Sudden Departures — How School Leaders Can Stem the Tide of Employee Attrition
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July of 2021, while the September 2021 issue of McKinsey Quarterly reported more than 19 million US workers have left their jobs since April of this year.
These are staggering numbers and independent schools have felt the sting of this alarming trend firsthand. In speaking with heads of schools, many report having numerous vacancies on their administrative teams, faculty and staff; with employees giving little to no notice before leaving. A rush of sudden departures occurred just prior to the start of the 2021–2022 school year, while others have transpired throughout the first semester.
Faced with these unexpected resignations, heads of school are left scrambling to fill positions…causing consternation within their schools and communities. Families feel the sting of departures acutely, especially when a teacher or coach that engages with their child everyday disappears from their lives. Some families may even scale up the problem and assume broader instability in the school even if no such trend exists.
Oftentimes, unexpected departures are the symptom of a deeper, more systemic problem within an organization. However, many employers are unwilling to spend the time and resources needed to learn why their people are leaving.
So how can school leaders address this rise in attrition?
First, we must be willing to delve more deeply into the root causes of employee attrition. Oftentimes, unexpected departures are the symptom of a deeper, more systemic problem within an organization. However, many employers are unwilling to spend the time and resources needed to learn why their people are leaving. Several organizations I work with simply say, “It’s the Great Resignation,” as if this absolves them of any direct responsibility for the problem. While this is indeed the current trend, schools and other organizations can take steps to stem the tide, if retaining high-quality employees is an institutional priority.
As school leaders plan for staffing next year, here are six key questions to consider:
1) How do you create a sense of community for your employees?
While monetary incentives are appreciated, most employees are looking for authentic connection. They want to feel part of something greater than themselves that aligns to their values and ideals. This is true in almost any industry, but is especially important for independent schools and similarly mission-driven organizations. Employee relationships are crucial. How do they collaborate with one another? What informal opportunities allow for them to connect? How does leadership foster a culture of trust and respect?
2) Are your rewards transactional?
Are you giving bonuses, raises or increased benefits to improve employee morale? If so, this will not be enough to entice top performers to stay. People need to feel valued and appreciated for their contributions. This does not mean a blanket statement to all 70 people during a staff meeting, congratulating them on a job well done. It means taking the time for one on one interactions; highlighting specific behaviors or actions that have positively impacted the organization.
3) Do you have a good understanding of what your employees need?
Recently, I’ve been coaching an administrator who has consistently asked for additional help on their team, only to receive this flippant response from the CFO — Why would we do that? The job is getting done. Why spend more money?” If your employees are giving 100%, but are stressed, anxious and not taking care of themselves, the answer should be obvious. Get them the help they need, listen to what they are telling you, and consider various resources that will address their stress and anxiety.
4) Do you have effective leaders and managers?
A bad leader and/or manager can be incredibly disruptive to a community. Are the individuals in charge of others doing their jobs and doing them well? It’s natural for employees to have, at times, conflicts with others in their organization. But if there is a pattern of negative behavior or performance, it must be addressed. Schools are notorious for keeping bad employees, even at the detriment to the overall community.
5) Are you practicing distributed leadership?
During the pandemic, many leaders found themselves making quicker than normal decisions out of necessity, without much input from stakeholders. This is often the case in a crisis situation. While we continue to face COVID- related challenges, many schools and organizations put policies into place to help mitigate these issues. There is now an opportunity for leaders to build capacity among their employees and engage in distributive leadership. Are people empowered to do their jobs, or is there distrust that keeps decision making at the top and leaves employees feeling powerless?
6) Are you meeting the needs of your underrepresented employees?
Attention to diversity, equity and inclusion is critical. Have you created a community where everyone feels safe, welcome and valued? If the answer is yes, how do you know? Early in my career, I spoke with a head of school and asked about the lived experiences of his faculty, staff and students of color. His response? Fine, I assume. Don’t assume, ask. Make sure that those most vulnerable in your community feel a part of it.
As a leader, meeting employee needs and preferences can be a challenge, especially as you engage with many different people with a range of perspectives. While it’s impossible to meet every individual need, it is important to understand what your community needs collectively. Don’t assume. The only way to know is to ask. Using tools such as a climate survey or employee satisfaction survey can help. Leaders who take the time to learn what their employees need and make changes accordingly will be the ones who see less attrition and retain the most talented employees in the long run.
Mission & Data, LLC specializes in supporting independent schools in developing or strengthening their mission-driven, data-informed decision making capacity. We coach and consult with school leaders and boards of trustees to make sense of the input, process, outcome, and satisfaction data that is available through existing channels and generate rich and generative new data sources such as stakeholder interviews and surveys. If you would like to know more about how Mission & Data, LLC can help your school, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jay Rapp is Mission & Data’s Senior Leadership Strategist and Executive Coach. Jay partners with clients to promote effective and impactful leadership practices, integrate values with actions, promote work-life balance and fulfillment, and maximize potential. A certified executive coach, completing a rigorous 18-month program from the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC), Jay also leverages his deep industry experience in mentoring independent school leaders at all stages of their career. Prior to joining Mission & Data, Jay spent the past 18 years at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), most recently as Vice President for Professional Development. He was instrumental in the growth and development of thousands of independent school leaders through the development and annual production of NAIS’s signature leadership development programs, including Institute for New Heads, Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads, and mid-career focused School Leadership Institute, and the head of school and board chair program Leadership through Partnership.