Leading to Greatness

The exchange was brief and simple in its content, yet profound in its implications.

One morning this past summer, I had davened at a local shul in Passaic, NJ. Passaic was our new home as of mid-July, following nearly a decade of school leadership in other communities. After tefilla, I opened a conversation with someone who had also just concluded his tenure as a principal out of state. He informed me that had left the field of education entirely and had moved to the tri-state area to go into business with a relative. In the course of our talk, he mentioned that another colleague, also young by comparative standards, was not returning to the school that he had helped found out west.

I left the conversation with mixed emotions and a heightened sense of purpose. Having just transitioned myself from a career as a principal (to the world of executive and educational coaching and consulting, for reasons that I will discuss below), I knew firsthand that our community was blessed with many outstanding principals and lay leaders, talented, industrious individuals who are deeply committed to the field of education and our children. Many of these professional-lay partnerships have produced stability, continuity and significant growth, both quantitative and qualitative, for their respective institutions. But I worried about the fact that we continue to lose legitimate talent from the administrative ranks and felt sorry for those who would be impacted most, namely the students. And I feel that more needs to be done to address this issue.

Of course, a degree of regular leadership change is inevitable. People retire or choose to pursue other professional opportunities.  Turnover also reflects a common professional progression: cut your teeth at a school in one, perhaps smaller and more remote community, or as a second-tier administrator, and then work your way towards a “dream job” elsewhere. At times, administrative churn can be healthy; not every principal is necessarily cut out for the rigors of the position. Perhaps there are even times when all parties would benefit from a change of scenery. But in too many cases, administrative turnover highlights the fluid, unpredictable and exceedingly challenging nature of school leadership. As one veteran teacher once told me, “I survived 3 other principals, I will survive you too.” And he was right!

Needless to say, the conundrum that we face is not a uniquely Orthodox issue. Nor is it nearly as extreme as it is for some others, particularly public school administrators. In Minneapolis, for example, 17% of the district’s 165 schools have new principals this year. According to a recent article in the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore’s public schools have seen more than 90 percent of school leadership change in the last six years. A recently released RAND Corp. study reported that about 20 percent of principals new to a school leave that posting within one or two years. “The underlying idea is that churn is not good,” said Gina Schuyler Ikemoto, an author of the report and the executive director of research and policy development for New Leaders, formerly known as New Leaders for New Schools.  While our challenge pertaining to administrative turnover does not appear to even approach these depressing figures, we value our educational institutions enough to take little solace in qualified successes.

We can all fundamentally appreciate the importance of continuity and stability at the principal’s desk. But perhaps we do not recognize just how significant it really is. Karen Seashore Louis, a University of Minnesota professor who co-authored a 2011 book that looked at the relationship between principal turnover and student achievement, suggests the principal is the second most influential factor within schools when it comes to affecting student achievement.

“Principal turnover is very strongly negatively related to student achievement,” she said. “We found that turnover is only not negative when there is very strong professional cohesiveness among the teachers, who become the holders of quality within the school. That’s not a characteristic most schools have.”

Of course, the problem of excessive turnover at the top is not limited to those who lead our schools. Our congregational rabbis and other public servants also transition at too high a rate, especially if we maintain the position that any avoidable, unnecessary change at the top is excessive.

In order to understand the situation more fully and gain a broader perspective on the matter, I surveyed a number of individuals with intimate knowledge of the administrative landscape within our communal institutions. I sought to find out if they shared my concerns in general, and, assuming that they did, to identify viable solutions for increased continuity and success in this realm.  The group included former principals, placement professionals for principals, rabbis and institutional heads, organizational leaders who support the efforts of other leaders and coaches/consultants. The author thanks the following individuals who gave of their time and expertise to weigh in on the matter:

  • Rabbi Judah Isaacs, Director of Community Engagement for the Orthodox Union
  • Mr. Joel Paul, President, The Joel Paul Group
  • Rabbi A. Moshe Possick, Director of Bureau of Personnel Resources, Torah Umesorah
  • Rabbi Shalom Storch, "Executive Coaching and Training for Educators" President of Machon Aluf Binah
  • Rabbi Ari Sytner, Director of Community Initiatives, Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future

The questions posed in this brief survey focused on such areas as how much support (a term that we will define more fully below) we need to be providing our leaders (professional and lay, veteran and inexperienced), whether sufficient support is presently available for our leaders to maximize their effectiveness, if the current turnover rate is of personal concern to them, and, to the degree that it is, strategies to help reduce it.

Four of the five respondents replied that regular, substantial leadership support is crucial for all leaders, regardless of experience levels. All five felt that organizational leaders receive “not nearly enough” leadership support. Some put part of the blame for that on the relative dearth of support options. And when asked to respond to the following statement using a Likert continuum (strongly agree to strongly disagree): “I am concerned about the turnover/transition rate within organizational leadership,” three agreed, one agreed strongly, and one disagreed.

You may be asking yourself, “Why would our leaders need such extensive supports? Aren’t they supposed to be leading and supporting us? As professionals, don’t they know what they are doing? And if our lay leaders are so successful in their professional capacities, shouldn’t that translate naturally to school governance?”

There are many valid answers to these questions. As far as I can tell, they all come down to what I call the “2 E’s”: Experience and Expectations.  

For new leaders, their first headship represents a completely different professional experience to what they had done previously. Almost all principals, for example, began their professional pathway as teachers. They developed their craft in the classroom, with a primary focus on instruction and student relations. Those that migrate to the role principal are confronted with a whole new set of requirements, many of which go well beyond the realm of instruction. Such responsibilities typically include board development, budget preparation and financial oversight, communal relations, and change management. Even those who received an advanced degree in administration will tell you that there is a huge disparity between the sterile walls of academic theory and the sometimes harsh realities of professional practice. Those who held second-tier administrative positions elsewhere before assuming their headship position will point out the difference in pressure and expectations between being a number 2 as opposed to the Head Honcho.

Rabbanim and other institutional heads tell a similar story. They, too, spent most of their post-graduate years engaged in further study or related practice to the mission orientation of their choosing (communal guidance, kiruv, adult education, etc.) and not enough time studying and practicing the ancillary (and in many cases, core) responsibilities associated with their eventual role as communal leader and organizational head.

Inexperience can also play a major role for the board chair and the board at large. Governance is a crucial but often misunderstood responsibility. It requires that the board holds the CEO, its sole employee, accountable for all areas of institutional operation, and provides supportive feedback and evaluations to that end using clear, agreed-to terms. It also demands that the board protects the organization’s mission and ensures fiscally solvency. All of these are serious responsibilities that must be carried out dutifully. A board that suffers from inexperience, lack of direction, or oversteps its bounds and enters into the professional domain of the organizational leader can create untold angst and complications for the institution and its constituents.

Lest one think that the issues confronting communal leaders are limited to the uninitiated, I present to you the other “E”, expectations. Our expectations of our leaders and our organizations are greater and more varied than they have ever been. Not only do we ask more from our institutions (schools in particular) and their leaders in terms of programming, assessment, communication and accountability, but we expect them to “stay current” in an ever-changing technological landscape that has huge implications not only on core instruction, but on professional development, budgeting and many other areas as well. For our lay leaders, we expect that they oversee the Headmaster’s fulfillment of these tasks, while steering the school through fiscal and other challenges. 

A recent article published by NAIS (Northern Association of Independent Schools, which provides services to more than 1,700 schools in the United States and abroad) speaks of the sometimes overwhelming demands on the Head of School. In their study, the authors found that school heads identify student relations and instructional oversight / teaching, areas that relate most to their formal training, to be least demanding for them. In contrast, “big-picture” aspects of their job, such as providing vision, managing their school’s climate and values, and working with their boards, are seen as most demanding. Right behind those on the continuum are such tasks as managing their school’s financial health, fund raising, and strategic planning. That’s a lot on a single plate.

Elevated expectations extend to such issues as accessibility and round-the-clock commitment. The majority of surveyed heads of school listed the amount of time they have for themselves and/or their families as a primary area of concern. Most heads of school (51 percent) also agree that being the head of school takes its toll on their personal lives “all of the time or most of the time.” Unless expectations are properly set and preserved, being a school leader can often mean being on call well beyond the scope of the school day, which can quickly lead to burnout.

So where does this all leave us? What can we do to increase continuity and maximize leader efficacy and effectiveness? How can better support our leaders so that they can do their engage in what really matters, raising the bar and creating a vision for future  growth?

Before we attempt to respond to these questions, I will share another question, one that was posed to me by one of the people that I interviewed. He asked, “What is your goal in writing this article? What do you seek to achieve?” I replied that I had entered the field of coaching and consulting because I had experienced firsthand the many benefits of professional leadership training and in having someone guide and assist me in setting and achieving goals that propelled me and my school forward. My hope in penning this essay is that it may help us to better appreciate this important issue and help advance a dialogue in which our communal leaders and activists build upon current support efforts and resources. The suggestions that follow may help to facilitate that process.

I posed the above questions about next steps to those that I surveyed. The answers varied somewhat but they all centered on the same basic points: acknowledge the need, own it, and proactively invest in our leadership personnel and process, not just when things begin to go sideways.

One respondent suggested that we aim to make the work environment more positive for the leader. Provide him with a strong compensation and benefits package and help him to feel fulfilled by setting realistic, attainable, growth-oriented goals. Others spoke of providing the leader with additional educational opportunities, in the form of graduate/post-graduate study, as well as personal mentoring or coaching. (A recent study conducted by the firm MetrixGlobal found that “overall, (study participants that were given access to executive coaching cited) productivity (60% favorable) and employee satisfaction (53%) … as the most significantly impacted (areas).” (See http://www.empowermenttoolbox.com/MertrixSurvey.html for more information).

Another idea that was suggested related to enhancing the professional-lay relationship through increased communication and collaboration. In a similar vein, one respondent offered that both parties work together (ideally with consultant oversight and guidance) to formulate clear job descriptions, a clear strategic plan that all constituents clearly understand and subscribe to, as well as personal goals and regular evaluations based on agreed-to criteria and objectives. Without such efforts and mechanisms firmly in place, institutions risk falling into the trap of setting unrealistic, conflicting and/or unspoken expectations, a recipe for dissatisfaction and perhaps burnout / dismissal.

I was pleased to learn in my research that more support, particularly in the areas of training and internships, exists than what I had been previously aware of. Still, much more work needs to be done before we come to the collective realization that leadership training and support are necessities rather than luxuries or last-ditch recourses, and that continuity must be a primary goal, barring significant reasons to think otherwise. It is my hope that by opening the subject up to further conversation, we can begin to put our heads together in a more concrete, proactive and perhaps communal-wide scale to identify new answers and resources that will help to further advance the institutions that we love and hold dear and help them to achieve maximal success, for our children and ourselves.

Naphtali HoffComment