The Board and Head Relationship

by Eric Cook

In my work with school leaders (especially Heads) and boards, there is a two-sided problem that I consistently observe.

First, Because the Head of School is responsible for “everything,” boards are not sure how to adequately evaluate their performance. Consequently, they sometimes create unwieldy, unrealistic evaluation tools that try to cover too much. Or, they make the process far too organic and anecdotal. Of course, sometimes boards just don’t evaluate the Head at all. If you are guilty of the latter, be prepared to find a new Head at any moment.

The other side of the same issue is that because Heads are responsible for “everything,” they too have a hard time narrowing their focus and figuring out how to add the greatest value to the school. So, they often scramble around doing the most urgent thing, being overly accommodating to people and issues, and probably feeling inadequate and unproductive most of the time.

Here are a few things every board and Head can do (collaboratively) to be more focused and evaluate the Head’s work more meaningfully:

1. Know your core competencies – Any leader is only really good at a handful of things. If you know what those things are (and you should), you can get laser focused on how you can be most productive and valuable to your school. You can and should orient your time, people, and priorities around these competencies and continue to develop them. Make sure you don’t spend too much time on tasks at which you will only ever be marginally proficient.

2. Know your context – Your priorities, beyond your core competencies, are often dictated by a handful of variables that dictate you provide more time, effort, and focus. If you are about to enter a capital campaign, know that your time and energies will have to go there and be content to say no to a bunch of other good things.

3. Define the essentials of the role – Every board should have a clear baseline of the skills, abilities, and character that every Head should be expected to do. Define what these are first (with the Head’s input) and then ensure they are being assessed annually.

4. Define a few critical strategic objectives for the school year. Your board should have a short list (3-5) of things that are most important to advancing the strategic plan. Then, provide support and accountability for your Head knowing that means you cannot start drumming up a bunch of other priorities along the way.

5. 360 – On a periodic basis, a thorough 360 should be done. I do these as a consultant and find them very powerful (when done well). It helps tremendously to have someone facilitate this process.

These are critical issues. Take them seriously and invest what it takes to develop, care for, and assess your school leaders!

Generative Thinking: The Most Important Work a Board Can Do

For several years, I have pushed every board I encounter to read the book, Governance as Leadership. It is not only an insightful read for best practices regarding governance, but it is particularly important because it also provides much needed historical context for how boards have become so complacent and ineffective over time. There are great questions and exercises included in the text which push boards to consider their purpose, effectiveness, and decision making processes. The author, Richard Chait, advocates for what he calls, “tri-modal governance.” The three modes of governance are called fiduciary, strategic, and generative.

The fiduciary mode is in view when the board exercises its legal responsibilities of oversight and stewardship. The second is the strategic mode, in which the board makes major decisions about resources, programs, and services. The third, and most important, is the “generative” mode, in which the board engages in deeper inquiry, exploring root causes, contemplating values, considering principled options, and weighing new ideas in the view of the school’s mission.

Chait argues that the fiduciary and strategic modes are largely what boards spend their time doing, but alone, are incomplete. They are necessary, but not sufficient because they leave out expressive aspects of the organization. The issues schools face need values and insights; questions need to be framed around the right, mission-focused principles. For this, a board needs to engage in the generative mode.

Chait says generative work needs to shape the fiduciary and strategic work of the board. Before boards “use various forms of managerial expertise to solve problems, organizations need to figure out which problems need solving. Before they figure out the best strategy for getting from the present to a preferred future, organizations need to figure out what that preferred future is.”

Here is one quick example: many boards contemplate the kind of financial aid system that would be most effective and appropriate for their school. However, instead of beginning with the fundamental philosophical question of why there is a financial aid program in the first place, what often happens is a committee is formed and a host of possible options are drawn up for consideration. Instead of asking how the mission of the school would be impacted by various means of financial aid options, the options are considered with no meaningful conversation about the most important question of all: why do we do financial aid at all and how will changes either help us advance the mission or obscure it?

Generative governance is most important because it focuses the board’s attention on the most important questions. In this sense, it provides the best use of the board’s talent, helps the Head think in a mission-focused way, and generates the need for decisions to be made. According to Chait, “Generative work conveys the gift of helping executives see things better, improving their perception and perspective so that they are in a better position to invent new goals, to discard old goals, to better see problems and to discard problems that really are not that important in the long run.” 

To focus on what matters most, ask yourself whether your board is engaged in ongoing, meaningful generative conversations.