Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Making Connections

 From Independent School Magazine Spring 2014

​I am the son of two very fine independent school administrators. My mother was an outstanding teacher who eventually became the director of admissions at a wonderful K–12 Quaker school. My father went from being a lower school principal to middle school principal to development director to head of school. The timing of this last position could not have been worse for me. In 1990, I was set to graduate from college and had planned to live off of the family dime until I could find suitable employment. My father, however, announced that he and my mother were moving to New Jersey, where he would be the next headmaster at Moorestown Friends School.

As they sold the house, I moved to New York City and explained that I would like to pursue a career in teaching and follow in the family trade. My father, after shelling out for four years at a private university, said, "Don't be a teacher. Go out and make some money." I think he said this knowing I was unsure of my future and might see teaching as the easiest course for me to follow due to their background.

I took his advice, as I often do, and took a position selling mutual funds. I purchased two suits for $300 and had them hemmed while I waited. What a deal! Unfortunately, that was the peak of the profession for me. Three months later, I was so successful in the business world I found myself jumping the turnstiles in the morning to get to work, to save the dollar fare to buy a hot dog for lunch.

Never having lost the zeal to pursue a teaching career, I went to New York University on my lunch break and applied for graduate school. The application deadline was that day. I covertly huddled in my cubicle for the afternoon and filled out the application. I was accepted, but had not quite thought through the financial implications of my decision.

I drove to Moorestown and said to my father, "I have good news... and bad news."

"Spit it out," he said. (He is very direct.)

"The good news," I began, "is that I got into NYU! The bad news is that there's no way I can afford it."

After little hemming and hawing, my parents agreed to pick up the tab.

Thirteen years later, after starting my career at a small boarding school and then following a traditional career path as teacher and coach, then assistant division head, then division head, I was fortunate to earn my first head of school position.

When my father came to my instillation that fall, he gave me a congratulatory card that I keep in my top desk drawer to this day. In his words, he certainly took the time to congratulate me on my recent successes, but also included some words of advice, based on many of the things that have allowed him to be successful, and most of which I have followed. Recently, a colleague called me from the NAIS New Heads Institute to talk about school leadership. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first year, and to pull out that letter from my father. He wrote:

Dear Ian,

I have already told you how proud I am of you. Please don't be offended if I tell you some of the things that worked for me in my career — ignore any that aren't you.

a. When you start — meet individually with as many administrators, faculty, and staff and ask what they would like to see retained, what they'd like to see changed.

This was the first thing that I did when I arrived at Harding Academy (Nashville, Tennessee), and this set the tone for the year. As I met with individuals, trends began to emerge, and it gave me great insight into the culture of the school even before children arrived. It provided some very clear goals for me, and some sensitive areas to approach carefully.

b. Meet with the chairman of your board at least once a week individually (I did it one morning before school). Very important!

This has been equally important to me in my development as a leader. In my second year, when I felt as though it was smooth sailing, I neglected to meet as much with my board chair and it proved to be a mistake. It allowed a number of small issues to arise, and fester somewhat, as we had not provided a forum to air these at regular intervals. I have remedied that with my last and current chairs. We meet regularly, and though we don't meet for long, it's effective time.

c. Meet with your top administrators individually (including maintenance) once a week and collectively once a week.

This seems common sense, but it's truly one of the most important times of the week. The agenda is open and others are encouraged to add. We most often talk about school business, but there are other occasions when the time allows for thoughtful discourse on any range of topics. For several meetings, we used Jim Collins's Good to Great and the Social Sectors as the foundation for what proved to be fruitful conversations.

d. Meet with your assistant once a week — Friday — to review the week and look to next week.

This has proven to be another really important time to get ready for the coming week. Working in such proximity, I can sometimes assume that my assistant is aware of everything that's upcoming, but it's not always the case.

e. Drop "thank you" or "congratulations" notes often — start by thanking whomever wrote the announcement of your hire on the web page. You can't thank people enough! I had little cards printed up that fit in a small envelope so that I could write a short, quick note — e.g., "Nancy, great concert! You should be proud of your children." etc.

This is the first thing that I do each morning when I come in and I keep a list of all the faculty members to be sure that I have been thoughtful and inclusive and have recognized each member of the faculty at least once, formally, during the year.

f. You might want to consider buying a box of generic birthday cards and asking your assistant to remind you of staff birthdays.

This is always a new-school-year resolution and one that certainly demands consistency, but is very well received. It's important to remember, though, that you need to acknowledge 100 percent of the birthdays; if you forget the birthday of a faculty or staff member, the goodwill that was gained can be easily lost.

Love you,


It is interesting to reflect on his words in my eighth year as head of school. His theme is clearly that schools are all about people and relationships. He wrote nothing about budgets, hiring, facilities, or admissions. All of his points relate to forming relationships, staying in touch, and recognizing the good work of a terrific, dedicated faculty. All of the other aspects of headship can be learned with enough time and attention, but relationships have to be earned, and unless an administrator is thoughtful, consistent, and intentional, these important connections are never fully formed.