With more than 25 years of independent school experience, I’ve worked with six different board chairs, and as a division head sitting in various board and committee meetings, I’ve seen numerous others in action. I’ve attended myriad professional development conferences where there’s always at least one session titled something like “Managing the Board Chair/Head of School Relationship.” From all of these experiences, I’ve learned that certain characteristics make for a successful and supportive independent school board chair.
Good CommunicatorsA successful board chair prefers to meet with the head of school regularly, allowing for any matter—large
or small—to be vetted before it turns into a bigger issue. The open lines of communication also allow for continued feedback from both sides. One year, I felt as though my board chair and I were on autopilot, and we let these meetings slide. We missed the opportunity to air concerns, and issues snowballed at the end of the year when they could have been avoided with more regular check-ins.
Curious by NatureAt one of my schools, every year trustees and a few faculty members would visit a peer school outside of our market to get a sense of how other schools operate. We’d meet with administrators, sit down with trustees, have campus tours, and walk away with dozens of great ideas. The learning opportunities were incredible, especially for the chairs who may have had limited independent school experience. The best chairs asked numerous questions and soaked up the experience. Similarly, back on campus, really good chairs constantly asked for the reasoning behind decisions and for background information. As board guru Richard Chait of Harvard Graduate School of Education has said, “The test of a great trustee is not necessarily the answers they have, but the questions they ask.”
Broad ThinkersWhenever a new initiative or idea is broached, the first question might be, “Well, what are they doing at Competitor X School down the street?” It’s important for the board chair to have a sense of local and regional trends and competitors’ best practices, but there is a wide world of amazing independent schools against which to compare. Visiting schools out of state helps develop new perspectives.
Role AwareI’ve worked with board chairs who were current and past parents at my schools. As with all trustees, the really good ones know when to step in on student issues. Using our valuable meeting time to discuss an incident at the middle-school dance is not a great use of time. However, I always have been very clear with board leadership that they do not relinquish their parental rights when they come on the board. I simply suggest that when they call me as a parent, they begin the conversation with, “Ian, I’m calling with my parent hat on today.” Immediately, we both shift into a different mode and prepare for a different conversation between dad or mom and head of school. There are times, however, when an issue is more widespread, in which case I’m eager to be apprised.
Calm under PressureThere are always going to be times of crisis, and the best chairs remain cool. There are inevitable tragedies, and there are moments you can’t foresee. I remember coaching a lacrosse game when my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. It seemed like some sort of emergency, so at halftime I called back my wife, who explained that we had gotten calls from the commissioner of the state board of health on our home phone: Our school had the first confirmed case of swine flu in the state. At the time, few people knew much about this illness as it was still early on. We convened our crisis response team. As we discussed what our media strategies would be, how much to share with parents, and what to do about the enormous fundraising event scheduled for the weekend, our chair modeled calm and asked the occasional question. More than anything, the chair was steady and composed.
SupportiveBoard chairs do not always understand the intricacies of how independent schools should run—it’s not their role. They do, however, need to know what leadership looks like and how to be supportive. They take an interest in a head of school and his or her family, knowing that the job is never easy and that family should always come first. The best chairs have asked about my wife and children and their adjustment to the school and new environment. They know that relationships are important, and they work intentionally to support heads.
Active ParticipantsBoard chairs show up to school events. It’s amazing how often people might critique a team, program, or aspect of the school that they have never really seen firsthand. Having a chair who can say “I’m not sure about that … I was there last Wednesday and thought it was thorough, well-organized, and thoughtfully done” is incredibly supportive. Seeing a board chair at events where his or her children are not involved sends a terrific message to the faculty members and to other parents.
Team buildersAs all great leaders do, board chairs cultivate teams that are committed and dedicated. This is hard to do solely within the confines of committee and board meetings. Board retreats at the start of the year allow for important social time to help trustees and staff to get to know each other on a personal level. End-of-year gatherings are also important so teams can reflect on all that has been accomplished, to celebrate those who are ending their tenures, and to welcome new trustees. These events provide rich opportunities to develop deeper relationships and bring the team closer.
In the end, it is vitally important for the head to be equally supportive of the board chair, recognizing the tremendous altruism involved and the time, effort, and energy that a chair is giving to the school. When the relationship is solid and positive, the entire board feeds off of that energy, which impacts the school in palpable ways.
The relationship between a head of school and the board of trustees is one of the most important partnerships at a school—and strong leadership and creative collaboration are at the core. Want to bring even more to the boardroom table? Promote great governance at your school with NAIS’s tools, resources, and events designed especially for heads of schools and trustees.