By Derrick Willard, Head of School, Augusta Preparatory Day School

When I took the job as head of school at Augusta Preparatory Day School (Georgia) in 2019, I was amused when a young student asked me, “Just what do you do around here?” What a great question! As the head of school, I have many outward facing roles to fill: cheerleader, storyteller, diplomat, fundraiser, and recruiter, to name just a few. What should I have told him?

That student’s question led me to make sure I explain to new parents each year that I have two primary roles: (1) make sure we successfully live our mission, and (2) develop greater capacity in our people, places, and programs. As a developer of people, I need to be both manager and mentor to develop leadership capacity within the organization.

As a manager of personnel, I have obligations to rate work performance and develop action plans if performance is lacking in some area. This occurs most often with my direct reports—a small portion of school employees. This work is done on a strict annual schedule, evaluating goals and expectations, and summarized with formal feedback. Professional development opportunities to shore up shortfalls in technical skills might follow evaluation.

There are times I need to mentor. Mentoring, which might follow an evaluation, is less formal and more like advice. Rod Chamberlain, an experienced former head of school, defines a mentor as “an experienced advisor who provides wisdom and expertise, usually in a just-in-time manner to one with less knowledge and skills.” A faculty or staff member may need a mentor for more situational support instead of on a yearly management schedule. Mentors can peel back the traditional veils of mystery associated with finance, board operations, board communications, board governance, fundraising, marketing communications, community relationships, etc. In the last few years, I have mentored employees for different reasons—one wanted to be a future head of school, one was curious about a path to be a dean of academics, another wished to develop a global studies program. In each and every case I was able to assist simply because I had filled those roles before and could provide advice from experience.

While there is a lot I can do as a head of school to develop leaders within the organization, it is harder for me to be a coach or sponsor to someone in the organization. Why is that?

Let us start with the idea of a coach. Again, I will lean on Rod Chamberlain for a definition since he was my own executive coach during my first year as a head of school. Rod offers that a coach is “a skilled facilitator, who helps a client identify key issues and through drawing out ideas and exploring options, supports the client in creating practical actions to address these issues.” Instead of giving instruction and direction through advice, the coach tries to help the client through a process of self-discovery. Coaches learn their questioning skills through a credentialing process such as that of the International Coaching Federation and focus on the client. Given that a head of school must prioritize the needs of the institution over the needs of the individual, it is harder for a head to be a coach to a current employee. One might want a coach during their first year in a new leadership position as it provides a safe space to work through some projects or problems without the junior leader constantly asking the boss for advice.

Finally, it is important that we as heads educate aspiring leaders on the role of sponsors. According to Dr. Kim Villeneuve, founder and CEO of Centerstone Executive Search and Consulting, a sponsor is “a leader who is a highly regarded influencer operating in circles that exceed your own.” By virtue of a sponsor’s position in a larger network, they can shape others’ opinion of you. The next time you are on LinkedIn, take a look at who is giving a recommendation for someone and consider whether it is a peer or a power player in an area of expertise. Aspiring leaders also need sponsors to “talk them up” to others to help them climb the career ladder, particularly for positions outside their current organization.

In summary, as heads, we have an obligation to manage and mentor talent for several reasons–develop a deep bench for succession planning, practice distributed leadership, and further the health of the organization and profession. And we can also educate aspiring leaders on the need to add coaches and/or sponsors to their learning network when the time is right.

Derrick will be joined by his mentor, Glyn Cowlishaw, head of school, Providence Day School (North Carolina), as they present Sponsorship, Mentorship, and Coaching during the SAIS Fundamentals Conference, April 16-18, 2023. Their session, led by the “real life” mentor-mentee pair, will involve a deep dive into the head’s role in cultivating leaders within the organization with strategies for assuming or assigning sponsor, mentor, or coach roles within their sphere of influence.

  • Leadership
  • Mission/Culture
  • Human Resources

Derrick Willard is the head of Augusta Preparatory Day School, which serves 450 PK-12 students from the Augusta, Georgia, area. He is a U.S. Army veteran who has become a career educator passionate about creating optimal learning environments within our brick and mortar schools as well as creating productive virtual learning environments online.