Monday, January 6, 2014

Board Chair/Head Relationship 101: Trust, Respect, No Surprises!

By Barbara Kraus-Blackney, Executive Director
Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools (ADVIS)
Bryn Mawr, PA

At ADVIS’s annual Board Chair-Head of School Dinner program last spring, we separated heads and board chairs into small groups that brainstormed the following questions (among others):
  • What words describe what you expect from your head or board chair?
  • List those words that describe what you think your head or board chair expects from you.
A comparison of actual expectations versus perception of expectations is illuminating (see insets).

What Board Chairs Expect of Heads
Interestingly, words such as trust, integrity, and honesty are the only commonality on all four lists; i.e. the expectation of this personal characteristic in the relationship is among the most important real and perceived expectations by both heads and board chairs of one another.

What Heads Expect of Board Chairs
Respect was also mentioned in response to almost every question. This bodes well in that these expectations are mutual and shared, but also speaks volumes to the crisis that can develop if trust and respect are not established, or trust is betrayed, on either side of the head/board chair equation.

What Board Chairs Think Heads SHOULD Expect
The frequent citing of trust and respect goes hand in hand with a study ADVIS conducted in partnership with Strategy for Growth, LLC, in 2012. We surveyed board chairs and heads from all 133 of our schools and a small cohort sat for more extensive interviews. The results were clear: The quality of the board chair/head relationship is paramount in many ways, including to job satisfaction (for both the head and chair).

What Heads Think Board Chairs SHOULD Expect
Not surprisingly, the impact goes well beyond job satisfaction, to performance and the long-term health, vitality, and viability of the school. One head said: “My relationship with my chair sets the tone for my relationship with the board. That’s my foundation. If I have a board meeting that doesn’t feel good, the energy and solidity and confidence I carry into school is impacted. The energy I carry into the hall, in meetings, in my willingness to be ambitious, to think about what’s possible, is affected. I can use it to move the school forward or I can feel I’m in quicksand.”

Chairs rightly perceive that heads desire and need constructive and supportive feedback from them regarding difficult situations that inevitably arise within life at a school. Heads indicate this need with their choice of words such as perspective, partner, trust, honesty and understanding. The headship can be a lonely, difficult job at times, and a trusted partner with objective perspective, who can maintain confidentiality and serve as a sounding board to brainstorm about sensitive situations, can be a critical key to the sustainability of the head.

Heads expect and need their board chair to be a partner in another critical way: the strategic leadership and visionary governance of the school. Vision and leadership were among the most frequently mentioned words that heads think their chairs should expect of them; interestingly these word were not top of mind for the chair’s expectations of the head, though strategic and forward-thinking were mentioned.

When we asked heads, “What one thing can your board chair do to support you as head?” the most frequent responses were:
  • Respect head’s time and family
  • Bring in the donors
  • Establish an effective working partnership
  • Run interference (with the rogue trustee, parent, employee)
  • Show gratitude, public support, and appreciation
  • Stay ahead of the board
  • Don’t micromanage; maintain proper level of involvement (not too much/too little)
The last set of questions considered by the small groups generated a near unanimous response. The questions:
  • “What do heads do that upsets chairs?”
  • “What do chairs do that upsets heads?”,
  • “What one thing can your head do to help you better manage and lead the board?”
The answer, board chairs and heads alike agree: The #1 rule is “No surprises!”

Barbara Kraus-Blackney has served as Executive Director of ADVIS since 1999. ADVIS works to support and strengthen its members through professional development for school leaders and advocacy for independent education and its 133 member schools in PA, NJ, MD and DE, which educate 48,000 students in the Greater Philadelphia region.

Friday, March 29, 2013


It’s often said that the relationship between the Board Chair and the Head is the most important relationship in the school. Popular wisdom holds that when Head and Chair can’t find a way to see eye-to-eye, negative repercussions are felt in many corners -- and that, conversely, a great collaboration makes big successes possible.

But are these things true?  To find out more about the dynamics involved, last spring ADVIS and I invited Heads and Chairs to be part of a research project on the subject.  In this study, I intended to focus on 3 main questions:
  • What makes for great head-chair relationships?
  • Do great relationships enhance productivity?
  • What happens when relationships aren't so good? 

In the first stage of the process, 15 Heads and Chairs generously offered an hour or so of their time for preliminary interviews on this subject.  When you’re a researcher and even the first preliminary data is fascinating, you know you’ve hit pay dirt.

What did I hear?

First, both Heads and Chairs in my sample of 15 were uniformly clear that the quality of this relationship mattered a great deal.  For one thing, it made a big difference in comfort and job satisfaction. One Chair, who had worked with several Heads over the years said:
            This is my best relationship without a doubt…  We’ve both said it makes our jobs 
            a lot easier…  This is huge for me.

This was intriguing, to say the least.  We all want a high quality of satisfaction in our work life (and this is certainly high-level work for both the Head and the Chair, even though only one of them receives a paycheck).  

But, going further, did the relationship make a difference beyond job satisfaction?  Did it help either the Head or the Chair (or both) perform at more effective or productive levels in their respective jobs?

The experience of one relatively new Head definitely pointed in that direction:
My relationship with my Chair sets the tone for my relationship with the Board.  That’s my foundation.  If I have a Board meeting that doesn’t feel good, the energy and solidity and confidence I carry into school is impacted.  The energy I carry into the hall, in meetings, in my willingness to be ambitious, to think about what’s possible, is affected.  I can use it to move the school forward or I can feel I’m in quicksand. 

Also important, I heard that this relationship may not always be easy.  An experienced Head described a relationship that was the most “thorny” out of the half dozen chairs he’d worked with.  In fact, perhaps it started out too thorny, maybe involving an over-balance of criticism, but improved somewhat over time:
The stress level was up on me – but how to sort it out?  He was a messenger of judgment.  We needed to hear it.  He’s learned to show public appreciation to me.  He’s learned how to be a board chair.

Indeed, both Heads and Chairs shared that tense relationships could be very costly, at times.  From both sides, I heard sobering reports of:
·      Loss of sleep
·      Weight loss/gain
·      Constant worry, wasting time looking over one’s shoulder
·      Chest pains
·      Loss of pleasure in other areas of one’s life
·      Irritability
·      Loss of confidence
·      … and more

In sum, these 15 Heads and Chairs raised my curiosity enormously: What more could we learn? 

In the next entry, I’ll start outlining the rich information produced in the second phase of this research project.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


For many Heads, the concept of working in full, equal partnership with their school’s Board is a fairly new one.  Until recently, many Heads have chosen between three models for this relationship (Drucker, 1990; Herman & Heimovics, 1991; Price, 2005).  From the Head’s point of view, the models might sound like this:
  1. The Board’s in charge; I take my marching orders from them.
  2. I want the Board to think they're in charge -- but they're not really up to the challenge.  I'll have to manipulate things behind the scenes to get the outcomes we need.
  3. We need a competent board.  I'll have to take responsibility for their development so they can be effective.

Certainly, the third option offers the best possibility for long-term success.  However, it still leaves the school in a position of great vulnerability.  If it’s up to the Head to set Board development in motion, what if the Head moves on or retires?  What if the Head's attention is taken up by a capital campaign or other project?  Unfortunately, many of us know these pitfalls all too well.

If we check the Friends Council on Education’s Principles of Good Practice (2005), the 5th principle stipulates that Board development is the Board’s responsibility, not the Head’s:
The Board concerns itself with its own development and well functioning.

Responsibility is further outlined in the 12th and final principle in NAIS’ Principles of Good Practice (2012):
The Board is committed to a program of professional development that includes annual new trustee orientation, ongoing trustee education and evaluation, and board leadership succession planning.

Let’s agree: the Board is responsible for its own development.  But who has responsibility for this on the Board and where do they start?

Board development is the core responsibility of the Governance Committee (also called the Membership or Trustee Committee), which is charged with:
  • Making sure that sufficient numbers of trustees with strategically-targeted skills are recruited for membership
  • Providing an annual orientation for new members
  • Creating a plan for training throughout the year, so that all members will be able to actively engage in strategic initiatives
  •  Monitoring the quality of Board meetings and planning improvements, always needed
  • Structuring succession planning for both the Board and the Head
  • Organizing end-of-year evaluations for the Head, Chair, Board, committees, and individual trustees

For full partnership – the 4th option -- a high level of independent development is required for both the Head and the Board. 

Stay tuned: In the next entry we’ll talk about interdependence.


Drucker, P.F. (1990).  Managing the non-profit organization: Principles and practices.  New York: HarperCollins.

Friends Council on Education.  (2005).  Principles of Good Practice for Friends School Boards and Every Friends School Trustee.  Philadelphia: FCE.

Herman, R.D., & Heimovics, R.D. (1991).  Executive leadership in nonprofit organizations: New strategies for shaping executive-board dynamics.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Association of Independent Schools.  (2012).  Principles of Good Practice: Board of Trustees.  Washington, DC: NAIS.

Price, T.  Experienced School Heads and Their Work with Trustees. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2005).  ProQuest.  Paper AAI3168040.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Have you already registered for Trustee U’s winter online course, starting January 15th?

You won’t want to miss it.  

Can't attend all the sessions live?  No matter!  The recordings are available to registered schools 24/7.

The upcoming 3 sessions will be expertly moderated by Marc Frankel and Judy Schechtman of Triangle Associates.  Below, Marc gives us a preview of the course’s crucial content.

From Marc Frankel:

Boards of trustees have an obligation to ensure the long-term financial well-being of their institutions -- for their children's children, as the saying goes.  And there’s a new urgency to this obligation, deriving from an increasing awareness in the independent school world that our long-term trend of increasing tuition well beyond inflation is unsustainable.

This obligation accrues not just to strategic planners or members of the finance committee, but to each and every individual board member, regardless of prior interest or literacy about matters of money.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Are you curious how your board stacks up on the crucial roles and responsibilities of trusteeship?  A great way for trustees to find out, together, is to take a walk through Friends Council’s or NAIS’ Principles of Good Practice. 

Over the years I’ve noticed one particular principle that often raises eyebrows, good questions, and rich insights.  In the Friends Council version, it’s this one:

            The Relationship with the Head
The Board selects, nurtures, supports and evaluates the head.  It contracts with the head and sets the head’s compensation.

In follow-up discussions, trustees often voice a range of surprised reactions:
·      Support our head?  No, actually, she supports us!
·      We haven’t thought about this before.  Why is it important?
·      This is one of our board goals – but now we notice we don’t have a single specific action step for doing it.  Are we providing any real support at all?

Friday, November 2, 2012


Dear Readers,
From time to time we’ll enjoy the contribution of a guest blogger on the Trustee U page.  Today I’m delighted to present Debra Wilson, Legal Counsel at NAIS and featured speaker on our most recent Trustee U video podcast, entitled #1 Legal Issue for Schools: Student Safety.

In this blog, Debra Wilson highlights the importance of addressing student safety at the fiduciary level, as well as the need for maintaining our proper roles and responsibilities in the partnership between board and administration.  

Please feel free to add your thoughts and questions in the Comments section at the bottom of this page.

Debra Wilson, Legal Counsel at NAIS, writes:

It has been a little over a year since the facts of the Penn State sex abuse scandal broke. Since then, as often happens when a high profile case of this nature breaks, the news has been filled with more victims and institutions coming forward with facts and allegations about other instances of sexual abuse of minors. The independent school world has not been insulated from these troubling events. Sadly, there are almost no child related industries that have not been scarred by similar stories over time.

Many schools have been overwhelmed by even the idea that students in their care could be preyed on by the very people who should be taking the most care with our vulnerable charges. Many trustees are concerned, but they also don’t want to step too far over the line into school management territory. While the school leadership is the group to research and implement best practices and policies in this area, trustees have two important roles in the steps that schools need to take.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Last week a trustee at one of our schools voiced a familiar dissatisfaction, “Generative thinking.  I like the idea, but the whole thing’s too abstract.  What are some concrete ways to DO it?”

Want to hear my favorite recent example?

Last year at a PreK-8 school in our network, ideas were percolating for long range planning.  The school had acquired an adjacent property, though its current tenants wouldn’t vacate for many years.  That left time to consider what Pat Bassett calls “blue sky” options. 

How to do this well?  At a Governance Committee meeting, the chair mentioned that he’d just been reading Governance as Leadership (Chait, Ryan, and Taylor, 2005) and wanted to try out a suggestion from the book. “Let’s do something that brings lessons from our history