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?

By the way, heads may be equally surprised by this idea.  One head I know recently said, “I like the idea of support, though in my personal life I usually think of it as help for an area of weakness.  I don’t really want that kind of attention from my board.”  I loved this comment.  For one thing, it made me realize that in my time as head of school, I wanted (and most often got) just the opposite: attention from my board in my areas of strength.  This can be quite energizing, of course.  And isn’t this where we’d expect to get the most forward motion?

Frankly, surprise is understandable, especially since in many schools governance culture has relied on having the head at the center, motivating and empowering and sometimes even directing the board.  There are many disadvantages to this model.*  Just to name two, it’s an efficient way to prematurely wear out a head.  And second, it forfeits the key opportunity of having a full strategic partnership between board and head. 

The literature on governance is very clear in pointing out that rapid turnover in the headship is hard on schools (Bassett, 2010).  Some say, in fact, that schools start getting the best return on their investment in a head between years 8 and 15 (Littleford, 2005) and yet many heads don’t stay that long.  In my own conversations with heads, one of the reasons I most often hear is burnout at the top – caused by overwork, a feeling that one has to carry the entire institution on one’s shoulders, and sometimes lack of partnership with or appreciation from boards.

With these thoughts in mind, perhaps the best reasons for nurturing and supporting your head are:
1.     To build optimal professional development into the head’s job (in short order accruing benefit to the school)
2.     To prolong the productive span of the headship
3.     To build trust in the board-head partnership -- always important but crucial if hard decisions or big changes are ahead
4.     To enhance the joint board-head productivity picture

What, you might ask, are some concrete ways boards have found to nurture and support their heads?  Here’s a partial list from my recent experience, ranging from ideas that are easily affordable to more expensive options:
·      Ask your head what he would like in terms of support and nurturing.
·      Make time to build the relationship.
·      Do an annual evaluation of your head and then publicly affirm the great job she’s doing, highlighting specific accomplishments as well as your enthusiasm for future endeavors.
·      Notice the great job your head is doing and share your appreciation directly, face-to-face.
·      Check in with your head about the number of hours he works each week and, if the total is unsustainable, figuring out how to reduce those hours together.
·      Develop a board culture that operates effectively on all three levels: fiduciary, strategic, and generative.
·      Educate and re-educate board members about their roles and boundaries.
·      Preserve the head’s capital by planning ahead for controversial or difficult decisions; as board and head, share community splash-back if you can.
·      Make sure your head has a well-funded budget for her own professional development separate from the faculty development line.
·      Arrange for a partial or full sabbatical year.

*BTW, the opposite model, where the board is calling the shots and the head isn’t fully functioning at the strategic level, doesn’t work any better -- and may result in the same rapid turnover in the head’s office.

Littleford, John.  “The Longevity of Heads and the Effectiveness of Schools,” Littleford and Assoc. Website, Feb. 2005.
Bassett, Pat.  “Assuring Healthy Schools,” Independent School Magazine, Summer 2010.

To hear Pat Bassett's thoughts on this topic from a recent Trustee U video, click here.

Your thoughts?  I invite you to share them, using the comment box below.

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