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.