In step with Your Board

NAIS does excellent research on the state of our schools, our national and local marketplace, and the education landscape. Having followed Debra Wilson and read her weekly posts when she led SAIS, I know she will do an excellent job for NAIS and continue their good efforts to keep us apprised of all that is happening and what could happen in the school world. The best place to follow this research is in the NAIS Trendbook and I am always eager to read through it when it is published each fall.

What struck me this year in the Trendbook is something they described in Chapter 8: The Governance and Leadership Outlook. NAIS notes that school heads today are reporting declining support from their Boards. Perhaps this is not surprising given the polarization in society today, in our politics, in our DEI work, and in our understanding of the boundaries between what the school should teach versus what parents should teach at home. In the sometimes lonely work of being a school head, how can we work to build stronger ties and garner additional support from our Board? 

Having worked with ten different Board chairs in four different schools over 33 years as a head of school, I would suggest that there is nothing more important than establishing and maintaining good communication with every single Board member and on fostering transparency.  

Start with your Board Chair, and think of your Board Chair as your dance partner. Learn their tempo and create a sense of trust or ideally mutual admiration. Know when you should lead, and learn when they want to lead. Understand where they want to go, how fast they want to get there, and what rhythm they are comfortable with. All of my ten dance partners were very different leaders, each had their own style, and each of us had to continually learn new dance steps as we learned how best to move together. Don’t let there be any surprises. A healthy school must have its head and Chair in synch and moving harmoniously in the same direction. Try to understand the Chair’s motivation, the pressures they are feeling, and what they want from you. At the same time, be sure to share your own hopes and dreams, both for the school you each hold dear, and also for yourself. If you do not advocate for yourself with the Chair, who will?

Just as we are encouraging students today to talk about “consent,” make consent part of your regular conversation with your Board Chair. Ask, “would you be comfortable if I …”  

You as the head are, of course, charged to make all personnel decisions, but still it is always good to keep your Chair informed about anything that could become the topic of community conversation. “Mr. X is a beloved long term faculty member, but his reviews have surfaced some major concerns and despite the possible backlash, I believe we must…” Use your time with your Chair to get consent, to lay out your plans, and to get feedback, not so much on the decision, but on the best way and the best timing to implement that decision. Be fully transparent with your Chair and let the Chair know when and how you will need their support. 

I assume that every head has weekly or every other week meetings with their Chair, but do not forget to maintain good communication with each one of your trustees. Create an opportunity to call or meet individually with as many trustees as you can between Board meetings or at least once a quarter. Ask them to come join you for lunch at school. Ask for their advice on something you are working on, run something by them in the same way you would with your Chair. Go find trustees when you know they will be on campus. If you are about to make a decision that you know a particular trustee will be unhappy about, call them to explain your reasoning. They may not agree with your decision but they will appreciate the call and the advance notice. Board cultivation takes a great deal of time, but if you do not put in the time, you are unlikely to get the support that is so vitally important for the school’s and for your own success.

Allow me to share an anecdote that gets to the importance of good communication and sharing concerns with your Chair. In one of my schools, I learned that a new trustee had taken it upon himself to interview parents and even some faculty members about a particular school issue he was concerned about. I mentioned this to my Chair who met with the Trustee, told him that his actions were inappropriate, that he was out of bounds, and that he could either desist or resign. He resigned shortly thereafter, and I have seldom ever felt so well supported. 

Board support is a two-way street. You have to give to get! Certainly there are a myriad of other important tasks you must take on to run a successful school, but if you want to be supported by your Board, you need to cultivate trust and build relationships with every single member of your Board. Neglect to do so at your own peril.