The Conversation: Talking About Smooth Headship Transitions

Winter 2024

This article appeared as "Transfer Points" in the Winter 2024 issue of Independent School.

When Ariane Baer-Harper was offered the headship at Austin International School (TX), she was thrilled that it came with the opportunity to work alongside the outgoing head, Jacques Weber, for the last three months of the 2022–2023 school year. Together, their work strengthened Baer-Harper’s introduction to the school and gave Weber the time and space to begin his transition to head of the Dallas International School (TX). Most important, their collaboration has continued to this day. In this edited exchange, Baer-Harper and Weber discuss their successful head transition, the keys to its success, and a roadmap for other heads to consider.

Ariane Baer-Harper: I feel so lucky that I had this opportunity. First and foremost, it showed me that we have a very supportive board of trustees because they were able to bring this opportunity to fruition. As you and I both know, most incoming heads are not ready to join their new school until their current school year is finished, and they often don’t get a good onboarding because of that. I’ve always said that a person will thrive in relation to the strength of their onboarding. It was one of the reasons it was so easy for me to accept this job. It made the school’s values very visible to me. 

But I’m curious what it was like for you. We often focus on this transition period for the incoming head. Was it difficult for you to have me there while you were trying to wrap things up?

Jacques Weber: The quick and short answer is no, it wasn’t difficult at all. In fact, two heads are better than one. One of the things we must remember when we onboard our team members is that there is a lot of collective knowledge on the staff. Often, there are other people who have had similar roles. But there isn’t usually another head in the school who can help show you the ropes. I agree with you 100% that it shows that the board valued that smooth transition.

What made our transition easier is that we have similar professional backgrounds. So it was very easy to work with you. From the get-go, we each knew what we had to work on to have a successful transition, and we were able to get through those tasks together. During that period where we were working in the same office, whenever I was tackling a problem or issue, it was fantastic to be able to count on somebody with shared values who knows the independent international school world.

Baer-Harper: When the staff saw us working so well together, it sent the message that Jacques trusts in Ariane, and he’s teaching her what makes the school special, so we can trust her to take the reins. Without saying any words, you sent that message, loud and clear. I attribute that trust-building to why the start of the school year was so smooth and wonderful. 

Many schools don’t have that opportunity for a head to start in April instead of July, but I think there are things schools can do to help a transition. You were here until the end of the year, and you’re now at a new school experiencing this transition. What do you think can be done if we don’t have that in-person opportunity during the transitional period?

Weber: I recognize that it’s exceptional to have three months of transition. But even if that isn’t possible, there can be three months or an even longer period of collaborative transition. It’s essential to the health and the stability of the school and for the ease with which the incoming head will be able to engage in the school community. You want to come in with a positive energy. You don’t want to come in swimming upstream. Even before you arrived in Austin, we were meeting remotely once a week, and we used that time for two things. First, it was to give you some historical and cultural context about the school. And two, we identified priorities so that when you did arrive, you could hit the ground running.

Baer-Harper: Incoming heads are usually hired by January or February for the following year, so there is that opportunity to do the three- or six-months transition period. As my employment agreement was signed, I was invited to regular board meetings. Those were three to four hours extremely well spent because I was able to see what the strategic plan outlined for the next few years. As the incoming head, I am going to be tasked with bringing that strategic plan to fruition, so I need to know what priorities I need to be thinking about right now.

Weber: When you already had that early work with the board, and you were on the ground getting to know the key actors in the community and working with the leadership team, it allowed me to focus on my own transition to my new school. I also hopped on board meetings via videoconference, and because you were on-site, I was able to attend some in-person. 

Baer-Harper: That’s such an excellent point. If we can think about the priorities that we want to accomplish in our schools, and we’re already working on those things in advance, that makes the jobs of our executive leadership and support leadership easier because they’re then able to identify their priorities. A wider community of people can start their school year with success. 

Weber: Also, in the post-transition, it’s great to be able to call on somebody who knows how I work, what I believe, what values I have, and is in the same role. I now have a great partner in the international school world who I can call on at a moment’s notice and ask for input and insight. And I know that you have that same thing. 

Baer-Harper: It’s true. Since you left, we have been calling each other at least several times a week, if not every day. 

If somebody asked us for a roadmap for a mindful transition, for me, it comes down to three things. The first thing I would recommend is that the outgoing head and the incoming head talk about the values of the school and find ways to demonstrate and model those shared values to the school’s community so that trust and relationship-building can start before the new school year. 

After that, I would want people to think about those shared priorities as a school. With members of the executive leadership and support team and teachers, you can start identifying the shared priorities, which also helps build those relationships because you’re all speaking a common language. 

That last point you just raised is part three. Just because the three-month transition is over doesn’t mean we stop talking to each other. To the contrary, we want to keep supporting each other as we’re implementing some of these best practices in our own communities. I know that we’ll be collaborating for many years to come.

Weber: Those three elements underpin the heart of what we do and that’s servant leadership, leading with a purpose, and leading with care. Even though now I’m head of school at Dallas International School, I still take great pride in the success of Austin International School and knowing that the school is in fantastic hands. 

Baer-Harper: I know how much that school means to you, and I feel honored to take the reins. Thank you so much for everything, and I’ll probably call you again tomorrow.  

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