School SPANX?

By, Amanda Riegel, Excelle Director

A former search consultant and current independent school board chair, Amanda is the founding Director of Excelle—an innovative leadership collective for women who are currently heading independent schools and those who aspire to that role. Excelle is a program of EXPLO Elevate. 

In the fast-paced world of social media, women are bombarded by inspirational stories of female entrepreneurs in their forties who have “made it,” defying their naysayers and trusting their instincts to create what people need and want.

Consider the story of billionaire entrepreneur Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, an innovative shape-wear company that continues to produce products that reflect the needs of the contemporary woman. One needs only to follow her on Instagram to get a taste of her charismatic charm and uncompromising belief in persistence and self-reliance. She posts regularly about being a female CEO, mother, wife, and friend. Candid and honest, she does not expect perfection from herself or others. She notes, “I’m not fear-less, because I’m scared of many things. I’m courageous.”

As a female professional in my forties who has devoted most of her life to working in independent schools and who also has the entrepreneurial “bug,” I often wonder why women in education do not seem to feel similarly emboldened to take professional leaps.

Specifically, I’m puzzled by the number of mid-career females who appear ready to head a school and yet, when recruited, decline the opportunity citing, “The timing is not right.”

There is no shortage of bright and capable women who would be successful if they were to assume the role, but often something holds them back.

Furthermore, the challenges that existed before the pandemic in recruiting and retaining exceptional talent have only heightened, and those hurdles have become more pronounced for women who represent such a small percentage of headship. The head of school role is a solitary practice, leaving many women without a close support network exactly at the moments when they need it most.

Having been involved in numerous head of school searches as a consultant, talking with dozens of aspiring and sitting heads, and serving as a current Board Chair, I see consistent themes for women in leadership, particularly related to their transition into headship.

To be clear, schools must be realistic about their expectations for what the role of head should entail, examining their own cultures to look for vulnerabilities that might inhibit women from pursuing leadership roles, particularly in following a male head.

The school must have a nuanced understanding of social capital, making strategic connections, and communicating social norms to set up a new head for success.

While the school bears this important responsibility, the more essential preparation has to do with the social and emotional support that women feel surrounding the role. Do I find genuine connection with members of the community with whom I work? Does my Board Chair understand and respect my personal and professional limits? Is there symmetry between my internal and external persona? If women are able to feel comfortable with the answers to these questions, they can lead with authenticity, confidence, and joy.

Enter Excelle, an innovative leadership collective for women who are currently heading independent schools and those who aspire to that role.

Participation in a collective of similarly positioned women will provide the personal and professional self-care that female heads desperately need yet are too busy to create.

For those women who can imagine themselves as head of school but are not sure if the timing is right, I suggest you reflect honestly about what you will need to thrive. Heading an independent school is not easy. It puts a great deal of demand on its leaders. But you can take heart in knowing that many women before you have both succeeded in the position and talk about the work as the most rewarding work they’ve done. In each one of those cases, they’ve had a community pulling for their success and serving as a partner in myriad ways.

If you feel the tug toward headship, I encourage you to follow your instincts.

And if Excelle might help you on this journey, EXPRESS INTEREST HERE to receive additional information and updates.

The key is to believe in yourself. Or as Sara Blakely notes, “Invest in yourself to the point that it makes someone else want to invest in you.”