Tekakwitha M. Pernambuco-Wise
and Olaf Jorgenson
When identifying their main responsibilities, most independent school trustees recite familiar priorities, such as preserving the school’s mission, providing financial oversight, and strategic planning. “Supporting the head” typically falls somewhere toward the end of the list.
Given that the heads of school we know either treasure the support they get from their boards or would like more support — or support of a different kind—it strikes us that boards would be wise to rethink where support for the head falls on their list of priorities and to consider what “support” means to heads.
In his 2002 Independent School article, “How to Keep Your Head: Great Schools and Long-Term Headship,” veteran school leader Al Adams urges boards to make the retention of heads a top priority.1 Indeed, Adams makes a compelling case for board members to understand the phases of headship and to support the needs of leaders over time so that their schools thrive under the stable, competent leadership of long-term heads.
But what exactly does “supporting the head of school” mean? Does it have the same implications for heads as it does for trustees? What types of support do heads most appreciate? Should trustees’ support change as heads advance through the phases of their career? Do the needs of male and female heads differ?
These questions, in addition to our own conversations about our respective challenges and needs as school heads, led us to reach out to colleagues and trustees across the membership of the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) and the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), inviting feedback and collective wisdom about “head support.”
We sought to gather a sizable set of perceptions from both school leaders and board members, identify any consistent themes that we could share, and inform boards seeking to nourish and sustain their heads by better understanding what school leaders most need — thus fostering a deeper partnership between trustees and heads.
What follows is a summary of our research, surveying 207 school heads and 59 trustees, with core advice for boards on how they can improve their support for their heads.
What Do Heads Need and Value Most?
Heads and trustees shared nearly identical five top responses to this question, though in different order, with trustees identifying an additional priority.
For heads, the list reads:
- Moral Support
- Respect for Expertise
- Advice and Guidance
- Less Operational Involvement
- Open Communication
For trustees, the list reads:
- Advice and Guidance
- Strategic Support
- Respect for Expertise
- Moral Support
- Open Communication
- (tie) Public Appreciation
What is most striking about the two lists is that heads put “moral support” at the top while trustees see “advice and guidance” as their lead priority — dropping moral support to the fourth position.
Head of school respondents place less value on trustee advice and express greater need for moral support, empathy, and respect for their expertise — or as one respondent put it, “understanding the pressures of the job and respect for the difficult decisions I have to make.”
Another head summarized what many respondents stated: It would be beneficial for trustees to “understand that their ideas may or may not benefit the school, and that trying to get the school to do things differently before they understand current process or needs is often a point of agitation…. Admin[istrators] feel like they are being told to change by board members who don’t fully understand the whole picture.”
Survey data also suggest, encouragingly, that both head and trustee respondents understand the need to separate day-to-day operational matters from board-level strategic issues. Numerous heads shared their appreciation when trustees commit to “digging into the work and bringing value through their own engagement,” pursuing board-level professional development about nonprofit school governance, ruminating “about big ideas together,” and dealing with “the rogue trustee who [strays into operational matters], understanding that such behavior is intolerable, destructive, and needs clear action.” Heads report feeling affirmed when trustees acknowledge that school leaders “know more than they do and have handled things well, given all constraints.”
Intriguingly, heads commented repeatedly that they appreciate being recognized, yet did not rank public recognition for their efforts as a top priority. However, trustees felt public recognition of heads was important. We’re including it in this report because it tied for number five for trustees. (Number six for heads was improvement in compensation and benefits.) Perhaps the heads downplayed recognition because, as one head observed, in a strong board-head relationship, the head and board should share recognition for the school’s accomplishments.
In the narrative comments, “trustee leadership in development efforts” appeared as one of the most common priorities from head respondents. Heads overwhelmingly urged trustees to undertake more leadership in fundraising, understanding, as one head put it “that all board members need to be engaged in development even if they don’t serve on the development committee.” This could include a range of trustee involvement, from personal giving to identification of potential donors to direct solicitations.
Furthermore, heads commented that they welcome advice from board members in their areas of expertise such as finance, law, marketing, local politics, and communication.
Do Male and Female Heads Value Different Types of Support?
Regardless of gender, heads responding to the survey considered the same needs as being most important: more moral support, more respect for expertise, less advice/guidance, less operational involvement by trustees, and greater openness in communication. This indicates that both male and female heads have similar values, perhaps because there is a common understanding that leads them to the headship. This is not to say that male and female heads do not have a gendered experience of the position.
While both male and female heads ranked moral support as their uppermost need, recent studies examining the experiences of female school heads indicate that while all heads say the position is a lonely one, women feel this loneliness more acutely than their male counterparts.2 Female heads have different expectations placed upon them, many reflecting societal biases. As one of the respondents stated, “As a woman in this role, it is very different. Clothes, hair, children, spouse, home, all are visible and expectations are there as well as for the professional parts of the role.”
These recent studies also indicate that headship has changed dramatically, especially within the past decade, from the head serving as a “chief academic officer” to being well-versed in all facets of a school’s operation— many far removed from instructional leadership, such as law, human resources, marketing, and financial planning.
It is no surprise that both male and female heads almost equally value receiving less advice and guidance from trustees; and in their narrative comments, heads frequently ask trustees to respect the balance between solicited and unsolicited advice. “Being a head can be an incredibly lonely and isolated, high-stress job,” one head noted. “Trustees need to be conscious of that and be ready to take the cue about how to be helpful — i.e., back off or step up. The best help is when they fulfill their role, leaving the head to do the same.”
While male heads rated valuing more respect for expertise slightly higher than female heads, both measured greater openness in communication equally. The greatest variance in ranking was in asking trustees to be less involved in operational matters. Women leaders valued less involvement in operational matters more highly than men. We wonder if there is a correlation between more male heads valuing moral support and more female heads desiring that trustees pay more attention to strategic concerns. Might it be that male heads are already receiving more strategic-oriented engagement from trustees with a corresponding lessening of focus on moral support while female heads are receiving more moral support but less attention to strategic concerns? If this were the case, it is evident that the board-head partnership would be strengthened considerably with more convergence between moral support and attention to strategic concerns.
What Support Is Most Valued at Different Stages of the Headship?
It is not surprising that novice heads placed a higher value on needing trustee advice and guidance with a correspondingly lower rating for respect for expertise. Accordingly, as they gained experience in the position, heads in the 11- to 15-year range had the lowest composite value scores of all groups. They put the least value on obtaining advice and guidance from trustees.
Interestingly, veteran heads expressed the greatest need for trustees to offer moral support while novice leaders valued this category the least. Could this imply that trustees’ faith in veteran heads led them to be less aware of their need for moral support? Or might the veteran’s need for moral support reflect the cumulative fatigue and stress of the job over many years of headship? Of significance is that, of the veteran heads, twice as many voted for more moral support than for more open communication from trustees.
Similarly, veteran heads felt strongly that trustees need to be less involved in operational matters while novices ranked this lowest among their top priorities. Perhaps the call for more attention to strategic issues reflects a mature head’s deeper understanding of effective board dynamics. In any case, board members should be sensitive to these seemingly counterintuitive findings and be prepared to evaluate their own respect for boundaries and concern for their head’s welfare.
What Support Is Provided (Perceptions of Heads vs. Trustees)?
Survey data suggest both heads and trustees concur that board “support” commonly manifests as board members giving advice to the head. Trustees appear to believe that heads want guidance and advice, and heads affirm their boards are delivering on this conviction. Trustee respondents listed the commitment not to micromanage among their top priorities, and this appeared among the top five needs of heads.
These are crucial findings as we seek to define what “supporting the head” means to school leaders and board members. Further research is required to determine whether the high prioritization of this need for both groups suggests an incongruence: Do trustee respondents believe they don’t micromanage, while heads feel otherwise, or do the data simply reflect the shared priority? It’s worth noting that trustee respondents to the survey ranked themselves high in every area; however, the heads reported they do not necessarily receive the kind of support they most value as much as trustees believe they are delivering it.
By investigating what supporting the head means for the board-head partnership, we want to help open the critical (and often overlooked) dialogue about how trustees can best meet their head’s needs. While the survey findings may not be salient for every school community, we offer the following observations from the data, from conversations with colleagues over the years, and from our own experiences as heads striving to cultivate thriving partnerships with our trustees.
We recommend that:
- there be a clear understanding and agreement on the difference in roles between the board and the head;
- heads define for their trustees the type of support that is most meaningful for them;
- and trustees deliver on the type of support their head needs rather than what they think the head needs.
School leaders at different stages of headship need different types of support. Novice heads welcome more advice and guidance while trustees can pay more attention to the need for moral support that all school leaders, even veteran ones, require. It might be useful for boards to replicate our survey, asking their head and board members to answer the three questions as a springboard for dialogue in defining what they believe “support” means. Depending on the stage and condition of their board-head partnership, and the extent to which this exercise could cause friction, it might be prudent to enlist an external facilitator to help guide the discourse.
Revisit “Advice and Guidance”
Quantitative survey data and narrative comments suggest that school leaders likely receive more advice from trustees than they value while trustees believe they do not micromanage heads. Engaging in open dialogue about what (and when) advice is most needed can help both parties function effectively. As one head of school put it, “Let me manage operations, with my board members focused on more strategic and generative work, less on parking lot concerns and other shiny objects.”
Pay Attention to the Work of the Board
Survey data, including a torrent of narrative comments, highlight the head’s need for trustees to maintain a strategic focus, to be better stewards of fundraising and development, and to engage in ongoing trustee education. “The most important aspect of support comes in the form of a governing board strategically aligned with the school’s program and leadership team.”
Pay Attention to Moral Support
Heads view moral support from trustees as crucial. Especially when heads have to make difficult decisions and when some constituents are calling for the head’s head on a platter, it is imperative that the board, as one unit, publicly supports the head’s decisions. In quantitative survey data and in their comments, trustee respondents expressed that they believe one of their major responsibilities is to publicly support the school head.
In their survey comments, heads affirm this sentiment. As one head put it, when trustees “assume goodwill and competence, even excellence, on the part of the head, it sends a message to the head and the entire school community that the board and the head are a team. This one piece is critical to the success of the school and to the ability of the head to engage in such challenging work, day in and day out.” Such gestures need not be limited to public recognition, however; trustees and boards prioritizing moral support can provide substantial private encouragement and affirmation as well.
With the liberty and candor our anonymous survey afforded, heads asked trustees to understand that with the complex demands of the role, they are reluctant to take time to relax. Some said they virtually need their boards to require them to take more time off. As one respondent put it, “Be cognizant of the time heads put into their job and the incredible number of roles and responsibilities they assume. Recognize this and, on occasion, do something to relieve the heads’ stress and help them gain perspective when they are [swamped].”
Lastly, when it comes to moral support, as numerous head and trustee survey respondents affirmed in their comments, let’s not forget to do our work with a dose of humor.
Our schools thrive when a number of variables synchronize — including mission alignment, enrollment, faculty quality and morale, and fiscal stability. But none is more pronounced than a healthy relationship between the board and head. Trustees take their fiduciary responsibility for the school seriously, as do heads in ensuring that the institution is well run. Identifying and delivering the support their heads need is one way boards can be sure to “keep their head,” as Al Adams put it. In doing so, boards help optimize the board-head partnership essential to a school’s prosperity.
1. Albert M. Adams, “How to Keep Your Head: Great Schools and Long-term Headship,” Independent School, Fall, 2002.
2. Tekakwitha M. Pernambuco-Wise, Private-Independent School Headship for Women: A Grounded Theory Study, 2012. Published doctoral dissertation, www.proquest.com. Tekakwitha M. Pernambuco-Wise, “Navigating the Labyrinth: Examining the Career Pathways of Female Heads of School,” Independent School, Summer, 2014. Retrieved from www.nais.org/Magazines-Newsletters/ISMagazine/Pages/Navigating-the-Labyrinth.aspx.