Former long-time business officer, recent interim CFO, and founding member of NBOA Jim Pugh shares wisdom he has collected in his decades of service to independent schools.
One of the best pieces of professional development advice I’ve received is to consider the “process of entry” when you start working at a new school. How you get to know the people at a school and the school culture matters. I have used the following process several times. I cannot tell you how important it has been during all of the years that follow at the school.
One of the assets you have as a newcomer is that you have not made decisions which affect the people in the school. You are a fresh slate in their eyes. During your first six months, people will speak to you more openly and candidly than they will later on.
While time consuming, a structured series of “entry interviews” can be one of the most effective ways to learn about the new school – and to connect with your new colleagues. The relative tightness of an independent school community makes this method particularly apt.
Make a list of perhaps 15-20 of the key people working in different parts of the school community. Give priority to wisdom and seniority. One of these people may be the director of the campus store. Another may be a long-time security guard. Your new head will help you to develop the list. I do not include parents, alumni and trustees in the entry interviews. There is plenty of time to talk with these groups later.
Propose and arrange a meeting time with each of these people. I like to meet on their turf. Plan for each meeting to last 60-90 minutes. Send each interviewee a list of questions in advance so their minds are warmed up. Inform them that the conversation is confidential. My questions include the following:
What do you do at the school? What other roles have you played?
How did you come to the school?
What do you like best about the school?
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Describe a moment when the school was in conflict. How did the conflict arise, and did it play out?
Is there any way I (or the business office) can help you to do your job?
Is there anything you would like to know about me?
As you can see, the meeting is about them. Most of the people you talk to love the personal attention. How often are they asked about their jobs and what they do in life? Let people talk. Many of the meetings will go into extra time.
The conflict question (#5) will cause a bit of worry for some of the interviewees, but they will surmount it. You will receive surprisingly candid statements and opinions. You may hear about the same conflict several times, from different perspectives.
Immediately after each meeting, take 10 minutes jot down notes. The notes will provide a reference a year or two later when you are puzzling out a landmine you wish to avoid or may already have stepped on.
When all your interviews are complete, I recommend writing up a brief summary that pulls together the threads and themes you have heard. Send this to the people you interviewed. This is a way of thanking them for their time and insights — to let them know you have listened — and to let them know the strengths of the school community you have heard about again and again.
Your status as a newcomer is in some ways to your advantage during your initial months on the job. If you invest some time in the entry process, you won’t regret it.
Note: The process of “entry interviews” was taught to me by Barry Jentz, the founder of Leadership and Learning. His book “ Entry” has a chapter – “A Good Beginning as a Superintendent” that goes into the process in more depth. While aimed at US public school superintendents, Jentz’ wisdom is applicable to all school leaders.
This article originally appeared in NBOA's Net Assets magazine as part of Jim Pugh's Business Office Basics series. Sage Consultancy strongly recommends membership of NBOA for international schools as a great resource for school leadership.