Like parents and teachers, heads of school and the board members who partner with them have always worried—about safety, about reaching students, about relevance, about keeping up with pedagogy, funding, enrollment, and so on. There’s always something on the list of things to worry about.
However, there’s been marked change in the past 10 years—not so much in the cause of those worries, but in the speed and manner with which they must be dealt. We have seen a seismic shift in how successful schools and school leaders approach and manage crisis situations—partly because of a massive change in the speed of the news and information cycle and partly because stakeholders are more knowledgeable about the issues that affect our schools. With so much information so readily available to so many, crisis management doesn’t start with a crisis; it is now just part of the job. As this issue was going to press, schools were working with their boards to react to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Creating plans quickly and communicating in a clear and timely manner have never been more important.
The heads who are most successful are not only good strategic communicators, but also skilled crisis managers, ones who plan and evaluate every action they take through the lens of risk and reputation management and who think two and three steps ahead of those actions at all times. Each action still has a traditional risk-and-reward evaluation, as it always has. But it now also has a web of possible consequences that range from immediate and anticipated problems to slow but destructive burns and to “black swans” that can surprise and devastate.
Successful heads also know that trustees can and should play a critical role in this work. A good board chair is “an essential partner to the head and an equal decision maker in the process of sorting through any crisis,” says Chris Mazzola, head of The Branson School (CA). “The collaboration is absolutely crucial.” Boards in general—and particularly chairs—play a unique role. By definition, they offer an outside balance and perspective to the schools they serve. They exist both in and outside of a school, and it is critical, but not easy, that they maintain the boundary between the two.
Their oversight responsibility is real—the buck does stop with them. Boards must understand potential risks and how the school will react—or sometimes not react—and have faith in that plan. A board’s engagement in crisis planning ensures that their schools are ready for almost anything without stepping out of the school’s mission. They must balance their responsibilities with their boundaries.
A Different Kind of Preparation
In our crisis communications work, we consult with schools on strategic thinking for all types of situations. Over the decades, we have helped schools deal with issues that have ranged from the most complex to the slightly quirky. Sometimes it’s the quirky ones, if not handled well or quickly enough, that can morph into a crisis. We are often asked about the difference between a crisis and “a bad day,” and the answer can sometimes be found in that moment when the quirky tips over into something worse.
While we know and talk about the steps school leaders can and should take to manage and mitigate the stickier situations, we actually spend most of our consulting work thinking about ways to help prepare schools and boards for situations that aren’t actually happening at all (for example, active shooter situations, natural disasters, insufficient enrollment, and so on). We plan and train and talk about things that we all worry about, largely in an effort to make the worries go away, or at least seem smaller.
What we don’t often do is encourage schools to worry. But worrying, it turns out, can be an essential tool for success. As Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen describe in Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, thinking about all the things that can go wrong, even those possibilities that seem so remote as to be almost laughable, is actually a competitive advantage. The authors say that being “productively paranoid” is a key factor that sets business leaders apart and helps companies both deflect attacks and avoid stasis. And we think it’s a practice that school leaders and trustees should engage in as well.
“Productive paranoia” doesn’t mean engaging in the kind of worry that turns to panic or paralysis. It just means anticipating the most challenging scenario you can think of and adding the thing that happens next. It means knowing that conditions can change suddenly, without warning. It means being willing to be called some version of the nickname given to notorious worrier Bill Gates—“Dr. Doom”—and wear it with pride.
If “what-if” planning is key to being productively paranoid, as Great by Choice posits, then the landscape in which we work these days is ripe for practice. Social media alone provides enough fodder. Given that every smartphone can serve as a broadcast outlet and every mistake is an opportunity for a screengrab that can live forever, “managing” the media around a crisis has become a more elusive goal than ever. Crisis management means planning for all the scenarios—from violence and horrific tragedy to misconduct and malfeasance, from natural disasters that happen in an instant to the slow unraveling of environmental hazards—and then anticipating every possible social media post, hashtag, or hacking that could disrupt those plans. And planning for that.
Social media platforms level the communications playing field in beneficial ways—the speed with which they can relay safety and security information can literally save lives—but they can also flatten distinctions between “advice” from a stranger and actual in-the-know communications from experts. They can easily spread fake news. It can be impossible to tell who is inside and who is outside a community or, worse, to know which accounts aren’t even people. And, because social media happens in real time, posters and followers expect responses from the organization, company, or institution being criticized almost instantaneously. It is the job of heads and boards to view social media through the lens of risk and reputation management and to give their teams access to information and the tools and the space to plan and prepare. Boards can advocate for the resources, time, and personnel schools need to make this important practice happen.
The key to making paranoia productive is preparation. The point of the worrying isn’t just to understand everything that can go wrong; it’s to weigh what warrants the bulk of your attention and to plan what to do—and what not to do—when these worries come to pass. And this is work that heads and trustees need to do together.
The role of the board, says governance expert and consultant Cathy Trower, is the same in a crisis as it is at any other time: to ensure effective oversight and governance. But, she says, “In a crisis, the board has to step into and lean into the heightened security. I normally say that boards should be ‘noses in, fingers out,’ but in a crisis they have to be ‘fingers in.’ They have to be more intrusive.”
In order for a “fingers in” approach to work, a board must be prepared. As Trower says, “Boards must build greater adaptability themselves so that they can help their schools to be adaptive. Their strategic thinking needs to be anticipatory.” They must spend time engaged in productive paranoia exercises with their heads of schools. An excellent tool for this work is a risk “heat map” or a risk register that looks at the probability of various scenarios, crosses that probability with the potential impact of each scenario, and prioritizes planning based on that evaluation. In addition, the fingers-in approach must be used with care and in a manner that does not diminish the role of the head of school and the school administrators. This approach must have a short shelf life. The board must be prepared to take its hands off of the operational steering wheel and hand operational matters back to the school leaders.
You may find that situations with a low probability of happening have such great potential for negative outcomes that they rise to the top, or you may realize that you are lacking a plan for a scenario that feels fairly likely but not so grave that you have spent enough time worrying about it. Whatever the specifics, schools should be using these tools with their boards for at least part of a meeting once a year. While writing down every possible problem can feel frightening, the act of thinking them through together acts, as Trower says, “as kind of a regulator, calming and teaching boards how best to react.”
Well-trained boards, says Claudia Lewis, board chair at The Branson School, know that there isn’t “too much of a difference in a crisis situation than in everyday board-head relations, other than that the stakes are much higher and the decisions more stressful. The key to success is to develop a relationship of trust and respect from day one so that, when a crisis hits, the teamwork is already in place.”
Partners in Calm
One thing that can turn a good board into a problem one is overreacting. Because of the speed in which a problem can escalate, the inability to control accuracy and sources in social media, and the broad awareness of issues like sexual misconduct and others, boards need to guard against being reactionary or “freaking out,” as Trower says.
This can be most challenging for boards that are weighted heavily with current parents, many of whom are more actively involved in their children’s lives than parents from generations before. They must balance the good of the institution with a desire to serve the interests and needs of their own child—which sometimes can mean they add fuel to the fire in spite of their good intentions. Heads and trustees planning and preparing together is the best strategy to guard against this type of parental/board overreaction; the exercise of working together in this way helps parents to be not just parents—advocates for their own children with regard to the issues at hand—but also leaders of the institution, with a larger picture in mind.
When schools and boards learn how to worry together and how to use tools to evaluate risk and then plan for it, they cannot eliminate risk, but they can build an essential sense of calm and readiness. When boards and schools learn to be productively paranoid together, they build a critical adaptive ability—not just for emerging risks, but also to changing strategies and shifting priorities. They are as ready for a crisis as possible, yes, but they are also ready for all the other changes and developments that affect their schools. Boards and schools that worry together plan together. And when they plan together, they are anticipatory and prepared, not just for what can go wrong, but for what they will do right.
Need Help in a Crisis?
There is no greater test of heads and boards than when a crisis hits campus. Ensure your relationship is strong and effective before it’s tested with NAIS governance resources.
The Spring 2020 issue of Independent School magazine explores some of the most critical issues at the heart of the head-board relationship, examining what high-performing boards look like, strategic planning and staying agile in times of change, how to restructure board meetings for increased engagement and impact, and breaking the mold of traditional leadership structures. It also offers a first look at NAIS’s new Factors Affecting Head of School Turnover (FAHST) survey and an in-depth look at the results from the latest NAIS governance study.
The NAIS Trustees’ Guide, a comprehensive online resource, was recently updated and redesigned to provide an easy-to-navigate experience and enhanced content, including tools, tips, strategic questions, advice, and more.
The Trustee Table, an NAIS podcast, provides insights and information for trustees, board chairs, and school administrators about critical governance and leadership issues. Each episode features a discussion with an expert in the field on a specific topic or challenge facing independent schools. Go to iTunes, SoundCloud, TuneIn, Stitcher, or Google Play to subscribe and hear a new episode each month.