by Lynn Friedman, Ph.D.
From The Yield, Spring 2014
As the executive coach to the head of school of The Best Academy (TBA)*, I was privy to the head’s most confidential concerns. He was struggling with a conundrum. His admission director, Ms. Smith, had asked to be appointed to the leadership team. He wanted to tell her no, but he was concerned about potential litigation. The leadership team “just happens to be exclusively men,” he confided, adding, “I’m afraid she’ll make it a gender thing.”
“I hired her,” he added, “because people like her. She’s a good director of admission. But that’s all she is. Her request is preposterous and outrageous.” He sought my help to reason with her. He asked me to talk with her in order to learn more about her motivations and to help him navigate these perilous shoals, adding that she was eager to speak with me. I agreed.
Ms. Smith was, indeed, a very likeable woman. Also, she was smart, savvy, and socially adroit. With the tough economic times, enrollments elsewhere declined; at TBA they soared. A major leader in her religious organization, she headed up a highly successful capital campaign there. Beyond this, she was an active volunteer for the local chapter of the cancer association. She had relationships with all of their donors, large and small, and interacted socially with them on a regular basis.
When I asked her if the head was aware of these accomplishments, she said that she kept her personal life private. Well-wired with local realtors, she would reach out to newcomers even before they landed on local soil. When they asked her what she did, she proudly talked about the school and all that it had to offer. She routinely invited them to take tours of the school and offered them opportunities to contribute, even in small ways, to projects that synced up with their interests. It was not unusual for her to solicit donations informally from people who had no affiliation with the school, but whom she had sold on its educational mission.
She talked enthusiastically about the school, painting a picture of what sort of students might thrive there as well as what types might do better elsewhere. Thus, parents could get a pretty clear sense of whether their child was a good fit before actually applying.
Because she was gifted at making people feel welcome, they trusted her. When she recommended her school, she had credibility. Another of her talents was her verbal and written communication skill. All of the admission literature done under her watch showed TBA at its best.
After meeting with Ms. Smith, I told the head that I felt he should add her to the leadership team and groom her to be the director of development and outreach — and that he consider keeping admission under her purview.
But how did it happen that the head was so oblivious to the director of admission’s many talents? And, in light of his unfair and unfounded biases, how might she have dealt with him more effectively so that she could achieve her goals? Ms. Smith did a better job advocating for the school than for herself. Ideally, the head should take an interest in the professional development of all employees. Since this one doesn’t, Ms. Smith may need to seek out mentoring elsewhere.
Her first step might be to identify her own career goals. If she would like to be on the leadership team, she needs to spell out, clearly, how she might add value. In this case, it would have been useful for Ms. Smith to track her successes as director of admission and review them with the head on a monthly basis, pointing out that these applicants came through her various contacts in the community.
Similarly, she should keep the head apprised of her skills — those developed at the school, in the community service arena, and in coursework. In this case, her religion may be private, but she should showcase her track record in development. It is often difficult to recognize one’s own talents and strengths. However, many schools have resources for professional development which can be helpful. Also, it can be beneficial to attend workshops focused specifically on building one’s career.
*For reasons of confidentiality this case vignette is highly fictionalized.
Lynn Friedman, Ph.D. is a Washington, DC-based clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst in full-time private practice, with special expertise in executive coaching for school leaders. She is on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University. She welcomes calls and can be reached at: 301.656.9650. Her website: http://www.washington-dc-psychologist.com/independent-school-leaders-lynn-friedman.html