In a blog post earlier this school year, I (Lynn) interviewed a recently retired head of school about how to do succession planning well. In this post, I have the chance to get the other side of the story—by interviewing a new head of school who transitioned into the role held by a retiring head for many years—to find out what supports, challenges, and pitfalls he encountered in making the transition successfully.
Mitch Salerno is just finishing his first year as headmaster at Monte Vista Christian School (MVCS) in Watsonville, California, which has 1,000 students, with 750 in the high school (100 of whom are boarding students) and 250 in the middle school. Last year he served as headmaster-elect at the school, which meant his transition and overlap with the retiring head ran for a full school year.
LS: Why do you think succession and transition planning is important, as more and more school heads retire over the coming few years?
MS: A succession and transition plan is critical because Christian schools are complex, multi-faceted institutions. We inappropriately assume that the incoming head will be able to smoothly and effortlessly assume operational management duties, while learning and absorbing the culture and history of the school. Based on my experience as a first-year head of school, the amount of historical, cultural, and political knowledge I had to acquire was immense. A succession and transition plan allows the incoming head time to honor the community through a purposeful, intentional, and directed knowledge acquisition phase. I believe the transition plan that was in place for me allowed me to conduct research, prepare for leadership, and understand the community in a way that would have been impossible if I had been asked to assume full operational management upon arrival.
LS: What are some things that you did as the new head that were critical to making it a positive transition?
MS: Within the first several months I conducted a listening tour, which is a coordinated, intentional, qualitative research methodology championed by Dr. David Tilley, the retiring head at Mt. Paran Christian School. The listening tour quickly revealed three salient themes that have provided the framework for my early work within the school. Because I had time and space to transition, I saturated myself with the history of MVCS through building relationships with alumni, historically knowledgeable people, and current staff. Understanding the history of MVCS allowed me to begin my first year of headship on the firm foundation of the past and earn the trust of the community.
Lastly, our school is a commuter school. We draw students from a radius of up to 50 miles. Parent connection and participation is limited by a lack of proximity. However, the parents really do care and they want to be involved. Early on, we made the decision to go to parents and meet with them in homes throughout the community. During the transition year, I attended over 20 meet-and-greets, including several in China for our boarding parents. These meetings were an opportunity to meet parents, as well as an opportunity to listen and share vision. As I reflect on these meetings, I believe they were invaluable and I wish I could have done more of them. In fact, they were so successful, we have continued them into my second year and they have continued to be well attended and appreciated.
LS: What did the a) departing head and b) school board do that was particularly helpful to you with the transition?
MS: The most important behaviors the departing head exhibited were trust, endorsement, and freedom. I could envision the transition progressing in a far more negative manner had the retiring head done the opposite (distrust, opposition, and control). I truly felt supported and honored to be the incoming head of school and was afforded the freedom to own my workflow and agenda. At no time did I feel like I worked for the retiring head, which allowed me to begin to formulate my own leadership agenda and, as mentioned previously, analyze the school thoroughly.
The school board provided confidence and encouragement consistently. I knew, implicitly, that I was their choice as the next head of school and they continually affirmed my position and standing. As I look back, this was critical for my success as a leader and my emotional well-being. One of the most difficult aspects of being the incoming head and overlapping the retiring head is being present for the “farewell tour.” The retiring head, deservedly so, receives constant attention, affirmation, and praise. As the incoming head, you must be comfortable, patient, and respectful, while waiting for your time to lead. The board’s consistent affirmation provided me with stability and confidence.
LS: What is the best advice you would offer to someone taking over for a retiring head?
MS: I would encourage incoming heads to be patient and to listen. While there were some areas where I feel I successfully accomplished patience and listening, I honestly could have done better. Looking back, I believe there is no limit to patience and listening! I suggest finding a trusted colleague or coach and working diligently to be patient and listen. Also, be positive! It is impossible for the organization to be exactly like you would want it to be. The retiring head did the very best he or she could do for the organization and the areas you have identified for improvement were not intentionally made so. Your new team wants to work with a forward thinking, respectful, positive leader. In transition, you might be tempted to focus on what needs to be fixed. In fact, I am going to wager that is exactly why you are drawn to the head position—you like to fix things. Instead, encourage. Praise. Find success and celebrate it.
Finally, build your team with transparency and honesty. Transition and change are hard on people. The students, parents, faculty, staff, board, and alumni want to get to know you. Let them in. Open up to them and build relationships. This will serve you well as you move beyond the transition and begin implementing your vision and accomplishing your mission.
LS: What pitfalls should someone in your situation be aware of? Is there something that caught you totally unaware, but that you think might be a common issue or hurdle for other schools?
MS: I was not emotionally or professionally prepared for the gravitas of the actual organizational shift from the retiring head to me. As we moved through the transition, which began August 1, I noticed the staff naturally and appropriately beginning to look to me for direction and leadership. By Thanksgiving, as the natural rhythm of school life forces a focus on the next school year, my role as the leader increased. However, the retiring head was moving into the celebration phase of the process. The resulting organizational tension and stress was real and must be understood. I don’t think this unnatural or, in any case, negative. You must, however, respect it and prepare for it. As I process this, I am wondering if shortening the length of the overlap would have eliminated this tension and stress or if it would have simply shifted it sooner. Regardless, if you are going to have an overlap, which I would encourage, this dynamic should be talked about and prepared for.
I would also add that communication throughout the entire process is critical. I think we assume everything is going to be fine. Reflecting back, both the retiring head and I could have communicated more often. While our transition was successful, we could have been more intentional, as in scheduling time off campus to share our observations. In the end, our roles were different and our value to the organization required us to be teammates.
LS: What if a school doesn’t have the financial resources to have the retiring head and the incoming head employed at the same time? What advice would you give them to still be intentional in making the transition successful?
MS: This is a great question. I certainly understand the financial constraints some schools face. However, before I offer alternatives, I want to suggest that an overlap, if possible, is truly the best form of transition. I think six months would be an optimal amount of time, but if you can’t do six months, go for three months. I wouldn’t recommend less than three months, though. Financially speaking, assuming both of your heads make $150,000 annually, a three-month overlap will cost you no more than $50,000, including benefits. While that is not a small amount of money, what is the cost of a failed transition? I would suggest it is significantly more than $50,000. But if you can’t provide time for the incoming head to overlap with the retiring head, I suggest carving out time for the incoming head to analyze the organization and to conduct research through organized listening tours and focus groups. In order to do this, the leadership team could assume operational control for a short period of time, even if it is only a month or two, to allow the incoming head the proper time for transition.
The board should also be intentional about supporting and encouraging the new head. I found the transition time to be lonely and overwhelming. In many situations the new head must move an entire family to a new city or state. Don’t underestimate the emotional energy and family trauma that occurs in moving. The new head needs space and time to acclimate to the new environment and for the organization to acclimate to the new leader.
LS: Any final words of encouragement for readers?
MS: As I’m completing my second year at MVCS and my first year as headmaster, I feel very energized and encouraged to lead this institution. No transition is ever perfect, but I believe that this one was successful thanks to careful planning, intentional design, and God’s faithful care. For any readers who are planning a leadership transition in the near future, I’d be delighted to talk with them personally to provide deeper insight and counsel. The future of Christian education hinges on our ability to transition leadership effectively and responsibly
About the Authors
Dr. Mitchell Salerno is headmaster of Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, California, president of the Christian Coalition for Educational Innovation, and a well-regarded speaker on school innovation and technology. He can be reached via email at MitchellSalerno@mvcs.org.
Dr. Lynn E. Swaner is the Director of Thought Leadership at ACSI. Prior to ACSI, she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. A published scholar, her focus is on engaged pedagogy and creating cultures that foster student learning. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.