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The Conversation Every Board Chair Should Have With a New Trustee

Board Chair: Jill, we’re so pleased you have accepted our invitation to join the Board of Trustees. We believe our Board plays a vital role in the success of the school in obvious and not so obvious ways, in what we do and what we don’t do, and most importantly, in our unswerving commitment to the mission of the school. I want to speak with you about the ways you can contribute to the school’s success and not unimportantly, how trustees with the best of intentions sometimes do more harm than good.

: I’m so excited to join the Board. As you know, I have three children at the school, so I am heavily invested in its success. I want the best education for my three daughters and being able to play a role in the success of their school means a great deal to me.

Board Chair
: I had the same set of expectations when I first joined the Board. This is such a great way to help my children reach their potential. And to be sure, there is nothing wrong with this perspective. We all want the best for our children. But thankfully, during a similar meeting with the previous Board Chair, I was made aware of the much larger responsibility I have as a trustee. My work is focused not just on my child but on all the students at our school as well as the school’s financial sustainability and reputation, both of which impact its capacity to serve future generations of students and families. 

: So, what you’re saying is that in my role as trustee, my children have no special status? 

Board Chair
: Exactly. This is a perfect segue into our relationship to the administration and specifically, the head of school. As you may realize, being a head of an independent school is incredibly difficult. Multiple stakeholders with varying perspectives and agendas, parents who may disagree with an administrative decision, alumni who want a return to the “good old days,” and major donors who often have their own specific agendas. Effective heads are not simply acting as CEOs; they are also pastors, healers, politicians, financial experts, strategists, fundraisers, marketers, relationship builders, and more. They are the public face of the school and as such, are always “on.” 

Our job as trustees is not to tell the head what to do because inevitably that command will be riddled with flaws that arise out of our limited perspective and our own biases. In addition, as a trustee, you will undoubtedly hear from your friends about aspects of the school they don’t like. Your job is to direct those parents to the appropriate administrators. We don’t have the expertise, nor the judgment to intervene in these issues. Remember a few years ago when there were parent complaints about the ninth grade veteran history teacher?  

: How can I forget? I heard from my friends, even people I didn’t know. 

Board Chair
: What you probably didn’t know is that the alumni on the Board were fiercely loyal to this teacher; they remembered him as one of the best teachers they had ever had. And you probably didn’t know that the administration was working diligently with this teacher to upgrade his performance. The administration determined that although he was a hard grader, he was not unfair and he was slowly becoming less rigid. Two of the supportive alums on the Board were potential lead donors for the upcoming campaign. The administration decided to continue working with the teacher. I don’t know if that was the right call, but I do know that it fell into the grey category in which multiple perspectives had to be taken into account. For the board to interfere in those kinds of decisions undermines the power and credibility of the head and diminishes her capacity to add value to the school. Our Board believes fervently that a strong head of school is critical for the success of our school. We made it clear to the head that this was her decision and that she had our support. 

Ok, I get that. But does this mean that the head can do whatever she wants with no consequences? How does the Board hold the head accountable? 

Board Chair
: Great question! Our search consultant talked to the entire Board a few years ago about this very topic. According to him, the failure of our last head was, in part, due to the absence of a well-designed evaluation procedure that focused not only on accountability, but also on the growth and learning of the head. The consultant stressed the need to put accountability in the context of the head’s growth and to make head evaluation, support, and growth one of the top on-going priorities of the Board. So, we scrapped the short checkbox evaluation form and instead created the Head Growth, Support and Evaluation Committee, a standing committee that focuses solely on this critical aspect of the school’s operation. The chair of this committee is chosen carefully. He or she is a person with superb communication skills, unafraid to lean into difficult conversations but also able to partner with the head to identify growth edges and support the head with appropriate professional development. We now conduct a formal evaluation of the head every other year, using a 360 approach as well as a detailed analysis of the degree to which the head has achieved her goals. 

: I heard that trustees are expected to give money. Can you clarify the Board’s expectations about giving? 

Board Chair
: Philanthropy is a big part of being a trustee of an independent school. Without additional funds over and above tuition dollars, our school cannot provide the breadth and depth of program that it presently does. The Board must be the philanthropic leader for all fundraising efforts. This includes the annual fund, the auction and our future capital campaign. Each trustee, of course, must give based on her means, but the rule of thumb we use is that the school should be one of the top two or three priorities in your giving. So, as you think about your charitable giving each year, keep this in mind. Also know that your giving capacity was not the sole reason for us asking you to join the Board.  

: Why else was I chosen to be on the Board? 

Board Chair
: Your connection to the local government and specifically your knowledge of the permitting process was a major reason. It’s true we don’t have any building plans at the moment, but we anticipate we will in a few years. Your expertise can be incredibly valuable as we plan for this project and work to obtain the necessary permits. Until then, the work of the Facilities Committee will be fairly routine. This is often the case with non-profit boards; there are periods when trustees’ expertise is tapped to help advance the school; there are other times when that expertise is not tapped based on Board priorities. What’s important to understand is that we don’t want trustees who lack expertise taking lead roles in making important decisions just because they have the power to do so. Remember what I said earlier—part of being an effective trustee sometimes revolves around what we don’t do or say.  

: Do I need to come to the trustee meetings if I am not contributing? 

Board Chair
: Absolutely! Although each committee looks at the school through a particular lens, their proposals intersect with the work of other committees. Thus, your deep knowledge of what we can and cannot build on our small campus may influence how the administration thinks about program or where we should invest surplus funds. In addition, we need the good judgment of all of our trustees; we need them to ask good questions and contribute to a deeper understanding of the topic under discussion. What we don’t need is for trustees to flex their muscles by virtue of being trustees rather than possessing expertise on the matter, exercising good judgment based on experience, or genuinely wanting to understand the issue at hand. This only serves to intimidate the administration, making the exercise of power the driver of action and not thoughtful research and discussion, ultimately rooted in what is best for the school.  

Jill: But what about the vision for the school and the strategic plan. Isn’t it the job of the Board to establish both of these?

Board Chair
: Definitely. But the initiative has to come from the head. We “stress test” her vision and her strategic thinking. We help shape and refine them. We ultimately approve them and work with the administration to achieve the goals. But it is unrealistic to think that we trustees can formulate a winning aspiration and strategies to attain that aspiration when most of us have full-time jobs that are quite demanding. We pay the head to add value to the school by helping it do a better job of living its mission. We pay the head to lead. As trustees, we are the supporting cast. It is her job to generate and initiate; it is our job to refine the proposals she brings to us, perhaps even to reject them and ask her to start all over. Our expertise in business, strategic thinking, organizational structure, management, facilities, and finance places us in a perfect position to evaluate the head’s proposals. But we are not educators and therefore, should not be generating vision and strategy.

One last important point, Jill. The specific work of the Board needs to remain confidential, especially when it comes to controversial decisions. There may be decisions that the Board makes that you disagree with. That’s fine. What’s not fine is sharing your feelings with non-trustees. By doing so, you undermine the credibility and the reputation of the Board. 

: So, here’s what I have learned from our meeting today: 

    1. Be ready to contribute, especially in my area of expertise

    2. Have enough self-awareness not to speak when I know little about the subject 

    3. Ask questions; learn

    4. Best idea wins; don’t let my power as a trustee disrupt effective decision-making

    5. Help the head grow and learn; hold her accountable through effective growth-promoting evaluation 

    6. Let the head lead; don’t interfere with her administration of the school

    7. Make the school a top priority in my charitable giving

    8. Understand that there will be times when my expertise will be used extensively and times when it will lay dormant

    9. Understand that my work is for the benefit of all the students, not just mine

    10. Maintain the confidentiality of the Board; the Board speaks as one

    11. Above all else, support the mission of the school and its capacity to live that mission in the future; practice good stewardship 

Board Chair:
Well stated, Jill. Welcome to the Board of Trustees.