How do boards of independent and international schools and other nonprofits become and remain “healthy?” That means that these boards know how and are able to do the following: focus on key strategic issues; collaborate effectively as peers; follow the lead of a wise board chair; have a strong partnership with the head/CEO; ensure mission relevance, long-term financial stability and sustainability; and follow the principles of best practice.
In the independent and international school world, there are some troubling long term statistics about the health of boards related to the success and stability of schools: worldwide the average tenure of independent school heads is about 5.5 years and for international school heads, it is about 3.5 years. It is the third or fourth chair who fires the head 80% of the time.
Frequent board member turnover leads to frequent chair turnover that often leads to head turnover. For schools and nonprofits, this can result in a lack of strategic direction, missed opportunities, weakened stakeholder trust and morale and power vacuums that are seized upon by well-meaning but errant board members, teachers, parents and/or administrators.
Here are some guidelines for boards to consider, even those most stable boards where wisdom dominates:
Some heads are fine with executive sessions. These heads tend to be very self-assured with longer tenure who feel very safe in their seat, or they may be a new head who does not yet know the dangers. However, for most heads executive sessions only serve to create worry or suspicion about what is being said in his or her absence.
The Committees NOT to have: marketing/communications; athletic; education; school life; personnel; or legal. Periodically a board may wish to launch a very short term task force to address a particular issue or shortcoming but this task force should close shop quickly.
The Board should not meet in camera without the head to talk about him/her in a way that seems to critique the head’s personality traits. The evaluation process should be professional with a focus upon performance relative to previously agreed upon tangible goals. Some boards use a Board Source template but that can be an overly bureaucratic tool and may provide more information than a board needs for this specific purpose.
This Consultant does not recommend a 360 evaluation designed for the corporate world where those participating in the evaluation do not teach the children of the board members to whom the CEO reports.
If a board follows the majority of these rules of engagement most of the time, it is well on the way to performing on a high level leading to greater institutional stability and successful strategic outcomes.
Greater board stability and longer serving heads with fewer head searches and transitions means: greater parent faith in the mission; greater faculty commitment to a common direction; deeper and longer lasting alumni loyalty and giving; and in the long run better facilities and resources and higher endowments.