative teams. What are the age ranges? Is there gender balance? Do you have an administrative team that is balanced between longtime school employees and those with experience outside of the organization? For example, if your school has an administrative team of ten, how many have significant experience at other schools? How many on the team have been nowhere else? Are most of the team over the age of 55? or, conversely, under the age of 40?

One possible solution would be to implement a five-year appointment plan with an honest review after five years. Added to this could be an explicit understanding that no one will hold a given position for more than X years. In this sense, you are building in renewal at consistent points that allow for programmatic change, redefining of organizational charts, and cultivating talent in a way that encourages younger faculty members to stick around and truly invest in the school. It is worth noting that millennial workers stay in specific jobs for less than two years and view those in positions long term as being stagnant. This contrast is pointed but it needs to be understood as the generational shift ramps up in the coming years with ten thousand Baby Boomers retiring each day. As with most things, it is about balance and doing what best fits the individual needs of the individual schools. However, maybe it is time to revisit the value of long-term administrators when the pace of change is only increasing.