Leadership transition and institutional memory

Rabbi Maury Grebenau and Rabbi Y. Boruch Sufrin

When a school is experiencing a leadership change, the community can be pulled to one of two extremes. People can be so enamored with the idea of change that they are not sufficiently circumspect about new ideas, or they may look for a steward who gives the impression (or is given the clear directive) that nothing will change. The same extremes exist regarding the new leader’s timing: Implementing immediate change before understanding the school community is irresponsible, but waiting too long before presenting a vision means the leader may lose the momentum for change that new leadership can bring. New leaders must embrace the paradox of respecting the past by taking into account the institutional memory and demonstrating their leadership simultaneously and almost immediately.

How does a new leader transition effectively? This question applies to all types of leadership including the head of school, board president, principal (Judaic or general studies), the department head or director of a target area such as student life, innovation and the like. Each of these leaders has to face the paradox of past versus future, institutional history versus needed change, culture-infused customs that are part of the brand versus those that need to be introduced or changed. How does a leader “hit the ground running” strategically to lead sustained change and create a legacy?

Culture and Institutional Memory

In The First Ninety Days, Michael Watkins suggests a research-based approach to address the transition phase for a leader. He recommends strategies that address institutional memory, culture and strategy, identifying wins and creating the foundation for sustainable leadership.

Building this foundation really begins when a leader goes through the interview process for their new role. The first step is taking the opportunity to assess the school and its culture objectively. When a leader comes from outside the school, this process is complicated because much of their information is secondhand and from subjective sources. They may not hear about the school’s issues and challenges in a transparent or objectively honest way.

To counterbalance biased reporting, aspiring leaders need to do their research and speak to multiple stakeholders in the school constellation, reaching out to those who are not included in the interview process. Finding opportunities to speak informally with teachers, students and parents will help get a sense of the school’s successes, challenges and history. Opportunities to see the regular operational running of the school (such as classroom visits and interacting with students at recess or lunch) should be included in any visit to the school. Many of these same steps can be helpful to an internal candidate, giving them opportunities to present themselves as a leader and collect critical feedback about the school.

As they begin their tenure, new leaders should invest in creating personal relationships (appropriate to role) with faculty, via small group chats and one-on-one conversations. When a new ECE director was taking over after a highly qualified prior director who was not able to create a positive faculty culture, Boruch suggested this type of individual meetings to listen, build trust and gather helpful perspectives. A parallel strategy for a new leader is speaking to former leadership to understand the context and history before addressing current situations with roots in the past. In his first year in a new leadership position, Maury spoke to a former head of his school who helped illuminate some of the issues he was experiencing.

Knowing institutional history can help shape an understanding of the current school culture. The new leader must determine the factors that will help guide the decision of how much to honor these aspects of the institution’s history and how quickly, and in what way, to introduce change. Watkins defines culture as “a set of consistent patterns people follow for communicating, thinking, and acting, all grounded in their shared assumptions and values.”

He describes a culture pyramid where some layers are easily visible while others are hidden. The shared language and symbols are most visible to the outsider. Examples of visible aspects of culture are logos, common expressions, dress, office space or classroom setup and hall displays. It is essential, according to Watkins, to invest in these visible symbols and learn how to use them.

Beneath the surface layer of visible symbols are norms that can be less explicit. They may include how meetings run in the school, how to support and encourage new initiatives, how people gain recognition in the school and more. Finally, there is the invisible culture layer that includes areas like who has the power, who are the heroes and what are the minhagim/customs that can never be touched. Identifying these layers contributes to a powerful map that can guide a new leader in deciding what aspects of historical memory should be embraced, what should be left alone, what can be changed over time, and what can be prioritized for change within the first 90 days.

Internal vs. External Hire

How the new leader joined the school is an essential consideration. An external candidate coming into the school will likely have more of a challenge in quickly understanding the school’s culture and building trust and strong relationships. However, they may have an easier time establishing themself as a leader since they enter with a clean slate. Internal promotions will have the opposite challenge: They will need to change their self-perception to allow themselves to be an authority and may need to establish themselves as supervising former peers. As these different types of leaders decide how they will navigate the tension between change management and respect for history and current culture, they will need to consider the unique challenges of their trajectory into their role.

At times, it can be beneficial to look back at some of our Jewish leaders and observe how they addressed similar challenges to the ones we face. We find several leadership transitions in Tanakh, including Yehoshua’s from Moses’s servant to commander who leads the Jews into Israel, and Elisha’s from Eliyahu’s disciple into his successor during the period of the kings.

These two leaders approached their new leadership differently. Yehoshua was to lead as mesharet Moshe. His entire leadership was built on emulating and continuing Moshe’s role. The symbols he used and his style were a copy and extension of what Moshe had begun. Yehoshua can be compared to a leader being promoted from within. He was promoted from within the ranks and therefore had the advantage of knowing all the levels Watkins refers to in his culture pyramid. He knew how the people worked, what God’s expectations were and what Moshe would have done in most cases.

On the other hand, Elisha requests pi shnayim merucho, “double the spirit” of Eliyahu, his mentor. He asks to have extra power and the ability to bring an added vision to the role of prophet leader. He could be an example of a leader being chosen from the outside. Eliyahu “recruited” him in the fields. Elisha would need to understand and learn what prophetic leadership of the Jewish people entails and build on that for him to be successful with his decision to take a more creative approach to his leadership.

Stages of a School

Watkins also introduces a model to determine the stage of development of an organization so new leaders can calibrate their approach appropriately. He outlines five stages: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment and sustaining success. Each of these stages is recognizable in the Jewish day school world. For example, a new leader may be taking the reins when a school is launching (start-up), as a school transitions from a long-time stable leader (sustained success), or after a school has experienced outsized growth as the community expands (accelerated growth). Each of these stages suggests a nuanced approach to visioning, managing change and relating to institutional memory.

As a principal, Maury experienced two head of school transitions in the same school. One head of school took over as the founding head of school retired, and second head of school began when the school had merged with another local day school. Although both leaders were navigating how to lead the same institution, they were at different stages that significantly impacted how they approached institutional memory.

The leader who was taking over for a beloved founding head of the school needed to exercise caution about change. He needed to find ways to make needed changes while showing respect for the school’s culture and history. The second leader had a very different challenge. In some ways, he was taking control of a startup as this newly merged entity was just beginning. On the other hand, each previous school had its own culture that he needed to consider when crafting his vision for change.

Considering the stage of a school’s development when taking on a new leadership position is not limited to school heads. Divisional leaders also can consider the stage that best describes their part of the school and how that should influence their approach.

Strategic Considerations

When a new leader begins a position, whether at a new school or through an internal promotion, they need to consider the history and culture of the school as they formulate their first steps. Laying out the plan of what they will change and how they will do so must be grounded in consideration of their school’s stage, the prevailing culture, their predecessor and their trajectory.

In addition to deciding what must change, how to lead that change is also critical. As a head of school, Boruch would ask administrators three questions when they were preparing to implement change:

Does my change align with the larger school strategic plan?

How have I sold this to my constituents who will be experiencing it? (Is there buy-in?)

Is this a priority for me to enact now?

As these plans take shape, they should be communicated to their constituency groups as part of the new leader’s introduction. For example, Independent School Management (ISM), a research-driven school consulting organization, suggests that new leaders meet with the faculty right as they begin their role. At this meeting, they should explicitly communicate back to teachers the concerns they heard from the faculty as well as share the values and beliefs that will inform their work, their leadership style and potential initial changes they will make.

The transition period for a new leader has an outsized impact on a leader’s effectiveness. The success of a leader frequently depends on how much they invest in the initial transition. An incoming leader needs to take steps to get to know as many stakeholder groups as possible and use these opportunities to listen while articulating clearly their respect for the past and their excitement for a great future built on past accomplishments.

A leader must demonstrate vision and leadership true to who they are while humbly leaving room for others to partner in the future vision. Finally, a new leader must be deliberate and strategic about how much and when they introduce change and the degree to which they honor institutional memory to successfully build their legacy from the first day on the job.

Leadership transition and institutional memory
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