If you are a head of school, there is a fairly clear set of qualities you want in the board chair and you hope to find most of these in each succeeding chair. There are also qualities that other board members want in a chair. Some of those may conflict with the traits that heads may seek, but in general, the right chair will be both the one that the head wants and the one that fellow board members want as well.
What are the basics?
- Enlightened Intelligence: We need chairs who are bright, quick thinkers, and capable of leading people, companies and embassies. Equally important we need board leaders who can also be humble. Some board chairs are not equipped well enough in this area while others are super stars.
- Collaboration: We want chairs who will listen well, promote collaboration among board members and within subcommittees of the board and partner with the head in a spirit of cooperation.
- Courage and Strength of Character: There will be one or more times when the Chair will have to stand beside the Head and defend the School and its leadership in a crisis, whether that may be an unpopular difficult decision, an unexpected turn of events or a tragedy affecting the school family. This is a gut instinct that chairs must have.
- Warmth and Compassion: We all want board chairs who, while firm and courageous, also have empathy, compassion, and a caring soft side. Heads certainly want evidence of this balance to the “hard-nosed” position chairs may need to take at times.
- Family-centered: The chair will be protective of his or her own family and must also understand that the head may have a partner or spouse and family with their own unique needs. Nurturing and caring for the head and the head’s family are among the core roles of the board chair. This includes being attuned to how important the contract renewal process is to the head and to being sensitive about establishing an appropriate head evaluation process and undertaking it seriously and diligently.
- A Specific Managerial Skill Set: If a chair has learned to work with a board and has had to hire, mentor and fire employees, he or she will bring an added important dimension to the board room. Managing and working with a group of diverse personalities and guiding, and if necessary, disciplining errant trustees will not be foreign to a chair with these skills and experience.
- A Passion for the School and for Education: A genuine passion for the school’s mission, not status or a desire for power, should drive the chair’s motivation for the position.
- A Desire for, Not Pursuit of the Role: Those we want to avoid asking are the following: someone who really does NOT want the job or someone who wants the job TOO much or manipulates others out of the job. Talented and valuable board members are often those whom we need to persuade to take it.
- The Ability to Spot and Cultivate Talent: The chair needs to be able to identify talent among current and prospective leaders/prospective board members, and some of these talents may be latent and in need of encouragement and development. The chair may need to give certain individuals opportunities to shine
- The Ability and Willingness to Take Charge: A chair’s role is to appoint committee chairs, help assign members to committees and be a visible spokesperson for, and representative of the school in the internal and external community. He or she should be authoritative but not arrogant and thus command respect from constituents and outside groups.
- The Capacity and Willingness to Give Charitably: The chair must set an example by donating to the school’s annual and capital campaigns within his or her means and certainly at a level that represents personal sacrifice. This is important now even in international schools.
- A Sensitivity to Social Issues: It is important that the chair embrace diversity and demonstrate tolerance and open-mindedness that convey to all a willingness to learn.
- A Commitment to Serve at Least Three to Five Years: Long-term chairs lead to long-term heads and stable schools, but if circumstances require that a chair step aside, he or she must be willing to do so.
- A Commitment to the Time That the Role Requires: Serving as board chair requires significant time away from one’s profession and family. If a chair candidate cannot make this time commitment or if a current chair can no longer devote the time required to the positon, then he or she must step aside. Chairs who find that they are spending an inordinate amount of time at school or on school business may not have an understanding of the role.
- An Understanding of Micromanagement: We do not need or want the chair to be present on campus frequently, wandering the halls, visiting classrooms or canvassing teachers and parents about “how the head is doing”. The role of board chair is a volunteer position. He or she leaves personnel, curriculum and day-to-day management functions to the Head and his or her team who are paid to carry them out.
Can you find such a person who embodies at least most of these traits and experience? Can the Board? Do you have more than one candidate in the pipeline? You need to look carefully and seriously.
The chair of the Committee on Trustees/governance committee/nominating committee/policy committee (all names for the same committee) is charged, along with the Head, the current chair and other key members of the Committee on Trustees with ensuring that the right chair follows the right chair. Chair succession is not a beauty contest, a competition, a resume building opportunity and definitely not a race for social status and public visibility. Preferably, our chairs will already possess access, leverage and power and will bring that to the board room for the benefit of the school.
John C. Littleford