Spill on Aisle 3

Effective communication between head of school and board chair is essential for a healthy school. The partnership must be both trusting and open, and the “heads up” communication in the sweet spot—neither too much nor too little. Finding that sweet spot is a matter of relationship and partnership-building early in the tenure of the board chair. How hard could that be?

Turns out that miscommunication or too much/too little communication is often found at the heart of independent school problems. How was the board caught unawares of litigious parent in third grade? How does the head know that there is a trustee cabal amplifying parent concerns or that the finance committee chair is going through a particularly difficult divorce?  

How does the board know that there will be unusually high faculty turnover this year or a problematic gender imbalance in the incoming kindergarten? 

Seasoned heads and savvy board chairs can keep each other informed and make mutual decisions about what needs to be shared with the full board, what merits special note in the school newsletter or how the board can manage rumor control. Most often communication takes the form of a simple “spill in aisle 3” heads up. The head of school can reassure the board chair that the “spill” is being cleaned up; it’s unlikely that anyone will slip and fall. If the “unlikely” happens, the head will reach out to the board chair and they’ll talk over any follow-up and/or communications necessary. On occasion, this will require the board chair send a “heads up” note to the full board.  

The communication styles of the head and the board chair are critical. Is your board chair out of town often? Do you have a back-up plan? Have you created a baseline cadence for your communication? Once a week by phone as you commute? Once a month in-person? Once you’ve agreed upon the amount of communication, then you can talk through the way the board chair and you would like to handle the flow of information.  

I remember working with a beloved board chair who tended to put her foot on the brakes exactly as I was putting my foot on the accelerator. We agreed this was not a great way to drive a car and developed an explicit understanding that a worrywart and a blithe optimist might need to temper one another’s “go to” communication modes in order to keep the “car” moving safely down the road. We ended up as a perfectly complementary pair of leaders, navigating the school through a complex multi-year fund-raising and building project with challenges far greater than a “spill in aisle 3”!  

Trustees and school leaders must make sure the funnel of information is neither too constricted nor too broad and that the heads monthly report to the board doesn’t tip too heavily toward the good news and away from the areas of struggle. Boards can quite easily slip into operational matters when inadequate communication from board chair and head of school fail to reassure trustees that the school staff is handling matters efficiently and effectively. 

Lastly, the board chair and head need a specific crisis communications plan, with chosen backups if either is unavailable as the crisis breaks. Sadly, I do not know a single head of school who has not had to manage illnesses and deaths within the school community, thorny disciplinary matters, fires, floods or tornados, and any number of sudden, scary events. Crisis communications training is a must, as well as board chair/head of school “drills” on producing accurate, timely information to the full community.  

The communication flow between board chair and head of school requires knowing which communications tool to use and when to use it. Does this conflict require transparency or discretion? A full backstory or a quick update? For changes that are sure to roil certain constituencies in the school, perhaps “early and often” is the best communications advice. Knowing the difference between a “spill in aisle 3” and a red hot personnel decision with threats of litigation is what marks a thoughtful and effective communicative relationship between board chairs and heads of school.