In Mandarin, “Ji-huey” means BOTH Crisis and Opportunity. That is a good “handle” to think about board governance issues in independent and international schools
- One Board found itself divided over whether or not to proceed with a proposed new Master Plan. The opportunities were exciting but the costs were intimidating. The new Head made a definitive statement supporting the Plan because he wholeheartedly believed that it made enormous sense for the School long-term. He found his political capital undermined when he alienated the part of the Board who were sensitive to parental concerns about the long term implications of rising tuitions and debt service The Board split ranks.
However, in a board workshop which this consultant conducted to help assist with these issues, both humor and good will were evident. The board is now rebuilding and trust and confidence have been restored on both sides
- A Board chair, thinking he understood the intent of the founding Head to retire, moved ahead with a plan for a search and transition process only to find that the Head did not have the same interpretation of the timing or outcome. Stresses put the enrollment and financial health of the School at risk as parents speculated about the future leadership of the School.
Head, Chair and Board are now working together again, hand in hand, to plan for a smooth transition. Evidence of renewed trust and greater understanding were apparent after on site consultation and a workshop on governance and transition.
- A Board at first agreed to support a change to the current bylaws to allow the current Chair to serve another term, but then fearing this might set an inappropriate precedent, decided to move ahead with a new and untested Chair. This decision complicated the transition of the relatively new Head and created worries about the stability which the current Board had enjoyed and which had served the School well.
With guidance from Littleford & Associates, a succession plan with which all parties are comfortable is now in place.
A successful resolution of all three of these governance issues was facilitated by on site consultation from Littleford & Associates, resolution that could not have been addressed by an on line survey or other generic tool. Sometimes it is critical to conduct on site board training to avoid a brewing governance crisis, repair damaged feelings or reestablish a confidential and secure environment for open and honest board dialogue. By listening discretely, carefully and thoughtfully to the issues and becoming familiar with the board and school culture, a consultant can provide invaluable assistance when a school, head and/or board might not be able to work through issues on their own. He or she can even help prevent crises, divisiveness or unhealthy behaviors from developing in the first place. An objective third party expert can often deliver the necessary message when the chair or head too close to the situation cannot.
Thoughtful boards think about the transition of new heads and undertake transition planning and workshops. Thoughtful boards do annual governance training not only for new board members but for all returning board members as well. Governance training is not for a time of crisis only. It is mainly to be undertaken by healthy boards attempting to ensure that when the next challenge or crisis arises, all the relationships, rules of the game and understandings are clear from the outset so that the board and head stay on the same page.
Recently, when a School proposed a double-digit tuition increase to fund higher faculty salaries and to provide programs competitive with those of excellent local public schools, the Board was taken aback by a strong parent movement by parents challenging the increase. They expressed their disgruntlement by circulating a petition.
A small group of highly organized parents began to press the issue beyond demands for a tuition roll back alone. They raised questions about the make up of the Board and the need, in their minds, to put on the Board the leaders of the protest group in order to ensure their adequate representation.
The Board itself began to question whether enough information had been provided for discussion and whether its reasoning and communications processes had been thorough enough. Both the Chair and Head came under some criticism within the Board as well. How should they respond to the parent petition, which was growing in the number of signatures?
Some parents proposed a town meeting with the Board, never a good idea in the best of times and a very bad idea when parents are pressing for one large town “forum” to vent their frustration. Such meetings are usually counter productive, often attended by the angriest parents, while contented parents stay at home rather than come to support the Board. Such meetings are usually held in a gym or other “cold” settings where normal rules of decorum and appropriate behavior become lost in angry exchanges. Board leadership can often be undermined or make statements in the heat of response which cause later fallout.
This School, in consultation with our firm, decided upon a series of small parent meetings at the School where up to 12 parents at a time could sign up for sessions attended by the Head, key Board leaders and a few key administrators. The sessions were kept intimate, the setting was not massive, the tone of the space and exchanges were open, sometimes cantankerous, but productive and generally professional. Over 120 parents attended 12 such sessions over two weeks.
Many proposals were on the table including some radical ones that would have weakened the financial independence and viability of the school in the long run had the Board rushed to implement them in order to quiet the disgruntled parents. Ultimately, the Board, in a frank discussion of the issues, agreed to more modest changes in tuition policy that would not threaten the future financial underpinnings of the School but signaled responsiveness to parental anxieties AND to focus more on developing non-tuition sources of revenue.
All in all, the Chair, Head and Board handled a crisis masterfully.
This consultant has heard often from boards, in early stages of discussion about a brewing crisis, “We can do this ourselves.” That is very often true, but not always and it is in that “call”, that many boards are rolling the dice.