Women in Independent School Leadership

I was looking forward to NCAIS’s conference on Women in Independent School Leadership last week, and it didn’t disappoint. This was the second year for the conference and this year’s speakers/facilitators were Theo Coonrod, the outgoing head of St. Mary’s school in Raleigh, Susan Feibelman, a PhD candidate at UPenn who will begin working at Greensboro Day School in the fall, and Devereaux McClatchey, the President of Carney, Sandoe & Associates, an independent school recruiting firm.

With articles like “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” generating a great deal of discussion, the conference seemed focused on a timely topic. Theo and Susannah noted that it was important to address issues that women often cared about and to address gender disparity, while being careful to avoid making sweeping generalizations. I was really grateful for an opportunity, not so much to discuss issues particular to women, although that was interesting, but to think about what the next 5, 10, 15 years of my career might look like. In this respect, it was really helpful to hear Theo, Susan, and other attendees share the stories of how they’d gotten to where they are.

Some notes from the day’s discussions….

Theo and Susan’s observations on women in leadership…

  • Women often downplay our strengths. Mirror others’ strengths and acknowledge them
  • You don’t have to rewire yourself but you need to be vigilant in noticing your effect on other
  • Women who express ambition create disruption

Theo on how to know when to make a change…

Get good at something and then look up and say “What’s next?” When you look up and say, “What’s next?” pay attention to that feeling

Theo on leadership skills that aren’t gender-specific…

Having difficult conversations and making hard decisions

Devereaux on trends in independent school hiring…

  • Openness to younger heads of school
  • Confidential searches
  • Greater interest in what candidates have to say about new ways of learning (21st century learning)
  • Increased interest in academic/thought leadership-presenting and publishing
  • Average tenure at an independent school is 6yrs, used to be 9-10yrs

Devereaux’s tips/suggestions for preparing for future leadership opportunities…

  • Be intentional about what you volunteer for
  • Look for opportunities for strategic influence
  • Engage in “selfish” networking (in which the networking is likely to benefit you)
  • Highlight ways in which you’ve evaluated peers
  • Find opportunities to speak publicly (Every time you do it you get better)
  • Start looking for other job opportunities when you’re happy
  • Everyone makes sense for herself about how much change she can tolerate

The second part of the morning consisted of roundtable discussions, with rotation of table groups after each set of questions. Below are the questions that we discussed.

Round 1
What do you think is important for an aspiring school leader to understand about independent school culture? What are some examples from your own experience that come to mind?

Round 2
What experiences/people have been vital in your development as a leader?
How have you asked for support and how have you developed your own support systems in order to attain your leadership goals?
What forms of support have been missing from your leadership development?

Round 3
Do you have a particular belief system about leadership that guides your decision-making in this school?
Which of your personal traits has most influenced your leadership style? How do you think these traits contribute to your leadership effectiveness?

The Dangers of Leadership

I was recently asked to be one of the 2011 cohort of ASCD Conference Scholars. I’ll be occasionally cross-posting blog posts that I write for that here. The following is a leadership reflection I was asked to complete to accompany my bio for the site. I have to be honest that leadership is not something I feel particularly starry-eyed about. Being a good leader is often painfully hard work, and I’m deeply suspicious of peppy, motivational leadership materials. I’m interested to see whether the experience changes some of my ideas about leadership.

What’s the greatest obstacle you face as a leader?

My aversion to the word leader is one of the greatest obstacles I face as a leader. I am skeptical of leadership because of the ways in which power can corrupt, distort, and remove one from the work he or she enjoys. However, I believe there are ways to combat the potential traps of leadership. As a leader, continuing to do some of the work that led you to a position of leadership, whether that’s doing the dishes or teaching a class or weeding a garden, is important for feeling a sense of connection with those you lead and the work they do. In addition, the willingness to be honest about the difficulty of leadership and the mistakes that you make along the way not only instills trust, but also counteracts the tendency of power to corrupt. Continued contact with the work you did before you were a leader and transparency may not give you an edge on others, but I think they can keep you from becoming a leader you wouldn’t want to follow.

I was also asked to submit an article about leadership. I originally sent in this article from the WSJ about the corrupting influence of power, but I re-read the prompt and saw that it asked for an article that inspired me. Given that, I sent this Parker Palmer article instead. It still touches on the way power can be misused, but is a bit more hopeful and practical.