Charter School Leadership Transition: Two CEOs Tell Their Stories

Charter School Leadership Transition: Two CEOs Tell Their Stories

How does a charter school CEO transition out of their role and hand the baton off to the next leader?

BoardOnTrack’s founder and CEO, Marci Cornell-Feist recently hosted a fireside chat with two charter school executive directors to answer that question. 

The far-reaching discussion covers the following topics:

-> How to decide it’s time for a new CEO

-> Communicating with the community

-> Involving parents, students, and faculty in a search

-> Hiring from within vs. hiring a search firm

-> Managing the transition: timing, overlap, and role clarity

-> Diversity, equity, and inclusion

-> Making a sabbatical work

-> Final words of wisdom

About our panelists

Jessica Wodatch, a native Washingtonian, helped found Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC. She was the executive director for 16 years, and just stepped down this past June.

Two Rivers is a small network of progressive elementary and middle schools with a focus on ELL education, the arts, and just, as Jessica describes it, “a general place of happiness.” And it serves a pretty diverse urban population — about 65% African-American, about 25% white, 10% Latino; about 1/3 living under the poverty line and about 1/4 qualifying for special education services. And in addition to having been ED, Jessica is a parent, with all three of her kids having been Two Rivers students.

Kristin Harrison started off as a teacher at Christa McAuliffe Charter School, an expeditionary learning school with about 400 students in grades six, seven, and eight.

The school has a focus on ELL, hands-on learning, and the aim to cultivate academic success as well as character and nurture students to make the world a better place. She then coached math and science teachers before becoming the executive director — a position she held for ten years. Like Jessica, she wrapped up her tenure at the school last June. Though she was not the founding CEO, she was there in the founding years.

Both Kristin and Jessica have launched consulting practices to bring their experiences to bear in helping charter school leaders like them. Please contact us if you’d like more information about working with either one of them.

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How to decide it’s time for a new CEO to lead your charter school

Marci Cornell-Feist:
So let’s start with the decision-making. When and how did you know it was time to really the time? And how did you go about telling people?

Kristin Harrison:

I remember a few years ago asking Erica Brown who works for the charter school association in Massachusetts. I said, how do you know when it’s time and she gave me, you know, some fabulous answer. But the fact that I asked that question a few years ago indicates to me that it’s definitely a question that came up you know, not for any particular reason other than just wondering, how do I know when it is time for me to move on?

I ultimately decided in the spring of 2019. It was a theme that was coming up for me, as I was thinking about what my professional goals were, longer term, taking stock of what I’d accomplished in the school, and considering where the school was in its charter cycle. And then looking ahead to what my future goals may be.

I care so much about the school. Part of what I looked at was when would be a good time for the school to go through a transition, as we look at the accountability cycle. And I followed my intuition. I communicated with the board chair first. And then from there, I talked with key players, people on my team. I had a lot of individual conversations to start.

Jessica Wodatch:

So Kristin and I both spent a long time in our roles and every two to three years, you kind of say to yourself: Is this still the right job? Am I still the right person to do this job? Do I still want to do this? Is it still right for me; am I still right for it?

I had to ask myself repeatedly: Do I want to learn and grow so that I can be the person who leads the next stage of the organization? Because I started leading a school of 150 kids. And by the time I left, we had 170 staff. So it was a very different place and that requires very different leadership.

As a founder, I went through a really long grieving process that I felt like leaving. And that probably lasted a number of years. I remember the very first time I thought I might want to leave. I had a conversation with someone about this, I literally left the school building and had that conversation in the car because I felt so disloyal (which is, you know, not good, I’ve worked on that). But because so many of us are so wrapped up in our schools in our organizations that it takes a while to kind of think, I might be ready to start leaving.

But there were a couple of indicators that felt clear to me. One of them was: I was meeting with a group of parents and they had all these creative ideas — what if we do this; and what if we do that? And all I could think was, ‘We tried that in 2009, it didn’t work. We tried that in 2011 and the city council person won’t let it work.’ And I was like, “Oh, Jessica, you do not want to be the leader that is that leader. You want to be open and welcoming.”

And my other indicator was that I was seeing more problems than I was remembering to celebrate the joy. So some of our beautiful rituals that we had at our school, I was really having trouble seeing the wonderfulness and I was just so attuned to what wasn’t going well.

Those were both indicators that I wasn’t bringing the kind of self I wanted to bring.

So it was a combination of doing that emotional grieving that this beautiful place that I love with all my heart and helped build, that I was ready to leave it. And then also just really seeing, yes, these aren’t the right things, and starting to really feel like someone else could really do some amazing things here. And I felt, starting to close a chapter and feeling good about that and getting ready to pass the baton. And I told my board chair in September of 2019, which was basically when I decided. And I transitioned at the end of June.

Communicating a pending leadership transition: who, how, when

Marci Cornell-Feist:
So it sounds like when you both decided, you told your board chairs. When did the board chair share with the full board? How was it shared throughout the community?

Kristin Harrison:

I told my board chair in May of 2019. We went out for coffee. After that, I made a series of phone calls to people that I had strong relationships with. It was all in confidence at that point.

It was a really important process for me to have those individual conversations. There’s so much relationship building that happens as a leader. And I really wanted to respect those relationships.

That included some other board members, then my leadership team, and then I spoke with a number of teachers and teacher leaders who I’d been working with even since I was a teacher at the school.

After those one-to-one conversations, we were planning to communicate more broadly in the fall. My gut told me we needed to communicate in the summer. That way we’d go into the school year without there being an interruption. And that was smooth sailing. There was a little bit of apprehension about communicating that before the school year started, but I think it ended up working out quite well. So people went into the year knowing what to expect.

Jessica Wodatch:

We had a bit more of a compressed timetable. The one-on-one conversations with similar, but I shared with my board chair in September.

One of the things that was a real plus was my board chair knew immediately that this would change our year, that this is the biggest thing the board will be asked to do.

The board wanted a search firm, they knew that immediately. And they knew we’d have to go through an RFP process. We told the whole board right away and kept it confidential, but we knew we were going to need to launch that RFP pretty quickly. So we had more like a two-week time period for me to do my one-on-one personal conversations with people at the school, my colleagues, our funders, and folks that we wanted to hear it from me.

And so then we figured out how to share it with the whole school. We have three campuses. So I scheduled time to go personally to each campus and tell everybody in person and be able to have those conversations. I had some one-on-one conversations first with the people who founded the school with me.

It was very similar (to Kristin) in the sense of honoring what it means. One of my big takeaways, whether you’ve been in an organization for 16 years or six or however much, is people have a lot of feelings about it. They may be attached to you or they may not, they may just be worried about change. But so building into the process an opportunity for them to be heard and to have all the feelings and have space for those felt really important.

For example, when I shared the news with our staff members, I talked about my personal reasons. I wanted them to know that I loved the school and I would still be connected, but that I wouldn’t be the leader.

I shared why; that I love the school very much, but that the work of the executive director was not really the stuff that was fun to me anymore. I wanted someone who really loved that work to come and do the work. I am doing leadership coaching and consulting, that I wanted to be able to spend more time on. And I shared with them that the board chair was going to be coming and sharing the process, so people felt some comfort in knowing the process.

Marci Cornell-Feist):
And you made the announcement, but then who’s in the driver’s seat — you, the board? How did that work?

Jessica Wodatch:

My board chair was really clear that this was the board’s job; that it was their biggest and most important work.

The board put together a transition committee right away. These were the folks who would help find the search firm and then do a lot of the work. It ended up being half of the board because they all knew how important it was.

I was very closely connected with them, but they really did the work. I sat in on all the interviews with the search firms, and I gave my input. They ended up going with someone who was not the firm I recommended. That’s an important board moment, for them to be really clear that I was not the client, they were the client.

There were some ups and downs in my personal experience with having a search firm.

The strength is that a board may or may not know how to do this. So having a search firm means that there are experts telling them how to do it.

One of the tensions I felt from what I’ve observed — most search firms have a pretty standard way that they approach things. It seems similar across different firms. We had a very specific way we hired, and I am sure many of you do as well. So I felt that there was a real tension with trying to bring the Two Rivers approach to hiring to the search firm’s belief in how things would be done. So that was hard.

Also, I love hiring. I know some EDs don’t do that. But I wanted to kind of pass along my wisdom and make sure that the search went along in a way that felt respectful of how we as a community were used to interviewing people.

One of my pieces of advice would be, if you’re going to use a search firm, to be clear with them about what matters to you and your community. They’re always going to include parents, they’re always going to include staff. But is the inclusion going to be the way you want it to be?

Some of my senior leaders had only met our candidates for an hour and a half before that person became their boss. And that felt a little uncomfortable to them. Normally, we would have spent much more time.

And I will just say, I felt like I got put a little bit in a founder box, like, “Oh, you’re a founder, so you can’t be involved.” And I felt like, “I’m actually very professional and I can do this. I promise.” So that was a little bit of tension. But overall, we found a wonderful candidate and I’m really pleased to pass the baton to her and to support her in her next work.

Kristin Harrison:

We had some similarities to Jessica’s experience and some differences.

I knew going into my decision that I wanted to communicate early because I knew that the board of trustees would need time in order to really get their ducks in a row. We didn’t have really anybody on the board who was familiar with leading or participating in any kind of a search like this, let alone anybody with expertise in HR.

Our board made it clear that this was their number one priority for the year. They recognized that it was their job. And I needed to support that process in a sort of manage up way. Our board members are comprised of wonderful individuals who are volunteering their time and have full-time jobs. I knew the urgency around timeliness, so it definitely was on my radar to keep the ball rolling. I helped with the RFP process.

I connected our board chair with some key individuals in the charter school community who then connected him with some other key members. He talked with some other board chairs who’d gone through the process and was able to learn from them what their experiences were. I gave him the name of John Tarvin who works for EOS Transition Partners. John had worked with us before on other consultancy projects. So my board chair talked with him John and a few other groups who submitted proposals, and the board assessed those and went with John.

Our search firm was really one individual who we knew well and who knew the school well. So we were fortunate to have that.

And yet, there might’ve been some things that I would have done differently. I was so sad to not be part of the process. I knew it was really important to have that separation. And also, I’d never been part of an executive search before, and I love hiring. It challenged me in a healthy way to say to myself, you’re behind the scenes, you’re helping get John what he needs so that he can facilitate this process — get out of the way, let John and let the board and the search committee do their thing. I was also expecting a child in March and ended up being out on maternity leave when some of the process was happening. So that made it easier to have some clear separation.

Involving parents, students, and faculty in a charter school executive search

Marci Cornell-Feist:
What role did parents, students, and faculty play in your search? And what would you recommend?

Kristin Harrison:

The search committee was comprised of majority board members, but it was a small committee of seven or eight people. (I didn’t sit on the committee.)

And I’d say the board actually took a good amount of time with John talking about what the right makeup would be. That was really healthy. He had a nice protocol that guided them through some of this decision-making.

There were faculty representatives and I think it was intelligent to put out an opportunity for faculty to express, if they were interested, apply to be part of the committee. It ended up being that all of those who submitted interest were able to be on the committee. But I think that was important symbolically that it wasn’t a cherry-picking thing.

And there was at least one parent who served on the committee, who was also not a board member.

Students played a role in the process, the hiring process, during the two finalists’ visits — during site visits via zoom, students from the student culture team met the two finalists.

Jessica Wodatch:

So our approach was a little bit different. We wanted to make sure those voices were included, but the board kept the committee to just board members.

So the people ultimately making the decision was just a small committee of board members. And they consulted with me very regularly, but I was not also an official member of that committee.

I think one of the parts that I felt was most beneficial was they spent a lot of time asking people at the beginning what they wanted in an executive director, which gave them both a chance to say, like, we love this thing that Jessica does, please don’t lose that. And also like, Oh, wouldn’t it be great if somebody did this thing that Jessica doesn’t do?

So it was a really nice way for the board and also the search firm to tease out things like: in this community relationships matter; we can’t hire someone who doesn’t honor and respect how closely connected people are; that’s really a big deal.

There were multiple opportunities for focus groups for parents. There were surveys for parents. We tried to make sure that people who wanted to come talk could come talk directly to the search people or they could type if they didn’t have time to be present the same for staff.

So we held both, we invited, and we did cherry-pick certain positions. We had all of our teacher leaders, all of our principals, basically anyone who was in the leadership team, we had meet with the search firm.

But then we also had open times with the search firm members, and our board chair actually, where people could come and talk to them. And most of those happened before the shutdown, so they were in person. Then there was a long period, where there wasn’t a lot of involvement, where we were screening resumes and doing initial interviews. Then, when we had finalists, there were staff panels, parent panels, and our student ambassadors were part of the interview process. A number of candidates told me that they were the most rigorous interviewers and also our best salespeople.

Kristin Harrison:

I would just add that that part of the assessment process was really critical.

John was able to be onsite before the shutdown and held focus groups, met with a number of different individuals. And I sent him a lot of information that he went through in order to learn about the school and learn about specifically where the school’s at right now in order to assess what it seemed like is needed in an executive director. Because the need for somebody who has expertise in fundraising is quite different from somebody who has robust instructional experience.

By him engaging in that assessment, really like a SWOT analysis, he was able to work with the board or work with the hiring committee to put together a profile for the job that was not generic. It was quite contextualized to the school and to what the school needs right here, right now, in its next executive director.

On developing a leadership talent pipeline from within, vs. hiring a search firm

Marci Cornell-Feist:
And was there an attempt to hire from within? Were you just poised to do a local search or a national search? What were the discussions around that?

Kristin Harrison:

We made it very clear in our community, in our internal communication to faculty, that this was a search where if individuals internally were interested, they were welcome to apply. We did not have any internal applicants. But it was made very clear that they were encouraged and welcome to apply.

And, yes, it was a national search that we conducted.

Jessica Wodatch:

Ours was similar. We invited anybody within to apply, but we also really wanted it to be a national search.

I think there was a lot of discussion about things like: Does this person need DC expertise? Do they need ELL expertise? Do they need IB expertise?

And I think it just, it really helped to start interviewing people and to see who they were.

I also had the chance a number of years ago to go on sabbatical, which is a great way to get everybody ready for an ultimate transition. We hired an interim ED and we hired that person from outside of DC, but he was such a hard worker that he made the connections and we supported him. So for our community, that proved, it would be ideal if they’re from DC, but they don’t have to be.

And so I would encourage your communities for anything you feel like they must have to start really asking the questions to see if that really is true. Do they really need to have it, or is there some other way they can show you that they come mission-aligned or whatever it is?

Managing the charter school executive director transition: timing, overlap, and role clarity

Marci Cornell-Feist:
So our folks also have lots of questions about the transition. When was the new person hired? What was your role, how much overlap did you have with the new person?

Jessica Wodatch:

We did not have as much overlap as we ideally wanted to because this is life. And one of the things I want to say to all you executive directors out there is, you know, I don’t know why I had this idea that I would be able to tie it in a bow. Of course, I wasn’t going to be able to tie it in a bow. I’m just telling you, you won’t either. I just wanted so badly to have all these things finished and fixed and, you know, never in my 16 years has that happened.

You just have to adjust to the fact that there’s never a perfect time to transition. And when you pick the transition, there are going to be things that go really well and things that don’t go well.

We decided that my successor would come on board for the entire month of June, but I would still be ED. And I think one of the things we did really well is be clear: Jessica is still in charge until June 26th. Christina will be here, she’s shadowing, but she’s not in charge. Do not ask her questions. And then on June 27th, don’t talk to Jessica anymore. The balance of power has changed completely. Being really clear about that was important.

So we had planned to have this month (of overlap), but it was the last month of school. It was in a pandemic, George Floyd was murdered. There were just all these things that meant it was very difficult for a new leader to be silent. And so it ended up that we did more co-leading, although the rules were still clear about who is deciding.

And then we moved into a phase — I took a role as a special advisor on staff at the school. And I worked out with my successor and our chief of staff, how many hours a week I’d be working. And I think we did a really clear document naming what I was working on. And one of the things that my successor decided was all things go through me. She was really clear that she didn’t want all these people who’d loved me and worked with me and known me for so long, to be calling me on the side. She was ready to be the leader. So she wanted to be the conduit of information, which I will say, it was hard for me. It’s been hard not to talk to my friends, but I also have tremendous respect for that. And I think that the clarity has been very useful.

And we worked on a really well thought out transition plan. And this is something you can all start doing right away. What can you do now? We started lists of the relationships that would need to transition, the events that she should go to, the documents that she should review. And we just started calling all of those things into one central place. And then, ultimately, we created a list that was an overview of all those things.

Kristin Harrison:

My successor was employed through June. So his tenure at McAuliffe started in July. So we had a pretty clean transition in terms of who is shifting into the executive director role.

But he and I did a lot of work through the spring. We had at least weekly meetings, the two of us. He started attending a couple of leadership meetings, as an observer.

And then we established a transition committee, which was facilitated by a member of the board who happens to be a social worker and who cares deeply about transitions. He helped facilitate that process in a really thoughtful way. So we were attending to both the logistics of passing information along and also looking at the social/emotional side of things.

And I appreciated that because I was just ready to check off the to-do list and avoid the whole grief process. But this board member encouraged me to look at the rituals in place, the traditions, and how we’d go about holding these opportunities to say goodbye during the course of a pandemic. That transition committee was really helpful. My successor and I both were on that committee, as well as a couple of other school leaders. So it was also a chance for him to start to work with us collaboratively.

And a lot of it was my successor saying, I don’t know what I don’t know. So help me begin to get ducks in a row. We identified key documents, key contacts, plans for communication. So plans for when Frank was going to be meeting with faculty just face-to-face introductory, or Zoom to Zoom. And when he’d be meeting with families, just the introductory relationship building.

And the other thing that we started doing was planning for the various potentials for this fall. We were planning for pandemic question marks. We had very clear boundaries. I would be facilitating that planning team. He would be participating on it. And then as of July 1, we would switch roles. And he would be the leader of that committee. And I would be continuing to serve on it for a period of time. So he and I did a lot of like, what are you doing? What am I doing? Let’s clarify. So that we’re on the same page.

And then I did work for the school through July. But with very clear expectations around supporting some of the planning process, completing the annual report, that kind of stuff. And then at the end of July, and we built a consultancy agreement which is still ongoing through the year, focusing on a few specific projects.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the charter school CEO search

Marci Cornell-Feist:
How did diversity equity and inclusion affect your search?

Jessica Wodatch:

My board and I were really explicit right from the beginning that we didn’t see any reason that we wouldn’t be able to find the most amazingly talented person of color to lead the school.

So when we were interviewing search firms, that was one of our questions: How will diversity equity inclusion influence or guide your search? And it was interesting because the firms have very different approaches to it.

And when we had those listening sessions, we talked about diversity, equity, and inclusion because we’ve been doing a lot of work around DEI for a number of years at the school. Our staff and our parents wanted to hear what the next leaders were going to do with it. So it was also a question in interviews.

Really, we felt like it was pretty central. It wasn’t just question one of 20, it was one of the three big questions that we learned about guiding the work.

But I would add, all of these firms have metrics for how many people of color have made it to finalist searches. And, in their last year, how many people of color have been placed, just to make sure that their reach is one that feels like it is wide enough to ensure everyone has access to the role. So I think those are things that come up right away.

Kristin Harrison:

So it was named explicitly in the posting that the school was looking for somebody to continue to lead the school’s work with anti-racism.

My successor is a white male. And I don’t see that as a failure of the search. He is somebody that will say: ‘I am a white male, and that means that I have some privilege — a lot of privilege.’ And so he’s one that that will talk about that and is eager to engage the school and continued work.

So I’m aware of that being an important value that was named by the search committee. And I appreciate that though my successor was not an individual of color or a Portuguese-speaking individual, there’s a large Brazilian population in Framingham, it’s an individual that’s deeply committed to the work of DEI and anti-racism.

Sabbaticals in charter school leadership

Marci Cornell-Feist:
And, Jessica, how did the sabbatical work? You’re a role model, and you’ve inspired several other charter leaders who have now taken sabbaticals, so talk about that.

Jessica Wodatch:

So I’m a big believer in sabbaticals. I wanted to be able to roll it out, actually for many more people at my organization.

But, when I first started having conversations with our board about going on sabbatical, I didn’t want to leave the organization but I really knew I needed a break.

And when my oldest child was about to go to college, my wife and I realized, this is it. If we’re going to go abroad, this is the moment. I think there’s never going to be a good moment for a sabbatical. So you just have to, kind of, do it.

And as the ED, I set the whole thing up. I made it easy for our board. They agreed to give me a three-month paid sabbatical and to give me nine months of unpaid leave so that I could take the whole year. And my wife and I moved our whole family to Spain for the year, which is a whole separate, lovely conversation. I worked out the finances. We hired an interim who would be a kind of 80% time because we weren’t going to give that person the strategic stuff to do. We were going to pause strategy for a year.

And it gave me some lessons for how to spend the next couple of years before I was getting ready to leave to make sure some things that felt critical were really baked in a different way.

My board and I built it in that the only request was that, on sabbatical, I would put myself in a learner seat and learn something new. And that felt really important as an educator. What I did was I learned ceramics. So I lived in Spain and became a potter. But that transferred some really good lessons that I still use.

And they also didn’t require me to come back. I did want to come back, in part because I knew no one else would ever get a sabbatical if I didn’t come back. So I did come back.

And it was overall a great experience for us. It enabled us to bring in someone who had some strengths I didn’t have, which I think was really useful. It showed me some areas that I felt like I had built the culture in a way that it didn’t need me. It was really the first time the board had to kind of stand on its own feet without me. And I think that was really, really valuable as a founder.

Marci Cornell-Feist:
And your leadership team, too.

Jessica Wodatch:

I should shout them out too, because I think one of the things that made it easier for us to hire an executive director — at one point, my successor said to me, ‘Your people are so empowered. Why are they making all these decisions instead of me making them?’

I had a really amazingly strong senior leadership team. And that also makes it easier to bring someone in and have them give them a little bit of a runway because they don’t have to be figuring out how to serve lunches in a pandemic because someone else is gonna figure that out. So anyway.

Final words of wisdom from these two distinguished charter school executive directors

Marci Cornell-Feist:
So let’s wrap up — any final words of wisdom or lessons learned?

Kristin Harrison:

I think my final thought when I reflect on the process is I think about empowering the board of trustees to really take the reins. And also being there as a supporter for them. Because it’s a volunteer group. Don’t just leave them struggling for too long. Support them. Empower them. I think that’s a really important balance.

Jessica Wodatch:

I think I’ve gotten to most of my big ideas except for one. And that one is, I really felt like I wanted (my successor) Christina to succeed.

There’s a moment where you have to kind of check your ego and say, you know what, she’s going to do some things differently that you might not like, but you’re not going to be the ED anymore.

I think there’s a process that we go through as leaders to kind of dial that in and just get ready to be an incredible cheerleader and supporter. And that comes with some very basic things. Like, I would never say anything bad about her to anyone. If I have a question about something she’s doing, I can either talk about it with my wife or I can bring it to her, but to really show that we are a united front.

And I think also for my staff, for them to really understand that basically, I was just giving permission, not that I needed to, but for them to embark on the next chapter and knowing that the DNA was there, but that things would look different. And that was okay.

I felt like that was really important framing for the successor to come in and be her beautiful leadership self and know that, you know, it’s okay that one of the first things she did was put in the system that I had said no to for 15 years, because the organization needed it and she figured out a way to do it. And so that goes with my blessing. So I know we all have different ways that we feel about leaving our babies. And I just think that that’s really an important one.

And then I think the other big message is that I have already said is just remember, you cannot tie it up in a bow. You really can’t. So you’re just going to have to make some peace with that. And then echoing what Kristin said that it is the board’s job and this is their moment to shine. And so empowering them to take the lead on it.

Marci Cornell-Feist:

Thank you so much for sharing the wisdom. And thanks for all your leadership. You both have created these amazing organizations and I know it wasn’t easy. They had lots of ups and downs. I know the work is really hard. And you did the final thing: you handed the baton off to your successor.

When we did a webinar with Caprice Young, who among other things founded the California Charter School Association and it was about leadership, she said the real test of your leadership is what happens when you’re gone; when you hand it over to someone else.

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