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.