The Governance Game III: The Importance of Transitions

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The Governance Game III: The Importance of Transitions

(Part Three of a Four Part Letter on Governance)

  1. The Dangerous Times:
  2. The most dangerous time for a school is when it changes heads. The dangerous times can encompass the last year of the departing head, the search process itself, and/or the first three years of the new head.

    The second most dangerous time for an independent school is when it changes board chairs. Few schools are aware of the power vacuum and potential for fall out between the new chair and the current head or a current chair working with a new head. New chairs often want to make their own “mark”, make a difference, or leave a legacy. This may or may not coincide with the head’s own sense of the school’s mission and direction.

    Should heads be influential in the selection of a new chair? Absolutely. Otherwise, the school may find itself looking for a new head as well.

    In previous articles, we have stressed the importance of institutional memory to a healthy, stable and mature board. This requires that board members serve longer terms, more than simply two, three-year terms. The chair should serve at least a two to five-year term. All of this presupposes that the committee on trustees is doing a reasonable job in designating, cultivating, selecting, orienting, training and evaluating trustees.

    From solid institutional memory on boards comes a greater likelihood of longer serving heads, which means more stable schools, and more meaningful legacies of leadership.

    A joke making the rounds, but a joke with real truth, runs as follows:

    In the first year of a new head, the search committee congratulates itself. In the second year of the head, the Chair congratulates the head on performance. In the third year of this head, a “rump” group of trustees meets at the local country club and asks: “Who hired this person?”

    Institutional memory is crucial to keeping heads in place, as only the original board and search committee remembers why the head was hired in the first place and the vision that the new head articulated so well.

  3. The Importance of Transitions:
    1. The Transition of the Head.
    2. Most schools hire a search firm to find head prospects. Once the head has been selected, very few boards actually follow through with any real implementation of transition concepts or plans.

      When a new head is retained, there is usually a honeymoon period. It normally lasts one year and with a lucky few heads, up to three years. The proverbial baggage begins to build up in the second and third year.

      The transition questions should include:

      How can the Board make the transition and physical move for the head and family as easy and comfortable as possible?

      How can the Board ensure that the head’s children and spouse have made the adjustment and change smoothly?

      Are the head’s children well placed and happy in their schools?

      Is the head’s spouse feeling gainfully employed or useful and not just an appendage of the head?

      Has the board ensured that the financial resources for a smooth move and effective transition are available?

      Has the board or a committee of the board taken on the role of pointing up the danger zones, the cracks in the school’s culture, the political pitfalls, the unusual personalities, and the wayward and maverick teachers that a new head will face?

      Has the board ensured that the head and chair are a good match? Often the search chair becomes the new board chair.

      Has the board established a clear evaluation process to guide and support the head?

      Has the board made the head aware, and is the board aware itself, of certain close bonds that exist between trustees and individual teachers and staff members, ties that could compromise the head’s ability to lead?

      Does the board have realistic expectations and have they been communicated to the head? Or has the board laid on too much in the way of goals and assignments, that if implemented, may endanger the head’s political “capital” with various constituencies?

      The head transition process takes 1-3 years, depending on the issues, the length of service of the prior head, and the length of service and power of the faculty.

      Transitions: The Power Vacuum

      In most changes of head, there is one of two scenarios:

    1. The departing head was long term, retained both positional and moral power and authority, and left on good terms, perhaps even as a departing hero. In this case, (if there was no interim head), the new head could be viewed as a lesser “light”, no matter how good he or she may be.
    2. The danger here is that the new head may take on too many changes too fast, or does not become thoughtfully and carefully familiar with the culture and the teachers (and their families) before initiating change. Any head who follows along term apparently successful head needs to “lay low” for a year, even two years, to fully assess the legacy of his or her predecessor. Most long term heads become gods after they have left, even if they had not achieved that status while they were there.

      Many of these long term departing heads leaned on key faculty and had long-time faculty favorites, who will be gunning for the new head if he or she tries to take on their “rights” or privileges and semi-feudal kingdoms.

      -or-

    3. The previous head was short term, unpopular and forced out, or was long-term and an absentee landlord in the final years. In either case, real power is likely to have devolved to the faculty, and the board might have engaged in micro management. In both cases, the board may ask the new head to make some initial moves, to take back some power that was perceived as given away to the faculty and to initiate some form of teacher accountability, perhaps through teacher evaluation. New heads will try to build their own administrative team. This, while logical, can exacerbate faculty fears of change. If the changes initiated by the new head occur too fast, the faculty will do an “end run” to the board and help initiate a move to dump the new head. This happens regularly in some schools where head turnover is high. The power vacuum is always filled by the faculty first, then the board. Then a new head is hired to regain lost leadership ground, only to find that he or she is fired as they wade into an increasingly powerful faculty “turf.”
    4. The Transition of Chairs

    Many boards make a serious mistake in not planning far in advance for chair transitions and in ensuring that effective chairs serve longer. No chair should be asked to serve without first asking the head to convey clearly and confidentially to the current chair whether the choice or choices available are compatible with the head’s style, views and personality.

    How are new chairs selected? How democratic should the process be? It should not be democratic at all. Independent schools are not democracies and those that attempt to function as such are the least healthy ones in terms of governance practices.

    Some chairs feel they should step down just because they have served two years. Others may feel they are overwhelmed by workload and parent phone calls.

    Chairs should serve at least 3-5 years, and should be encouraged to remain longer IF:

    1. They have a good working relationship with a valued head
    2. The board supports the chair’s leadership
    3. The chair’s personal and professional life is not adversely affected by continued service

    Chairs who find themselves buried and overloaded by school related work and phone calls may be falling into a pattern of micro management or may be a part of a board that tends to act more like a parents association dealing with minutiae, than a policy board dealing with strategic planning.

    Heads should be asked for an opinion on a successor chair and that request should be made of them confidentially. The head’s first choice should be given significant weight. Taking a poll of the board’s suggestions for the next chair can bruise egos and lead to the selection of a chair candidate with whom the head cannot work effectively.

    There is something still to be said in having a very small group of “wise men and women”, perhaps a small committee on trustees, consult very confidentially with the head and chair to ensure the proper choice of a new chair is made. No one need have hurt feelings that they were “passed over” as chair.

    The Transition and Choice of New Trustees

    Trustee cultivation, screening, selection, orientation, training and evaluation falls to the committee on trustees. Most trustee candidates are elected from the parent body, or are chosen based on friendship and connections, and not necessarily based on what the individual could contribute in the way of resources, leadership, and wisdom. Mechanical and technical skills are not a powerful reason for choosing a trustee. Those services may be purchased. The most important criteria should be commitment, loyalty and wisdom. Having resources as well may be crucial to the school’s long term health.

    New trustees should not be elected to “represent” a constituency, such as parents, alumni or teachers. If this practice proliferates, the natural outcome is that trustees see themselves as representing a specific group and their narrow interests rather than the mission of the school as a whole. “Trustee” is a good word because effective trustees, properly chosen, are entrusted with the school’s mission, its history, its present a s well as its future.

    Trustees may be drawn from the parent body and the alumni. However, they should be selected because they bring some powerful sense of the school’s mission to the table, not because they “represent” some group.

    Faculty representation on the board is unusual in US independent schools, and with good reason. It rarely works well. The head of school represents and should represent the faculty and their interests and needs, unless there is a union or internal collective bargaining unit on site, or the equivalent of same. If there is a union, or internally powerful faculty committee, the fox should not be allowed into the chicken coup. No school with an “organized” faculty should have faculty also represented on the board, as representation has already been chosen through collective bargaining.

    No new trustee should be chosen and asked to serve without the head first having met and “vetted” that individual through an informal process where the candidate does not know yet they are a candidate. Once that initial conversation with the head has occurred, the committee on trustees then may screen more formally the suggested new board member, asking for permission to place his or her name in nomination.

    At a recent governance workshop, when it was noted that no new trustee should be asked to serve if that individual could not work with the head and share his or her vision for the school, one trustee remarked: “If you do that, then all the trustees will support the head!” Precisely. Otherwise the board may as well fire the head now and start all over with a new search process.

  4. Transitions in the Board Chair/Head Partnership
  5. Board chairs are the chief defenders and critics of heads. They are the head’s first and most important line of defense against unfair parents, one issue trustees or teachers frightened of change. However, the chair must also have sufficient rapport with the head to provide needed criticism and appropriate feedback.

    When the chair/head partnership breaks down, the entire school and its political culture are in jeopardy. However, when the chair/head partnership is viewed as too close and the chair is viewed as providing unquestioned loyalty to the head, both the chair and the head are in danger as other trustees may become resentful of the power and the partnership of the chair/head team.

    The next article in this series on board governance will address board committees, their structures and functions and how they should handle strategic issues facing the school.