Case Study: Promoting Career Development at Independent Schools

Spring 2024

By Tracy M. Sweet

This article appeared as "Career Development" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

For many faculty and staff, the path to career advancement, on their own campus or elsewhere, is often elusive. Or if it exists, they may not know how to access it. 

A recent Harvard Business Review article raised these and other challenges. When to find time, whom to seek for support, what to focus on, and where to locate meaningful opportunities—these are all common barriers to vocational progress. Prioritizing career development often gets set aside, despite a world in which continuous change is the norm, authors Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis write. Daily demands take precedence, and investing in our future rarely feels as urgent as the issues crashing our inbox. Responding to “now” represents the norm.

Over the years, Raynard Kington has seen this firsthand in his own career, which has spanned the fields of public health, education, science policy, and medicine, and at institutions including federal research agencies, a think tank, a medical school, an independent secondary school, and a college. He attended his share of professional development and climbed through leadership ranks while observing, and at times experiencing, the hurdles. But he always thought there had to be a better way to encourage and support career development. And there had to be a better way to grow leaders. 

When Kington became head of school at Phillips Academy (MA) in 2020, he soon started hearing about “conference fatigue.” While faculty and staff valued off-site or online workshops and seminars, they also wanted deeper, longer duration learning that could be customized to their own professional goals. By 2021, Kington decided to make career development a priority, and by that fall, Andover’s Career Development Program (CDP) was born. Kington had a vision to create a pipeline of rising leaders among the school’s faculty and staff, promising an on-campus opportunity that would help them gain the skills needed for more senior roles—at Andover and beyond. 

The Vision 

Faculty members often aspire to become a department chair, a dean, or the head of school; staff and administrators have goals to manage a team, secure a promotion, or explore how their skills might transfer to a new professional role. But how do they get there? And what does an intensive professional development program on campus look like and how would it work? 

Kington began to build out his vision with four modules: an online executive education component through Harvard Business School (HBS) or Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE); a biweekly guest speaker series; peer group support; and a capstone project that aimed to address an institutional priority or a campus challenge. The program would run through the academic year, September through June, with a cohort of 12 to 15 participants. Group work and guest speakers would be scheduled and in person; however, the online course could be taken as it best fit into the individual’s schedule.

Kington presented the program to the senior leadership team and asked for feedback and participant recommendations. But many on the team, including myself, said we’d like to do it ourselves. I saw the merits of continuing my own professional development and thought I could be a better advocate for the program if I had experienced it firsthand. So in fall 2021, a self-selected pilot group of 10 test-drove the program before it would launch campuswide the following year. 

The program began with self-reflection, personal goal-setting, and a kickoff dinner with an outside consultant and career coach and the head of school. Over nine months, we explored topics such as negotiation and collaborative decision-making, ethical leadership, conflict management, and institutional change—all topics that remain core to the program today. We also examined our influence on teams, within organizations, and in broader systems. 

And we quickly learned that this experience is not a sabbatical. It is quite the opposite. The program demands more time and commitment from people whose schedules barely have space for lunch. Faculty enrolled in this program do not receive course reduction, and staff do not see a decreased workload.

Core Components 

The program continues to evolve since the pilot year and now includes six components. 

Executive education: Leadership- and management-related online courses are the most time-intensive and expensive part of the program, with fees running about $2,500 per person. (In fall 2022, Andover added a modest stipend for things like books, online resources, and child care, acknowledging that much of the work takes place after typical work hours or on weekends.) In the first three years of the program, most participants enrolled in HBS or HGSE, but there are myriad options available in the online education space that would satisfy the CDP requirement. The courses run seven to 10 weeks and require about eight to 10 hours a week.

I paced myself through my HBS class on Leadership Principles, setting aside an hour or two after work and an uninterrupted two to four hours on weekends. At first, it was daunting to see all that I needed to accomplish. But as I built a portfolio of completed assignments and received feedback from a network of virtual classmates, I found myself looking forward to this departure from the usual rhythm of my workday. 

Global CEOs delivered video presentations and set up case studies on everything from launching a product or service to introducing a new strategic direction to key stakeholders. Less riveting but equally important, we also explored how to run a productive meeting and learned why some meetings veer off topic or devolve into venting sessions. Our professors guided these interactions by explaining the business principles associated with each case. Woven into the seminars were random “cold calls” asking any one of us at any moment to react to scenarios like navigating a difficult conversation with an underperforming employee. The cold call method—a flashback to college seminars—meant that I had less than two minutes to compose and key in my answer. This was followed by homework to record and upload a video of me role-playing that conversation, which was then critiqued by my peers online. 

Lunch and learn: Another component in a different format gives participants the chance to learn from one another and to engage with leaders beyond campus. Discussions with outside guests—authors and scholars, industry executives, academic leaders, and other education innovators—prompt questions and insights that are intended to help CDP participants grow in their leadership journeys. Most sessions are held in person and take place once or twice a month. About seven guest speakers are featured each year.

Our pilot group met with college and university presidents, heads of global nonprofits and foundations, scholars and innovators. We discussed issues of the day, from generative artificial intelligence to consumerism in education. Guest speakers offered expertise while also painting an unvarnished view of their individual career paths. Michelle Weise, who studies the future of work, shared insights from her book Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet. Jonathan Jansen, Stanford University fellow and professor of education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, joined us for leadership discussions the day before his induction ceremony at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Andover 101: Introduced in year two of the program, this module focuses on the essentials of campus administration. The pilot group recommended that all participants have a common understanding of how their campus functions. Key topics include how an endowment works, the role of governance and boards, the importance of strategic communications, how to build a fundraising case, and the competitive market for talented students. Many who took part in the pilot—heads of admission, advancement, communications, finance and investments—now contribute to this module as experts and guest speakers. These mini-workshops fit into the schedule as part of the Lunch and Learn series.

Peer groups: While spending most of the CDP experience together as a cohort of 12 to 15, participants also form small groups of three or four. They set aside designated time, once or twice a month, to use at their discretion. Some groups workshop ideas for their capstone project. Once their project is near completion, they might rehearse their presentation with the group. Others meet to discuss topics raised by a guest speaker or to ask questions related to their online coursework. 

Personalized coaching: These confidential one-on-one sessions are conducted online through Landit, a platform that includes guidance and tools to support personalized career momentum—developing a personal brand, tracking accomplishments and progress toward long-range career goals, curating and leveraging a personal network of advisers. In addition to having access to the platform’s proprietary features, each participant also has up to 10 sessions with a personal coach to use any time during the year. While this component remains optional, nearly every participant took advantage of it when it was introduced in 2022.

Capstone project: CDP capstone projects aim to address an academic or student life priority or improve a campus operation or system. They are self-designed and can be done in pairs or independently. In addition to pitching ideas to the head of school before getting the green light, participants also present their completed projects to the senior team, including academic deans, the chief financial officer, and general counsel. This module has proven to be a smart investment in both individuals and the institution.

My project modernized Andover’s crisis communications strategy by developing response protocols and templates for scenarios ranging from cyberattacks to violent campus protests. Adjacent to this work, I also introduced a new policy for institutional statements relating to world events. Although I stayed within the zone of my expertise, CDP participants are encouraged to stretch beyond their own domain.

Two colleagues from the senior administration teamed up to address the challenge of getting students to read—or at least become familiar with—the school’s community standards handbook. Covering everything from academic integrity to technology use to harassment and bullying, the 100-page Blue Book is densely detailed and hardly a page-turner. Working with a graphic designer, the administrators published Core Blue, an abbreviated 12-page overview of school values and topline expectations. While Core Blue is not a substitute for the handbook, it is visually appealing and easy to read on a smartphone or tablet.

Another project sought to amplify the voices of employees by creating a staff council. Lack of representation among those who do not teach or hold supervisory roles had long been viewed as a gap at Andover, as evidenced by recent survey data and a campuswide report on diversity and equity. Representing more than 300 employees, the 10-member council meets regularly with the chief of staff and advises the head of school. In its first few months, it has shared concerns over the rising cost of health insurance, and it has helped reinstate a program that recognizes and rewards staff for going “beyond the call of duty.”

Now and Next 

In its third year, the CDP requires an application, a personal statement of interest, and an endorsement from a supervisor. Applicants must also have been an employee of Andover for at least five years. With space for only 15 participants, some applicants may be deferred to another year or asked to reapply if their supervisor recommends they get more experience before enrolling. 

To date, participants have represented the humanities and STEM departments, athletics, technology, fundraising, communications, finance, student affairs, and academic administration. Bringing faculty and staff together in a single cohort for a full academic year creates an even richer experience for many who otherwise do not normally work together. That type of cross-pollination happens more organically with dedicated time and focus. 

As the CDP continues to evolve, participants’ feedback is critical. Surveys of two cohort groups showed that the majority of participants learned new skills that they believe better position them for career advancement. Some also reported increased confidence and self-awareness. One person gained a greater ability to “ask questions that allow people to find answers and design systems to solve a problem.” Another was determined to improve communication skills and was inspired by those who “lead with vision and positivity.” 

The coveted outcome, of course, is when CDP graduates advance their careers. The risk of investing in rising talent, however, is losing employees to opportunities elsewhere. In addition to those who have earned promotions or taken on new responsibilities on campus, two others have left Andover to lead other institutions. Kington views both outcomes as positive, noting that he wants to develop a talent pool for Andover and for the industry. Therefore, it’s equally validating to see faculty and staff serve our community in a new capacity or advance themselves and the field of education more broadly.

Since my experience in the pilot group, three others from the communications office have enrolled in the CDP. The trend is similar across campus, with members of the senior team encouraging their direct reports to apply. As the network expands, those who complete the program—CDP alumni—stay involved by taking part in workshop sessions with guest speakers or by presenting a segment of Andover 101. 

Pathways to leadership rarely follow a straight line. Each one of us—faculty, staff, and senior leaders who have taken part in the CDP—came to our current roles following disparate career paths. Our experiences span government agencies, journalism, marketing and consulting, higher education, financial services, law, and startup endeavors. Early evidence suggests that new skills gained through the CDP can, in fact, accelerate our professional growth and will have lasting benefits for Andover, regardless of where those pathways lead next.   

Joining Forces

Nearly 40 faculty and staff and more than a dozen industry experts have taken part in Phillips Academy’s Career Development Program (CDP). Seeing the impact on individuals and the institution, Head of School Raynard Kington hopes to expand the program’s reach by collaborating with peer schools and is already in conversations with a few. In this Q&A, he shares his ideas and plans. 

Why develop a multischool network? 

I am a big believer in continuous improvement, and having a broader network will add another dimension to the program’s impact across secondary education. I also think it is important for faculty and staff to gain perspective on how other institutions operate.

What would it take to make it happen?

For others looking to start their own program, Andover has much to offer in terms of curriculum structure and content. We’ve started to post these materials online. Each of the six program modules can be scaled according to a school’s budget and institutional goals. For Andover, the biggest expenses have been individual coaching, online education courses, and speaker honorariums.

How would the program change?

Schools can decide what works best for them and customize the approach. They could use the startup materials as a template and develop their own program. We could partially integrate—share speakers and costs and present final projects virtually. We could fully integrate a program to include joint in-person launch and closing events, and we could host meetings and guest speakers virtually. Any of these options might also include faculty and staff job shadowing at a peer school for a day or two.

Beyond the expansion, what are some other benefits? 

Andover has invested in many of the upfront costs—templates for program design, resource materials, and connections with speakers. I see a tremendous opportunity to maximize impact by partnering with other schools to advance the field of education leadership more broadly.

Each school’s professional network would also grow as participants from multiple schools become program alumni. In turn, they could mentor new participants—from their own campus or other schools—as they traverse the program.

Tracy M. Sweet

Tracy M. Sweet is chief communications officer at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.