Math Teacher to Students: “Hey, folks, it’s not me against you; it’s us against Algebra II.”
A staple of board-head relationships is the establishment of the head’s annual goals. In the typical scenario, the head reflects on the past year, revisits the strategic plan, notes any specific problems from the prior year, and formulates a set of goals to be presented to the leadership of the board. The goals are refined with board input. Board and head are now on the same page with a shared understanding of how the head will focus her time in the coming year. The trustees can feel confident that there is now a set of criteria to evaluate the head’s performance. “Best practices” win the day!
It sounds logical, efficient; it’s what most schools do. But too often it is also an unwitting conspirator in keeping schools stuck in perpetual motion with no real advancement. In theory, it looks great; in execution, it is a dangerous distraction. It’s time to jettison this useless relic from the 20th century. Its continued use provides a window into the pitfalls of the board-head relationship—both as a symptom and a cause.
Here’s my take on this over-hyped, poorly executed management instrument.
1. A few years back I asked one of the most highly regarded insurance executives in the world why he was successful. His answer: “I know the business.” Implicit in this answer is a knowledge of the levers that need to be pulled to bring about desired change. In other words, he did not separate the formulation of aspirations from his deep knowledge about what could and could not be changed. I am astounded by the annual goals some boards place on their heads—raise enrollment in a year, stronger college placement in a year, a surplus in a year. These all represent results from investments that should have been made several years earlier. Trustees should know better. What business start-up would develop a plan that required no investment in anticipation of big returns? And the return has to be realized on a predetermined schedule—a year. But the problem also lies with the head who does not take the time to teach the board about the segment of the school operation under consideration and the possible levers and consequences of pulling them. So instead of having real discussions that lead to deep insight about potential gains and sacrifices of strategic moves, the leadership plays silly games of unrealistic expectations and then points fingers when the goals are not met (Board: “We are holding the head accountable,” and Head: “They just don’t get it.”).
2. A new head’s trustee executive committee insists that she establish annual goals that can be measured to determine the degree to which they were achieved. “How else will we know if the goals have been achieved?” One metric tracked attrition, to be sure, one of the most important measures of the strength of the value proposition. But improvement in attrition statistics requires research, reflection, and time. Why are students leaving? What were family expectations when they first enrolled their children? Is there alignment between what the admissions office says the school is and what students experience? Is the school fulfilling its promise to families? How do we address the key issues? One school lowered its attrition from 13% to 4% over a ten-year period. But consider the systemic actions it took to achieve this goal:
• Raised teacher salaries and hired better teachers
• Clarified what outstanding teaching looks like and held teachers to that standard
• Beefed up the advisor program
• Expanded special programs
• Strengthened the athletics program
• Added an additional college counselor to enhance personal attention
• Introduced individualized upper school course counseling that included both student and parents
• Improved facilities
Most of these efforts took multiple years to brainstorm and implement, the result of hard work and imagination. The intent was clear—strengthen the value proposition and create compelling reasons for students to stay. In light of these actions that took place over multiple years, it seems absurd for a board to ask a head to reduce attrition in one year. Rod Snelling, the founder of Independent School Management, often told boards that the most important stakeholder group the board is serving is students five years from now. But boards don’t know that they need to take the long view because heads have not educated them. Annual goal setting reinforces the short-term mindset. Heads must do a better job of showing boards what meaningful change looks like and how long it takes. If heads want boards “to get it,” they have to educate them about the realistic pace of change and the expectation of results. Planting the seeds does not mean that a plant will appear the next day.
3. The way in which trustees are selected lacks thought and intentionality and serves to encourage superficial management tools like annual goals. The system for recruiting trustees is akin to “pin the tail on the donkey.” High functioning boards are filled with trustees who are bringing their individual expertise to the table to help add value to the school. Expertise in facilities, non-profit finance, fundraising, investment management, DEI, local government agencies—all of these create potential for trustees to add value to the school. In the absence of thoughtfully recruiting trustees with appropriate expertise, a board runs the real risk of having a lot of people on the governing board who have no idea what they are doing but have ultimate power. Needless to say, this is a dangerous situation, but I daresay common among independent school boards. Lacking opportunities to use their expertise to advance the school but also wanting to contribute, trustees revert to their familiar playbooks—accountability, metrics, oversight—all of which can be laudable but only in the context of deep learning by trustees. This is not just the board’s fault; heads bare significant responsibility 1) by not developing and using political capital to influence who gets on the board and how they are used, and 2) as stated above, by failing to educate trustees about the complexity of change.
There’s a better way. It begins with eliminating annual goals for the head, a tool often thinly disguised as a way to “manage” the head and help the board feel like it is doing something. Instead, the head and board should establish multi-year shared goals with an emphasis on investments at the beginning of the process and metrics at the end. When the school is in the investment stage, the metrics will take a backseat to the scope and logic driving the implementation initiatives. The evaluation of both head and board in this early stage will be rooted in the quality and quantity of the investments made. Only later will the metrics be useful in determining if the strategic bet paid off. But the real point is to change the horizon and to have both board and head share in the establishment of strategy and its implementation. By focusing on shared responsibility and a longer time frame, the board and head are creating a partnership, which in turn, aligns the learning process (which informs strategy) with the intended long-term goal.
What can heads do to encourage this approach to goal-setting?
1. Don’t avoid the hard challenges. Lean into them; name them. Just this simple posture will often help the board see that the head is serious about change;
2. Educate the board about the complexity of change and specifically, the trade-offs that come with change. Almost every board meeting should have some time allocated to trustee’s learning about some aspect of the school operation. Too many heads either assume that trustees should fully trust the head’s judgment or that trustees fully understand the operations of an independent school. Both assumptions are wrong; both serve to keep the school in the quagmire;
3. Create a sense of urgency despite the longer time frame. This urgency signals to the board, administration, and faculty that the school is serious about achieving the desired results and that establishing a longer window of time is not simply a prelude to putting the goals on a shelf and forgetting about them. Great heads communicate this urgency while at the same time, refusing to forego deep learning.
Systems shape behavior. Changing the time frame and nature of goal-setting will change perspective and lead to the development of real strategy that truly addresses the school’s challenges. Instruments that have the unintended consequence of bypassing deep learning and the subsequent development of effective strategy are not just impotent; they keep independent schools stuck in a 20th century management mindset: control instead of collaboration, superficial understanding instead of deep learning, and quick fixes instead of long-term sustainable change. We can do better.