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.

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