Succession Planning to Set Schools Up for Long-Term Success

André Withers | May 22, 2024

This article appeared as “Down the Line” in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

In the spring of 2021, Dan Vorenberg, head of school at Mirman School (CA), began a purposeful conversation with the board chair about his plans to retire at the end of the 2023–2024 school year. Vorenberg, who has led independent schools for more than 22 years, including 11 years at Mirman, explained: “I was entering my 42nd year in education. I had a specific set of markers I had hoped to achieve at Mirman, which I did. I felt no pressure to leave and had plenty of energy, but I felt that the organization had benefited from my specific skill set and needed to grow in areas that weren’t necessarily my strengths. Put another way, I think I could have stayed longer, but I really felt the school was moving forward with vigor—and like most things in education, you kind of want to get going when things are at their best.”

Vorenberg will be joining the growing ranks of heads leaving the profession, and his board will be among those who will need to navigate the planned or sudden departure of their leader. Over the past five years, the head of school tenure has seen a remarkable compression; the average tenure, according to recent NAIS data, has fallen from 8.4 years in 2017–2018 to 7.3 in 2022–2023. Simultaneously, a growing number of independent schools are grappling with the specter of turbulence, with more and more outside forces impacting how schools are run and, in some dire cases, forcing leaders out or even forcing schools to close. In the face of this educational maelstrom, one glaring truth has emerged: Securing exceptional leadership for schools is more challenging and more essential than ever before.

As schools find themselves at a crossroads, a paradox emerges: Hiring a new head of school has become—to all appearances—easy, but crafting an effective and creative succession plan has never been more arduous—or crucial. It is no longer sufficient to merely recruit and hire; it is now imperative to set a table of mitigation, cultivation, and planning. Succession planning, once viewed as a behind-the-scenes board chore, has moved to the forefront of exceptional governance. Boards need to recognize that shorter tenures are a reality and that their succession planning needs to be shaped around the research-based reasons that heads of school are barreling toward shorter tenures or departing the profession altogether.

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