Crisis Management: Watch the Back Door

When a head of school is deemed unsuitable for his or her job, there is little for a board to do besides cut their losses, fire the head and move forward. And yet, as every board member knows, changes in leadership are incredibly disruptive to campus life. Disturbances in the norm can threaten student enrollment, unnerve parents and cut deeply into administrative security.

A school in just such a crisis hired us and over the course of several months we were able to make the most of a nearly impossible situation. An elementary school head had been hired for his brilliant academic credentials, but turned out to be woefully reclusive and shy. Gentle urgings to interact more regularly with parents and students had not proved successful, and over the course of a year, the situation had worsened to the point where the board had mandated that the head stand outside the school’s entrance at the start of each day to greet students as they entered school. The hope was that brief, casual encounters might warm him up to his constituency and lead to prolonged interactions.

After a week of dutifully pumping the hands of sleepy kids, the head was nowhere to be seen during morning carpool. Upon inspection, the back door to his office was found wide open. The addled head was so terrified of interaction that he’d been sneaking out the back door each morning.

Triangle got involved just as the crisis peaked. Our first priority was to negotiate a departure settlement between the irate board and the reclusive head; despite turbulent emotions, we managed favorable terms for each side. Next, we helped the board hire an experienced interim team to manage the administration, teachers and parental constituencies during the transition. Finally, we set up the terms necessary for a successful head search.

When we returned to the school a year later to assist in the new head’s transition and launch a strategic planning process, we found the school in excellent shape. Enrollment was strong and teacher retention was high. Because the school had been forthright with their community throughout the crisis, parental enthusiasm had never waned. By taking swift action and establishing precedents for a reasonable transition, Triangle helped the board manage a volatile situation without disrupting the school’s vibrant culture.