When Neeti and I shared our news that I’m moving to Mumbai in August and will coach, consult and advise Enabling Leadership for an initial commitment of ten months, almost no one among our friends and family were surprised that I’m doing something like this: The scale, the opportunity, the international relocation, or even the intentionality with which I’ve tried to set us up for this next step and whatever will come after it.
A few did ask, less surprised at the decision and simply curious, why not another headship? I’ve been a head of school for seven years now, I’ve had a largely successful run, I am on many boards, I facilitate workshops and mentor many aspiring leaders and new heads of school, I consult with Sesame Workshop, and I’ve published articles in independent school magazines and blogs. I’ve earned my success and my reputation, so why not choose another headship?
When we made our decision to leave TCS at the end of the 2019-20 school year, we’d intentionally chosen to leave the door open. Another headship was the obvious next step, and initially it seemed more likely than not that I’d land at another school, either in the United States or abroad. I also was open to other options, and I had time to not rush into anything.
As I often do with big decisions, I started calling my friends, former colleagues and mentors, and other guides in my life who’ve known me personally and professionally over the last two decades. Many conversations led to new contacts and that led to new meetings and new insights. I wanted to scale my reach and impact, but I couldn’t define or describe, yet, what that meant. Every person I talked to pushed me deeper into existing possibilities or in new directions. There were Atlanta-based nonprofits, executive search firms and consultants, strategic vision and design facilitators and firms, US-based schools and international schools, and international nonprofits. I wasn’t going to say no to any person who’d talk to me and any possible idea. Everything was on the table, and I wanted to learn.
On the school front, I was picky. Several mentors I talked to said some version of the following: “Nishant, the challenges are the same from one school to the next. The story’s the same; just the actors are different. I think you’re looking for a different challenge.” They were right. If I stayed in independent schools, I also wanted to make a difference at the systemic level. Private K-16 education is under threat from all sides, and too many research papers, articles, blog posts, podcasts, conference and workshop themes have been devoted for years now on the inefficacy and inability of schools and private universities to innovate on their business model. Many are trying but almost all of those attempts are really just tweaks of the existing model, not an overhaul or something new. Heads and university chancellors are also under stress, as are their boards, and the average tenure for those top positions has declined significantly in the last decade. The pipeline is drying up too, and the administrator next in line is increasingly saying no to the CEO/head job. Could I offer something that’d help more schools and more leaders simultaneously, instead of one school/one board/one community at a time? That made sense to me and I began to hone in on any option that’d enlarge my influence and impact in that direction.
There was one more factor that moved me away from a second headship at this time. I turn forty in June. I figure I have two to three decades more left to work. I’m in the middle of my career and if there were a time I could take a left turn, then this was it. I could use my experience and network from the last 19 years and channel, leverage and transfer all of it into something else. If I become a head now, I’m committed for at least 7-10 years. By then, I may not want to, or other industries may not want me, at least not in a leadership position where I could build from scratch my skill-set and network into something of the kind I currently have in independent schools.
When I’d float the adventure idea to others, they’d encourage me to do it. “This is the time, Nishant,” they’d say. “If you have the resources and the opportunity, don’t think about it too much. It will only add, not subtract, from who you are and what you can offer schools or education in the future. Many want to do something like what you’re considering but most don’t, either out of fear of failure or discomfort, lack of resources, or personal factors that limit their flexibility.” And, as I shared in an earlier post, doing Enabling Leadership for the next year or two wouldn’t close any options here or abroad in K-12 education.
The message became clear with each person and conversation: Ten months over the course of a lifetime is just a blip. However, the same ten months carries the potential for not just change but transformation. I didn’t want status quo for myself. I wanted to push myself, learn my limits and embrace the discomfort, for a while, of not knowing what to do or how to do it. There’s something about being new and being a novice at something that appeals to me, and I will be new at many things and a novice at almost all of it next year.
I feel drawn back to 2001 when I was 21, out of college and trying to figure out what I‘d do with the rest of my life. I wanted to teach but my parents, wiser than me, were afraid for me, and wanted to make sure I was making a smart decision. How’d I feed my family? How would I provide for them in ways that my parents had been able to provide for my brother and me? At the same time, some of my college friends were choosing consulting or finance jobs on Wall Street, and going to make a lot more money than I would in teaching. I told my parents then what I’m kind of telling myself now: “Give me two years. If I’m not (financially) independent or happy with teaching, I will do something else. But I need to do this right now.” It didn’t bother me that my friends would make more money doing something else; I was certain of what I needed to do and where I could have the biggest impact.
It’s not 2001 and I’m not 21 and single anymore. It’s the same decision, though. I’m giving myself ten months to start, and if I’m not happy or fulfilled, or I’m not successful at it, then I’ll do something else that I’m happy doing and I’m also good at. But this – whether you call it an adventure, sabbatical, fellowship, or the start of a second and new career – this is what I need to do right now.