The Ethics of Head Evaluation

This article by Jonathan Schick appeared in Independent School Magazine.

Some years ago, I presented a workshop at a regional head’s conference. After I finished, Jim*, a distinguished looking gentleman, head of a prominent school, asked me if I had a few minutes to talk. He related to me that he recently made the politically incorrect decision (although in the best interests of the school) to suspend a board member’s son. A few days later, just as he was heading to this conference, his chair had phoned to schedule a meeting afterward to discuss the incident. Jim asked me if he should be nervous; after all, he notified his chair in advance. Not only that, they just finished a wildly successful capital campaign of which he, the head, played a major role.

Unfortunately, I thought to myself, I’ve seen these situations all too often. I offered some eleventh-hour advice, but expected the worst. About a week later, to my dismay, but not my surprise, this accomplished head was unceremoniously dismissed, mid-year, to the shock of faculty, students, and many parents.

Was this an isolated incident? Not by a long shot. The average tenure of heads has been shrinking rapidly, to the point where most estimates put it at 3-5 years. How many of these heads, flush with talent and idealism, have seen their vision bite the dust after a mere three years on the job? How many of these leaders have left the independent school world, never to return?

Bottom line, this is simply a question of ethical governance. All too often, the noble ideals and visions of our independent schools get forgotten in the boardroom. (Or, more often, in the parking lot outside the boardroom.) In order for boards to ethically govern, they have to do more, much more, than follow Robert’s Rules and comply with Sarbanes/Oxley.

In my work with boards, I train them on the Six Principles of Successful Board/Head Partnerships (see sidebar). Indeed, the growing number of incidents of heads being fired or not rehired for petty or unethical reasons suggests that we should focus particularly on Principle Five — how the board evaluates its head based on established criteria.

Generally, I’ve seen the majority of boards evaluate their heads in one of three different ways:

Backward Evaluation:

Julia* was beginning her second year as head of a southern school after a long, successful stint as assistant head in a neighboring state. She had replaced a brilliant but aloof head, primarily to rebuild staff and faculty morale. Julia’s warm personality and great relations with her people is what landed her the job.

Augusts’ opening board meeting was an absolute lovefest. Backslapping, high-fives, even hugs were generously shared. Yet, an 800 pound elephant lurked in the boardroom, but politeness, as well as fear, prevented its introduction at the meeting. That elephant was fundraising. While Julia had all the people skills, she had never fundraised before, and spent her first year engrossed on building internally.

Fast forward nine months, and May’s closing meeting (ostensibly to evaluate the head) had a decidedly different feel. Susan, the vice chair, took Julia to task for shirking her duties as fundraiser. Kevin, the treasurer, echoed Pat’s comments with even more vigour. Pat, the chair, while a staunch supporter of Julia, couldn’t disagree with the evidence. Julia emerged from the meeting reeling from the stinging evaluation, rethinking her decision to accept the headship. She thought to herself, “Why couldn’t they have told me this was a priority back in August?”

What happened was a classic case of what I call backward evaluation. Julia was being evaluated based on Monday morning quarterbacking. Not once did the board outline their expectations to Julia in advance. True, Julia was being evaluated on a key role, but one that was never specified, in writing or even verbally. And while legally this could be a perfectly valid form of evaluation, ethically, it is not.

Anecdotal Evaluation

Chris* had been Head of School at a New England boarding school for three years, his second headship. Chris took some time getting used to a relatively unengaged board, coming from a hands-on board in his previous school. After two years of not being evaluated, he asked Bill, his chair, when he might expect an annual appraisal.

Bill was surprised by the request, having been more used to the handshake agreement approach, but dutifully heeded the call. Chris suggested a few models to use, but Bill, a marketing executive, thought he had a better idea. Bill asked his company’s HR team to design a survey to be sent to the parent body, staff and faculty. Excited by this inventive approach, Bill marketed the survey with gusto, and received a healthy number of responses.

Barbara, a parent, received the survey and quickly jettisoned it. “Chris is amazing,” she thought, “I don’t need to send this back.” Meanwhile, Rick, a veteran teacher who outlasted several heads, seized the opportunity to share his opinions about the “young turk in the head’s office.”

The next board meeting was a spirited one, where the surveys were read, and Shelia, the board secretary, assembled the key outcomes. Included in the findings were comments about untucked uniform shirts, ants in the faculty breakroom, and unreturned emails. After the executive session portion, Chris was called in to hear the laundry list of complaints. A shell-shocked Chris was thinking, “Is this the type of evaluation I had asked for?”

This scenario was a classic case of Anecdotal Evaluation. A board, sincerely looking to fulfill its duty to evaluate the head, sends out an unscientific, often hastily prepared, survey. Rarely do surveys portray an accurate picture of the head’s performance, and they are almost never tied to written goals. Instead, surveys present tangential evidence of the head’s duties. Often times they are mere popularity contests.

No Evaluation

The third and final form of evaluation is rather simple: none at all. I received a call from Lou*, a board member of a Midwest boarding school, which went through three heads in seven years. He was perplexed as to why the school was losing students on a yearly basis. I asked Lou what process for head evaluation they used. “We don’t really have a formal process. Why is that relevant?” Lou inquired.

I went on to explain that when heads are not evaluated, a number of things happen: One, goals are not being set and standards are not being met, with ripple effects throughout the schoolhouse. Two, lack of evaluation is directly related to turnover of heads, which in turn leads to an unsettled and disharmonious school community.

When a head is replaced, usually two years of progress are lost. The final year (assuming the head received advanced notice) is generally a stagnant, lame-duck year. Then, the first year of the incoming head is a year of assimilation; significant changes generally do not occur. These two pivotal years can wreak havoc on the school’s culture. And while it is inevitable that heads will change, how unfortunate it is when those changes are unnecessary, or worse, unethical.

All these vignettes occurred amongst dedicated and sincere board members. These were not cases of board toxicity; rather, these were cases of lack of a good system. Boards are cogently aware of their role to hire, rehire and/or fire the head. Yet, they often lack an understanding of how best to reach those conclusions.

Let’s face it: Board members are invariably unprepared to govern. They are handed thick, bloated governance tomes, and charged with not only reading them, but also understanding them. The Six Principles, as a whole, form a model of ethical governance. The novelty of this method is in its utter simplicity and practicality.

Above all, the most neglected and misunderstood piece of governance is head evaluation. Specifically, the fifth principle teaches this key element. Under this approach, objectives are established in a more holistic way, through conversation, and give and take. Goals are formatively appraised, tweaked and when necessary, shifted through the year. As the academic year comes to a close, the evaluation emerges. There are no surprises, no capricious demands, and no upside-down priorities. Rather, the head is answerable to meet pre-determined outcomes. Ultimately, this process does not remove accountability; it creates it.

When I look back on that day at the head’s conference, I recall what struck me the most about Jim’s firing. It took place within weeks of the completion of the best capital campaign in the school’s history. One that he was asked to lead. And one that he leads no more. But this is not about Jim; it’s about all of Jim’s students.

*Names and minor details have been changed to protect the privacy of parties involved.