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The 20% Rule

This consultant has spoken on many occasions worldwide on the importance of the head/chair partnership. Close to 80% of all governance crises result from a rocky relationship between the head and chair; and the arrival of a new chair accompanied by the loss of other key board members loyal to the head.

But the flip side is also true, and often ignored. That is the 20% rule. That means that 20% of governance problems are caused by a chair/head partnership that becomes, or appears to be, too close so that the rest of the board feels marginalized. Resentment, even jealousy, builds up among a minority or even a majority of board members. Because the rest of the board often does not see or hear the chair’s private criticism of the head, board members may assume that the chair is blind to the head’s weaknesses and is not engaging the rest of the board adequately in policy discussions in order to protect their relationship.

Almost always, when a long term chair has had a long term partnership with the head of school, the school has experienced a period of stability as well as growth in stature and market position. The health of that partnership has meant generally fewer crises at the board level and more support for the head when he or she faces a challenge of any kind.

However, it is equally true that most long term chairs and heads can become blind to how other board members view the partnership, especially newer board members who may have little institutional memory of the earlier, more dangerous times in the life of the school and the behavior of the board.

The ultimate danger here is when the elements of a “perfect storm ,” come together:

  1. A long term partnership of head and chair;
  2. The lack of engagement by head or chair with other key board members as the head and chair become comfortable with each other;
  3. The loss of institutional memory as other long term board members leave the board; and
  4. An act or behavior by the chair and/or head which causes a subset of the board to protest and want a change in leadership.

In one case, a school, with a ten year head with the same chair for ten years, had improved dramatically over time in quality of facilities, financial condition, program and reputation. There was a strong subset of Board members who supported the Chair. However, there were one or two Board members who felt it was time for the Chair to step down and make way for another leader, perhaps one of them. The opportunity arose when the Chair indicated that he was intending to step down but gave no time fame. By mentioning this idea, however, he opened Pandora’s box.

One Board member began to work behind the scenes to ensure that the Chair kept his word. This Board member gained the support of some new inexperienced and easily co-opted Board members to nominate a new Chair mid-year. The Chair stepped aside but was clearly angry and hurt.

At the same time, and without a contract extension beyond the next 18 months, the Head accepted an invitation to put his hat in the ring for the headship at another very fine school. He was less interested in moving than he was in hedging his bets and protecting himself. While he notified his new Chair of his visit to the other School he did not notify the entire Board. This is common practice. However, regardless of this Head’s track record of outstanding leadership, he was accused now of pressing the board to renegotiate his contract before it was ready to do so.

The Head read this scenario differently. For him, it was about suddenly feeling insecure professionally as his long time partner and chair had been removed suddenly and unceremoniously after many years of dedicated leadership and no governance crises. Plus, he did not really know the new Chair at all who had come to power in an unexpected way.

While all parties here made some missteps, the lessons are clear. Any time a cadre of the board feels like outsiders, and that the head has become too powerful due to in part to the close support of the chair, there is a political risk here to healthy governance and to the head. When one adds to this mix a board member waiting in the wings to be chair; a contract not yet renewed; the loss of key board members with important institutional memory; and resentment and surprise over a head contemplating a move, then one has a recipe for an explosion of sorts.

This Head has received a short-term contract extension, a signal of sorts that the rules have changed. The new Chair is a person of integrity and is not expected to be a rubber stamp for the coterie who ousted the former Chair.

While there were many political themes at play in this situation, the 20% rule probably was the primary one. The Chair simply stayed on too long. The Head did not hear the warning signals. Too many board members left at one time and the resentment was there to be exploited.

John Littleford
Senior Partner