Elephants in the Board Room
August 1, 2015
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August 1, 2015
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Drama in the School House and the Board Room

There is a recent case of a School where all the elements of the perfect storm came together to give us guidance about understanding and implementing “best practice” when we see the signals and symptoms of governance issues brewing.

A long term Head, highly valued, much loved and well-known in the external community, decided to retire after 15 years as Head of a K-12 School. On the surface, he was leaving a School with a healthy culture, sound financial practices and a very positive reputation.

This Board did what so many boards do after the departure of a long term head: it chose someone with a manner and leadership style that were the polar opposite of the personality of the outgoing Head. The retiring Head’s amiable and charming personality had been a great asset in his roles as lead fundraiser and the face of the School in the small community. He enjoyed a harmonious relationship with his Board. On the other hand, he had delegated much of the internal operations to others and the Board noticed that faculty members were filling power vacuums, few systems were in place and that the curriculum needed attention. The Board decided it wanted a process-oriented, academic type with knowledge of state of the art curriculum and practices.

The New Head

The new Head was a highly articulate, intellectual female with an ability to hone in on curricular and culture issues. She was welcomed enthusiastically as a breath of fresh air. She seemed capable of handling whatever challenges the Board gave her. And the Board handed her many major ones, all at once.

While the new Head was experienced and had many talents, she had some core weaknesses as all heads do. She was not as politically astute as she needed to be, did not pace her changes well, and found it very difficult to confront the various male power centers that had developed in the School over many years. She did not always listen to her supporters who cautioned her to build political capital first before making sudden moves or changes that could threaten the privileges of some within the faculty culture. Would she last long enough to implement hers and the Board’s ambitious goals?

The Board

The Board consisted of all parents, most of them friends with one another, who mingled in the community with other parents and teachers. Several Board members frequently hired teachers to babysit, house sit, and tutor their children and thus built strong loyalties to individual teachers and coaches.

The Board members were having fun. They enjoyed the prestige associated with the position as well as their relationship with the Head and with the faculty who felt more like family than like teachers or employees.

Board members had their favorite teachers and turned to them for bits of internal gossip. Teachers called board members both to report the latest “news” and to seek board member support for particular projects or issues, or as in the case of the newly arrived Head, for support against her decisions. In short, there was entirely too much boundary crossing occurring.

The new Head found this behavior inappropriate and worrisome as well as the vendor relationship that one or two Board members had with the School. In its defense, the Board had not received any formal outside board governance training in several years. Neither the former Head nor the Board members felt the need. The Nominating Committee’s only function was to nominate and appoint new Board members usually within the same circle as the existing ones.

It never occurred to the Board that after an exciting search, there would be a sudden and jarring transition or the School community. The Search Consultant had neither discussed in depth the concept of transition nor held a transition workshop with the new Head in attendance in the spring prior to her arrival.

The Faculty

The faculty was a mixture of young new, enthusiastic teachers and a larger core of long term female teachers, mostly second bread winners, and a number of mid career and older male teachers who seemed to have the most influence and sought after positions. Teachers were accustomed to moderately high salaries and benefits and a moderate to light workload. Many of the teachers received the benefit of 100% tuition remission for their children.

It was part of the prior Head’s management style to reward loyal staff with certain rights and privileges such as running programs that may not have been lucrative profit centers for the School but were a source of outside income for the faculty. Thus, there was a “cottage industry” of classes and lessons that several teachers ran independently on the premises. These programs were very popular with all parents.

All teachers focused on creating a “family school” atmosphere by forming close relationships with students and parents, but as noted above, not all of the relationships with parents were appropriate ones from a governance perspective. Thus, the family had become overly “cozy”.

Some of the female faculty suspected that their male counterparts were better paid and that the former Head had negotiated deals with a number of the influential male administrators and senior teachers. However, all kept silent about it even though there was a undercurrrent of disgruntlement.

The teaching quality in the Lower School was considered to be excellent and was led by a strong and popular Administrator. The Middle and Upper Schools were led by individuals who were younger, newer and not nearly as popular. Thus, at first most of the opposition to the new Head came from the Middle and Upper School faculties.

The Conflicts

The Head examined the salary and benefit package. She did not expect to find so many sidebar deals which had been negotiated over the years since there was a published salary scale. There were many inequities in the allocation of salary dollars and in some benefits, privileges, titles and status.

She decided to bring this to the attention of the Board whose leadership was equally surprised and disturbed. However, the Board was also worried that some of the special deals had been negotiated with their very favorite teachers and administrators with whom their own families and children had special relationships.

As the new Head began to challenge privileged faculty positions, stipends, titles, and workloads, she unleashed a backlash from the mainly male cohort of senior administrators and teachers. They began to undermine her with the Board and to hold outside meetings at their homes to discuss “what to do about the new Head.” This was occurring at the same time that she was beginning to launch new curriculum initiatives and introduce new measures of accountability as she had been charged to do. The somewhat complacent culture responded with “but we have always done it this way” and felt overworked and somewhat overwhelmed.

The Head remained firm in her resolve to address weaknesses and inconsistencies in overall teaching quality and to introduce more equity into the salary and benefits system. She forged ahead and launched a strategic planning process as well. One of the outcomes of the new strategic plan was a new building project that was desperately needed.

However, she faced an uphill struggle. The cliques and power bases within the faculty and the tight relationships among board members, parents and teachers had led to a pattern of crossing of boundaries and jumping of channels of communication. Board members, teachers and parents wereguilty of leaking sensitive information at times and the obvious contrast between the new Head’s assertive, direct and private style and the former Head’s non confrontational and accessible style fueled even more gossip.

The enmeshed faculty/board/parent culture had evolved overly many years, and it worked as long as no one looked too closely under the rug. The new Head had the temerity, experience and work ethic to tackle all of these challenges, but she did so without the full political backing of the Board. Her Board Chair was an extremely successful and busy executive who had become accustomed to an easy partnership with a Head who needed little hand holding and little meeting time. He had to adjust to a different, more intensive relationship with the new Head.

The Board leadership demonstrated early enthusiastic support for her, but it began to feel increasing pressure from anxious parents and from faculty who were weary of the nature, amount and pace of change. The Board began to wonder if the Head should not back away from some her initiatives. However, too much was already underway very quickly.

What Next?

At this point the new Head began to worry seriously about how long she might survive in the position. The Board also was very concerned about the impact and impression of not renewing the contract of a Head who was a visible, articulate academic leader but who had also uncovered some legitimately disturbing practices and behaviors.

The Governance Principles Involved

In this situation we had a perfect storm of issues:

  1. A underlying unhealthy faculty culture
  2. The lack of any meaningful teacher evaluation process
  3. The absence of transition planning by the Board for the new Head
  4. A Board that had not benefited from regular training and whose members sometimes behaved more like a PTA than a governing body
  5. An inappropriate familiarity between Board and staff
  6. Breach of confidences of board members with staff; staff with board; and administrators with both groups
  7. An internal frustrated Administrator, who applied for the headship, was counseled not to pursue it further and yet stayed on to undermine the new Head.
  8. A male dominated school culture
  9. Inequities in salaries and benefits that had evolved over many years
  10. Failure of the Board to act and speak as a whole

The Good Things

The School did have some outstanding teachers. The majority of the Board members over many years possessed absolute integrity and complete dedication. The School attracted motivated students with a very positive demeanor, enjoyed high demand and impressive university placement results, and benefitted from a strong financial underpinning, a lovely setting, no real competition, a rich history and a loyal, increasingly generous parent and alumni body.

There were legitimate and diligent efforts early on by the Board and Head as a team to examine the issues that the new Head was raising: salary system and benefits design; evaluation system design; school climate issues; board governance; and the need for strategic planning.

In other words, the School had much to celebrate. But some core issues would remain unaddressed and unsolved:

  1. The lack of fit of the new Head to the culture and the Board’s inadequate understanding of the kind of culture they were asking a new Head to lead
  2. The legacy of the prior Head, who despite his many great leadership qualities, left many “holes” into which a new Head would fall
  3. The new Head’s difficulty in balancing her intellectual leadership style with more flexibility, humor and approachability
  4. The Board’s inability or unwillingness to look at itself and its relationships with various constituent groups objectively in a mirror

Some of these patterns unfolded suddenly into an unfortunate confluence of events. Most, however, developed over a period of years thereby making it almost impossible for any new Head to succeed. In fact, after four years, this Head did leave on her own initiative after instituting some new programs and policies which insured a healthier school climate and a more cutting edge curriculum going forward.

The challenge was for the Board to find a new Head, but this time to ensure that the search process, transition, and culture issues were addressed appropriately, with Board support and guidance. Could the Board undertake this next challenge successfully? Had the Board learned some lessons? Had the faculty changed and become more professional? Would the next Head survive? Stay tuned.

John Littleford
Senior Partner