Over the years, this Consultant has met board chairs who cared deeply about their role, the school and their heads of school and the families of those heads. I have also met board chairs who clashed with the head, did not know much about the head’s family, and who were either absent and disengaged or overly engaged and micromanaging the head.
The personality and style of a board chair is incredibly important. I worked recently with one in the US. His partnership with the head is warm, supportive, kind, and yet he can send the Head clear signals of areas that need attention. He has supported all the Head’s major initiatives and participated when needed. In recent work on faculty compensation over an eight-month period, this Chair was actively involved indirectly on all three committees, supporting the head, listening, and making comments as appropriate.
Littleford & Associates recently conducted a head compensation review for this Head, and in that meeting the Chair did not drive the agenda, but gently guided it. When the Head rejoined the meeting to hear the committee’s thoughts about an offer, the Chair allowed another Board Member to outline the new compensation terms. This made that Board Member feel valued. In closing, the Chair made it clear to the Head how much the Board cared about him and his family’s future and that they would like him to stay at least eight more years. The Head’s obvious emotional response was very moving.
Recently, a Chair was faced with a delicate head compensation conundrum. The very successful Head of School had a very generous package of salary and benefits relative to peers in the region and nationwide. The Chair and the Board wanted to retain the Head, but significant increases to the package did not seem financially sustainable or wise from a safe harbors perspective. The Chair, with the help of the Compensation Committee, diplomatically restructured the package to the satisfaction of all parties. Only a financially astute, conscientious, and wise steward of the School’s budget and future could have accomplished this without offending, and potentially losing the Head of School.
Truly great board chairs are needed. I have known chairs who took care of the head when the head or the head’s family was ill. Others were supportive when the community or some segment of it was striking back at the Head for a decision that was sound and based on moral values, but some constituents did not support it. Strong chairs with a bond to the head know that in that case, they must act as fire wall to protect the head.
As I have stated many times when confronted with a crisis, a board should: “circle the wagons” meaning do not break ranks; “be quiet” meaning do not spill confidences from the board room; and do not throw the head “under the bus” meaning support your head publicly and privately.
How Do You Find, Mentor and Keep a Board Chair? What is the Selection Process?
1. Work through the Committee on Trustees/Governance Committee.
2. Discuss the board chair responsibilities that are unique to your school’s culture and needs.
3. Include the input of the head of school, subtly.
4. Be open-minded when considering potential candidates but focus on those candidates’ key qualities and chemistry with the head of school and support from the full board.
5. Vet your planned choice with each board member. The Chair and/or the Committee on Trustees Chair do this.
6. Pay attention to those not selected for the chair role who may have wanted it. They may be “sore losers”.
There are qualities to seek in a board chair. The ideal chair will possess most of these traits. Both the head and the rest of the board must agree upon the selection of this individual.
The core traits we are seeking are:
1. Character, including the courage to stand tall when needed; warmth and compassion for the head and his/her partner and family; close but not too close to the school “family”; sensitivity to social/cultural issues
2. Experience, including the ability to spot and cultivate talent; a willingness to take charge; the avoidance of micromanagement
3. Skills, including a specific managerial set, enlightened intelligence, the ability to collaborate and build a consensus
3. Commitment, including having a long view of the mission; a desire for but not an active pursuit of the role; the capacity to give generously to the school; a willingness to serve at least 3 to 5 years
By “Character” we mean:
1. Courage to defend the school and its leadership in a crisis
2. Having empathy, compassion, and a caring soft side
3. Nurturing the head as the only employee of the board as well as the head’s family
4. A commitment to embrace diversity, tolerance, open mindedness, and a willingness to learn
By “Experience” we mean:
1. The ability to identify, encourage and develop healthy board governance behaviors among current and prospective leaders and to spot a potential successor chair
2. Authoritative, but not arrogant, and thus commanding respect from constituents and outside groups
3. An understanding that the chair must leave personnel, curriculum, and day to day management to the head and his or her team
By “Skills” we mean:
1. A quick thinker and a proven leader
Collaboration means that the chair must listen well, promote cooperation among board members, try to avoid factions, work with sub committees, and partner with the head in a spirit of cooperation. However, the chair also needs to be decisive at the appropriate moments.
2. Having a managerial set means having experience managing and working with a group of diverse personalities and guiding and if necessary, disciplining errant board members
By “Commitment” we mean:
1. A passion for the school and for education. The chair must be motivated by a genuine passion for the school’s mission, not status or power.
2. A desire not a pursuit of the role means that talented and valuable chairs are often those whom we need to persuade to take on the role.
3. The capacity and willingness to give charitably means the chair must set an example by donating to the school within that person’s means.
The good news is that there are many independent and international chairs who embody most, if not all, these qualities. The bylaws must allow for sufficient chair terms to allow the chair to leave a legacy of strong governance.
On the other hand, one of the jobs of the head is to nurture and support the chair by making that person feel valued and needed. The head should monitor the progress of the chair’s children if they attend the school.
The chair and head should have face-to-face meetings with one another as often as their schedules permit. Both parties need to be honest with each other and neither should be caught off guard, as these are challenging times for both heads and chairs.