Throughout this year, you have heard from the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Our May and final newsletter for the 2023-2024 year comes from Doreen Kelly, head of Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, NC.

With over 30 years as an educational leader, I am in my last year as a head of school. We are in a season of change and transition here at Ravenscroft School, and it is a time of remembering, celebrating, and looking forward with joy and anticipation. We are welcoming a new leader — a familiar friend to many in SAIS —  Derrick Willard, who is well poised to take the baton for the next leg of this leadership journey. And I am excited to venture into private leadership and executive coaching. As you might imagine, change and transition bring lots of emotions to the surface for all in the process.

As new SAIS President Dr. Brett Jacobsen posed in his piece earlier this year on transition, “Do you find yourself or your respective school community in a transition? Actually, we all are all the time.” While this is true, there is always something significant about a change in independent school leadership that is unique.

Unlike other sectors, where you announce your departure, drop off your keys and your ID card, pick up a brown box, clean up your desk, and head out, leaders in our sector, with some exceptions, announce their departure — and what follows is an extended period of transition, in some cases up to 18 months! In my case, it was one year.

While we are all aware of the challenging reports that leadership transitions are more frequent for a variety of reasons, there is still a fact that transition is about passing a torch from one leader to the next, calling for good planning and execution to support the next leader. Ravenscroft has an important role in our community and all of us are here to support Derrick, and I look forward to being his chief cheerleader.

In preparation for this change, Derrick and I have worked hard to think about what a successful transition might look like. As the education sector can sometimes trail trends in the business sector, this McKinsey piece offers interesting insights on the topic of what it takes to have a successful transition. I also think the data on the lack of support leaders feel during transitions is notable.

Additionally, I thought this piece from The Grossman Group offered some interesting perspectives to help Board members understand why well-executed transitions are critical for ongoing success and sustainability for an organization.

Brett mentioned William Bridges’s book “Managing Transitions:  Make the Most of Change,” which is a lovely way to frame this “passing of the baton” into stages that make sense both for the departing leader and the one arriving.

As we began this chapter of transition at Ravenscroft, Bridges’s book has been helpful, and I wanted to share a few additional points that I found useful in outlining the difference between change and transition.

It isn’t the changes that will do you in; it’s the transitions. They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, a new CEO replacing a founder, the reorganization of the roles of the team, and new technology. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that change brings about. … Getting people through the transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned. When change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs.

Bridges shares a figure 1.1 of the three phases I am including here.

Recently, I had the occasion to look into my file at Ravenscroft that dates back 20 years. I had to chuckle at a letter I found written by me to the then-board chair who had invited members of the community to share their thoughts and expectations for our next leader. Though I was not a candidate at the time of the letter, I want to hug this younger version of myself for being wise and brave. Even then, I had an understanding that transition was psychological. Our then-headmaster had announced his departure the morning of September 11, 2001, before we knew what that date would come to mean. We had just moved to North Carolina two years prior with three young children. We were completely destabilized by the local and global changes and fears of the day.

Here are a few excerpts, with commentary, from the letter:

“I thank you for the invitation to share my thoughts with regard to the future of leadership at Ravenscroft School. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” (I smile now at my younger self for that quote to the board to be sure they understand, this is not a game; this impacts our lives!)

“First of all, let me say that I believe that any transformation begins with trust. I must now put my trust in you and others to make a decision for our future leadership. This link is vital to all employees in our job satisfaction and loyalty. Trust is never more important than when organizations are dealing with change.”

“We need the kind of leadership that appeals to our emotions. They’ve got to buy in with their hearts and their beliefs, not just in their minds. [Evans’ “The Human Side of Change” is a classic!] We require leadership that has experience in the classroom and understands the needs and challenges of educating our children and, last but not least, has a good sense of humor!”

“Do all of these qualities sound superhuman? I hope not. Today (2001), the role of headmaster is more complicated and challenging than ever. It’s important that we recognize this person is a human being as well, not a person requiring supernatural abilities to facilitate the future needs of our school.”

I think it is safe to say that the heart of that young aspiring leader as well as her observations remain true today, and now that I am on the other side of this process, I am aware that our colleagues are watching. They are looking to have trust in the process, the outcome, and their futures.

The good news for Ravenscroft is that both Derrick and I believe in navigating the stages together with the support of the Ravenscroft board, particularly our chair. We are both leaving jobs that we have loved in order to lean into new adventures, so we have shared empathy in the journey. We are both using executive coaches to create spaces to individually explore the natural tension points of letting go, picking up, and, for me, realizing meetings are now taking place that don’t require me to be there. It is a journey of self-awareness first and foremost and then one of collaboration. In essence, I have given my heart to Ravenscroft and am aware that for me, we are going through a heart transplant … carefully taking my heart out of the daily operations and then placing Derrick’s into Ravenscroft. As part of my departing role, I am exploring any rejection points, hot button issues, and/or landmines. I am mindful of alerting Derrick to any recent difficult decisions or potential future concerns and working with the school leadership team to determine with whom Derrick should meet in his first 30, 60, and 90 days. Lastly, I am working with current team members to go over their strengths and areas of opportunity for a briefing for Derrick so that he has a strong understanding of the school and is prepared for their first retreat.

According to Bridges, we are in what we call the “back end of the neutral zone,” and all of us are starting to peek into the new beginning zone where new identities, values, and energy are possible. I feel enormously blessed to have served Ravenscroft School, along with SAIS. I have confidence that the future is bright for all of us, and I am especially looking forward to supporting Derrick going forward.

Doreen C. Kelly
Head of School
Ravenscroft School
Raleigh, NC