Setting Up a Successful Succession
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
By Christina Mimms, SAIS
“Let us not burden our remembrances with
A heaviness that’s gone.”
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Retiring heads of school often describe their farewell as “bittersweet.” Certainly they have experienced ups and downs, victories as well as challenges, days of great satisfaction and sleepless nights. Announcements of their retirements or departures often are met with surprise, tears, and even dread. The “long goodbye” may present challenges of its own, but it is necessary to ensure a successful succession and a peaceful departure for an outgoing head.
When Dr. Don Roberts, head of Lee-Scott Academy (LSA) in Auburn, AL, announced his retirement in June 2015, the time felt right to him. After 46 years in education and 16 years at the helm of LSA, he wanted to give the board of trustees more than ample notice. “The board needed as much time as I could give them to find a successor,” Roberts said. “All stakeholders are concerned about the future.”
Roberts has been somewhat involved with the search process, but only to provide a tour for the top candidates and to participate in a group interview. “I don’t think it’s good for a head to choose a successor,” he said. He will assist in the transition once a new head is selected, and he will still visit the campus in a grandparent role. Roberts’ daughter is a teacher at LSA, and two of his four grandchildren are current students.
With a strong enrollment and $4 million expansion and construction project well under way, Roberts can step away at a good time. In one of his final acts as head of school, he will serve as the speaker at the 2016 commencement. After that, he will begin packing up his office. “It will be very emotional for me to remove everything and find a place for it at home,” he said. “I’ll miss working with young people and with intelligent professionals. And I’ll miss the hugs I get from the lower school kids.”
Roberts won’t be at home too long. He and his family have several beach trips planned, as well as a vacation to Napa and Sonoma Valley, CA, this fall. His trips serve as fodder for his food blog diningwithdon.com, for which he has some exciting business plans in the works. “The best advice I’ve been told is not to do anything for a while and just relax,” he said. “But I will continue to support the school and be a cheerleader.”
For a new head coming in after a previous head’s long tenure, Roberts advised one to “come in and learn the culture and listen. After a period of time you can make some changes but don’t come in and make dramatic changes right away.”
Barbara Daush, president of St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School in Memphis, TN, gave her board more than a year’s notice when she announced her July 2016 retirement in March 2015. “I felt that the school needed additional time to get the search component defined,” she said. “And it took a while for them to get over the shock.”
After 21 years in her role, Daush’s decision was family-driven to give her more time with her three grandchildren (in photo at right, with her husband), the oldest of whom will be a student next year. As she said in her letter to the school community to announce her retirement, “In this job, time is not an easy gift to find.”
The school contracted with the leadership search firm Carney, Sandoe & Associates to assist with the candidate search process. Daush worked with them on a limited basis but worked closely with the board to develop the plan for succession. “They have involved me appropriately and I was consulted when necessary,” she said. She helped to set up the visitation schedules for the final candidates and met with each of them individually.
In January, the school announced its selection of Tom Hood, former head of MMI Preparatory School in Freeland, PA, as the new president of St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School. In May, Daush and her family will head out west to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons, but she will return to work with Hood in June to transition. Throughout this school year, she has kept a book of notes by day and by month that she will pass along to Hood. “I’ll be leaving a clean map for him,” she said. Daush advised him and any incoming heads to “listen and learn in the first year. Become a member of that family. Every school deserves to have someone learn about them.”
In July, Daush will start a new position at her alma mater the University of Mississippi in a leadership fundraising position for an upcoming campaign. She will spend some time in Oxford, MS, but she will remain in her home in Memphis, which is actually the second-largest fundraising market for Ole Miss.
“I will miss the students, the faculty, and the community,” she said. “I love this whole family here and I’ll always be a fan. It’s bittersweet and it’s a very emotional time.”
Certainly every retiring head wants to depart with a job well done and the start of a hopefully smooth transition to a new headship. For more information about successions in independent schools, check out the SAIS Booklet on Succession.