Making (Or Breaking) The Chair/Head Partnership:

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Making (Or Breaking) The Chair/Head Partnership:


Chemistry in the head/chair partnership, or the lack of it, can have powerful consequences for the health of a board and in turn, the health of a school.

Frequently heads are fired at the instigation of their own chairs, sometimes without the full support of the board. What makes or breaks that partnership? Often the positive or negative dynamic between the two is immediately obvious to both parties and observers as well.

In each one of Littleford and Associates’ board governance assignments with independent schools, the question of the health of the chair/head partnership comes into play early on. It may even become one of the focal points of the consultation and a key to the solution. It is that crucial.

In one school, the Chair had tired of the apparent “neediness” of the Head and her seemingly excessive demands for his time. She wanted to meet in person on a weekly basis and feeling embattled, needed a “sounding board”. He preferred to communicate by phone in an abbreviated manner according to a set agenda. For the Chair, the shorter the call, the better. Their personalities and styles were totally different. They both sought outside advice and recognized the problem. The Chair stepped down early and was replaced by someone who clearly had more time and willingness to listen and to help guide the Head through some difficult issues.

In another example, a new Chair felt a long term Head had BECOME the School, and that even though the School was stable, the Head needed to be held more accountable to the Board and to be given less free rein to operate. The Head viewed the School much as his own creation which it basically was as he was the “founder”. The new Chair was unsure about his own role and yet cared deeply for the School and the Head as well. Another strong board member counseled the Chair to step aside rather than risk an all out “war”.

That Chair is making now a significant contribution in another capacity. His successor, that same individual who advised him to step down, is stronger but not looking to replace the Head. This situation could have “blown up” at a financially stressful time for the School. The new Chair is holding the Head more accountable, and the situation was resolved amicably and supportively for all parties. Even though this consultant advocates chair terms of three to five years, in certain situations, knowing when to step aside gracefully and serve in another capacity may be the preferred outcome for the school.

Heads and chairs may not have the same background or style, and in fact most often do not. Nor do all heads and chairs want or need to be friends with one another. Yet, somehow for many the partnership is still effective and mutually affirming. How do chairs and heads forge a partnership? How do they mesh their leadership styles and learn to respect and listen to one another?

For example, one highly successful and talented chair, according to his long-term head, “has an idea a minute.” In some ways that can drive the even-tempered equally savvy head “nuts” and yet the partnership works because there is a mutual respect for one another. The Head listens to and respects the stream of ideas from his energetic Chair. The Chair is very supportive of the Head, and knows when it is appropriate to defer to the Head’s good judgment and experience. Humor is a crucial ingredient in their partnership.

One shaky partnership of a Head and Chair has begun to be rebuilt and reaffirmed after the Chair received and was open to a totally different view of a potential crisis occurring within the School. This new “view” came about, at least partly as a result of a governance workshop led by Littleford & Associates.

The Head was in a weakened position prior to the workshop as many board members had totally differing views of their roles, and a number were acting with their “parent” hat on most of the time. The Head was being blamed for events that were not her fault or were misunderstood, while her many accomplishments were overlooked by a Board that had little “institutional memory”, even after a very few years.

Saving the situation was the Head’s willingness to know she needed help and could ask for it; a Committee on Trustees Chair who saw the crisis brewing and agreed something had to be done; and a new Chair, who was willing to look at the situation from a different and new perspective and to take all his “data” from parents’ complaints and put it into an appropriate context. This School deserves great praise for the way these key leaders have brought about a greater understanding of each other’s needs.

There are also examples of a head and a chair becoming TOO close, as when the chair can become too staunch a defender and confidant of the head at times. This may LOOK like a healthy relationship, but that kind of partnership can create resentment and apathy among other board members who feel their role diminished. In the extreme, it can impair objectivity and lead to decisions that are not in the long term interests of the School. In addition to being the Head’s public and private supporter, the Chair is one of his or her most important private critics.

A recent letter written to me by a female board chair about her partnership with the female school head, contained some powerful messages about what makes for an effective team.

“The Head and I have a relationship which goes beyond the “normal” in head/chair terms. We respect one another, share a sense of commitment to the School and its strategic plan as well as the governance process – all of which should be a “given” in a Head/Chair relationship.

The Head was hired while I was a board member and so from the start I very much felt a sense of responsibility to do my part to make her tenure a success. It is a personal belief of mine that such loyalty on the part of Board Members is critical.

Within the first months of my term as Chair, the Head and I faced a “crisis” at the School and worked very closely in a prolonged and highly charged atmosphere. It was a great test of our understanding and faith in one another and had to be conducted in a highly public arena, with plenty of press coverage, legal threats, parental involvement, social censure and at one point, some internal board dissension. We were in constant daily contact for weeks at a time and the issue was resolved. It was, though difficult for all concerned, a terrific baptism of fire for the new Chair and the Head! We were launched into extremely choppy seas but we didn’t tip.

The Head and I are very direct and honest with one another in conversations about all aspects of the School and our lives. It has been that way from the start. I will defend her fiercely when I hear her criticized because I have iron clad confidence that she always acts out of belief and conviction, not expediency. She keeps me fully informed about all issues and her thinking about them. Even when we come at an issue from different angles, we don’t find it difficult to work through to agreement. I have never once felt I needed to “manage” her and I don’t think she’s ever felt she needed to “manage” me either. I don’t believe the Head and I have ever felt any sense of competition between us. We genuinely value what the other has to bring to the Board table and to our friendship as two women who have discovered they enjoy each other.”

While some may say that this is a unique partnership, from this Chair’s description comes a number of important messages:

  1. No Surprises. The Head keeps her informed. The Chair informs the Head of any political “pitfalls” of which she may be unaware. This is particularly important in a head’s early “transition” years.
  2. Constructive dialogue. They “agree to disagree” without allowing their different points of view to undermine the partnership. Rather, each becomes a better leader because of it.
  3. Fair play along with the ability to be “tough” when needed.
  4. Fierce defense of the Head when she comes under attack. This comes from the power of the partnership, the belief in supporting the Head whom she helped to choose and confidence in the integrity of the Head’s actions.
  5. An ability to handle a constituent crisis together and in a calm measured way. A knee jerk reaction to a constituent attack without the backing of the full board is the most typical example of what causes a head to be fired, and the board/head partnership to dissolve.
  6. The power of a crisis to build in chair and head a sense of trust and knowledge of how to deal with the next major issue.
  7. The Head and Chair are both stewards of the school, first and foremost.

The chemistry of the chair/head partnership is the often the lynchpin for a healthy board and thus a healthy school. Littleford & Associates, through its on site board governance assistance and often through phone and e mail consultation, mentors heads and chairs on the key ingredients of a successful head/chair relationship.

MENTORING heads and chairs is a useful, and sometimes even necessary form of outreach and an appropriate admission that the parties may not have all the answers. It is a signal of the avoidance of hubris, as the experience of others is sought.

John Littleford
Senior Partner