Supporting New Leaders: Lessons Learned

What started out as an effort to preserve the field wisdom and craft knowledge of successful heads by transmitting it to those new to day school leadership has evolved into a dynamic support system.

lessons-learnedBy Dr. Elliot D. Spiegel and Lynn Raviv

Three years ago, RAVSAK launched the Head of School Professional Excellence Project (HoSPEP), a program that creates fellowship cohorts of new heads of school (“Fellows”), each of whom is partnered with a long-time head of school like us (“Deans”) for a year of intensive training, coaching, and mentoring. The program grew from the belief that new school leaders, even those who have risen from within the ranks of school administration, are in need and deserving of both peer and expert support as they take on what we know to be one of the single most complex and important roles in Jewish life. Soon after HoSPEP launched, we wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy about our hopes and dreams for the program.

Today, we take a step back and reflect on our experiences as Deans in what has become a signature RAVSAK program and a favorite in the field. Now that we are in our third cohort, we have found that early intervention through coaching and mutual support can make a world of difference in strengthening Fellows’ leadership skills and giving them the knowledge, skills, poise, and confidence they need to confront challenges large and small with elan and success.

Lessons Learned

What started out as an effort to preserve the field wisdom and craft knowledge of successful heads by transmitting it to those new to day school leadership has evolved into a dynamic support system. While the purpose of HoSPEP is to support the leadership and headship learning of new heads of Jewish day schools, we ourselves have learned a great deal about the how to do this well. Here are the lessons we feel are most important.

One size fits none. HoSPEP consciously blends coaching, mentoring, and consulting, allowing the new heads of schools to learn in different ways. There are times when our Fellows need a coach, someone to ask the right questions and offer well-chosen words of encouragement. At other times, our Fellows need a mentor, someone who can explain and guide, and other times still, they need someone who can join them in the work.

Confidence matters and can be developed. New school leaders need to develop a leadership presence and lead from a place of both humility and assuredness. One Fellow reported, “Reinforcement through coaching calls helped me feel more confident. I know a lot more than I thought I did, and even only six months into my position I feel much more secure as I engage in decision-making and problem-solving.”

Fighting the loneliness of leadership is important. Most new leaders struggle – and many fail – because they work in environments where they have no job-alikes, must frequently make decisions on their own, and at least initially, face matters they have never faced before. We have found that our weekly calls with our Fellows helps to significantly reduce the sense of loneliness new leaders often feel.

Allowing the head to be the chief executive learner amplifies her status as chief executive educator. When heads of school are engaged as learners and reflective practitioners, they model the requisite risk taking and open-mindedness that make learning possible. It enhances their empathy for students and elevates their commitment to staff development, not to mention board education.

Peers matter. While we do believe that the Deans, who bring decades of school leadership experience to this work can feel confident in describing their support as “expertise,” the mutual support the Fellows provide one another as a cohort is no less valuable. Our sense is that that the shared experience and the ability to discuss the highs and lows of headship with career-stage-alike peers adds an invaluable dimension to their learning while investing them in relationships that will sustain them for years to come. The cohort framework helps to further reduce the loneliness inherent in the head of school position by enabling these leaders to connect and reflect within a safe and skilled community of practice.

The right support person matters. Alignment between Dean and Fellow is crucial, something we have perhaps best understood when we have gotten this wrong. When we have been matched with Fellows whose needs and learning styles mesh with our skills and strengths, we have been maximally effective. We and the other Deans take great pride in being effective in helping Fellows to craft a model of Jewish leadership most germane to their school communities. And, when one of us has been a part of a less organic dyad, we know that we are at risk of being less effective.

There is a moral imperative to lead Jewishly. There is something distinct about Jewish leadership and leading through a Jewish lens, and even for the most personally committed or devout, this is not obvious. We have found that making the time and space to reflect on the Jewish values, sensibilities, and mores that ought to inform day school leadership is essential. Sometimes the questions “what do you as a leader do?” and “what do you as a Jewish leader of a Jewish school do?” result in different answers.

There are no silver bullets. Sometimes great new professionals still fail. Leadership requires risk taking and that means that sometimes things don’t work out despite the best of all intentions. While the overwhelming majority of the HoSPEP Fellows have remained in their headships and continue to do well, not all will, and a crucial lesson learned is that this is both inevitable and okay.

We believe more strongly than ever that a year of focused support by those who have expertise in both Jewish day school leadership and coaching can positively impact the performance of new Jewish day school leaders. In the words of one participant: “What matters is that you are affording young leaders the best possible chance to succeed, where previously success was hard to come by for new heads.” We retirees who have had long, successful careers as Jewish day school leaders are willing and able to share wisdom, field experience, and commitment to Jewish education with the next generation of Jewish day school heads. When we started HoSPEP three years ago, our goal was to facilitate knowledge transfer from seasoned to novice day school leaders; we’ve seen this goal come to fruition, and are optimistic about the future of day school leadership.

HoSPEP is generously sponsored by the AVI CHAI Foundation and additional supporters.