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How To Fire the Head, AND More than Once!

There is an important governance rule: Support your head firmly OR let the head go, in the most supportive way possible under whatever circumstances the need for dismissal may arise.

However, too many boards, and too many chairs claim to support the head and yet continue to undermine the head. That tactic of having a foot in both camps does not work; is unprofessional; and only serves to marginalize the head further and/or damage constituent trust in the board, head and the school.

An unfortunate case in point clearly illustrates what happens when the good intentions of board members repeatedly go awry. Good intentions are never enough. Wisdom is crucial and the key to that is regular board training.

The First Time

A school Head with ten years experience had hired four senior Managers during his tenure to fill business, programmatic and advancement positions within the School. He came to rely upon them heavily especially during his absence on fundraising trips.

However, one of the many organizational Consultants whom the Board urged the Head to hire recommended that certain roles be split, thus delegating some of the responsibilities of the senior Administrators to others.

These changes caused the individuals involved to feel that the Head had reduced the scope of their power and influence. Especially when the Head was on trips to raise money for the School’s centennial capital campaign, the senior leadership team would undermine the Head and build their own constituent power base. They also began to establish close personal and professional ties to key Board Members on whose Board subcommittees they often served.

One of the senior Administrators approached the Board vice Chair for a reference to use for applying for positions at other Schools. He said that he could no longer tolerate the Head’s insensitive manner and non collaborative decision making style. Coincidentally, this senior Administrator had recently married the CFO.

The vice Chair decided to get to the bottom of this issue. He took the initiative to meet with the four Administrators individually and then in a group, and interviewed them about the Head’s leadership style. Neither the Chair nor the Head knew about this. The vice Chair then informed the Executive Committee of the Board that the entire senior management team planned to resign unless the board stepped in and “did something.”

The Executive Committee had by this time effectively fired the head for the first time. Sidebar interviews and meetings of this sort, unless related to illegal behavior or fiscally improprieties by a head, should never take place without the head’s knowledge.

The Executive Committee then met with the Head whose contract was up for renewal. The Head outlined his accomplishments over the years, his struggles with his senior team and their hostility to his restructuring of responsibilities. As a result of their negative behavior, all but one of the four had received a lower performance bonus in the current year. The Committee “took back” some of its accusations.

The Second Time

Next the Executive Committee decided to meet with the four Administrators, again without the Head present. The Executive Committee’s continued support for the Head surprised them as frankly they expected to hear that the Head’s contract would not be renewed. The group of four caucused in the next room to determine their response. The Executive Committee was kept waiting for 30 minutes.

When the four returned, they stated that they would remain and work with the Head as long as he received help to create a less hostile and adversarial work environment which included more feedback from them.

This was in effect a “second firing” as the Head should have been present in this meeting. The meeting should not have included only the Chair and Head.

The Third Time

The Administrators suggested a “Board buddy system” whereby each of the four would have a “Board buddy” whom they could contact as needed with concerns about how the Head was doing. They proposed periodic meetings among the eight of them in order to formulate recommendations to give to the Head for improving his leadership style.

This was the third “firing” as the Executive Committee not only agreed to this proposal but then recommended it to the Head. The Head, who should have resigned at this point (but did not), fought the recommendation strongly by arguing correctly that it violated every governance principle of best practice. The group in fact met a few times.

Two years later, the new Chair and the Head worked out a generous severance arrangement for the CFO. His spouse took a “stress” leave of absence on full pay. The other two Administrators resigned but not before all four approached the press and the parents to articulate their version of the events of the past several years.

The embattled Head is still Head but seriously weakened. Half of the Board is in his “camp” and the other half is not.

Conclusion

In analyzing these events, it is clear to this Consultant that the Head needed eyes in the back of his head and needs to improve his skills in hiring and then supervising his key leaders. His most serious judgment error was trying to persuade these Administrators to remain when it was already very evident that they were disloyal and undercutting him. In fact, they favored the CFO as his successor. The Head had begun to document in writing his concerns about the individuals’ performance. On the other hand, a head who does not realize that his senior managers do not really support him or her and does not either win them back or fire them, has some serious management weaknesses.

The Head’s style is indeed somewhat imperious and periodically insensitive. He made some key decisions that he felt were collaborative but that his Team felt were a fait accompli before their opinions were solicited. On the other hand, it was equally apparent that the hostile work environment that the team claimed was primarily the result of the job restructuring that the outside corporate organizational Consultant, not the Head recommended.

The faculty and staff generally support the Head, and despite the politics that have been a major distraction, he has a ten year outstanding track record of leadership by most measurements of school progress.

The Board made several major mistakes:

  1. Board members had a relationship with senior Administrators that was unprofessional. They often socialized on weekends with each other’s families. The Board was sucked in by their subtle and growing complaints.
  2. Key Board Members repeatedly crossed boundaries by meeting with staff without the Head present and failed to see that the Administrators were crossing boundaries by bypassing the Head and running to the Board.
  3. Rather than evaluating the Head through a formal process of goal-setting and feedback conducted by a Board Head Evaluation and Support Committee, they engaged in a modified “360” process that undercut his leadership further.
  4. The Board hired several organizational consultants who micromanaged the Head causing him to second-guess himself and who made him appear to be weak.

Today, the Head’s job hangs by a thread. Even though the rogue Administrators have been replaced, major donors have pulled out and press reports have damaged the School’s reputation.

The Board continues to naval gaze about the personal and professional weaknesses of the Head and there has been no effort to change the above unhealthy governance behaviors. The School is in a small tight knit community often referred to as a “family.” Yet what is also remarkable about this “family” is that despite its powerful mission, the same basic scenario happened occurred ten years before under a prior Head. Apparently no lessons were learned.

John Littleford
Senior Partner