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Why Board Chairs Serve?

Everyone involved in the work of schools wants to know that a thoughtful, considerate, wise, energetic and caring chair (or rarely, co chairs) is at the helm of the board.

Yet, why do individuals take on this assignment? This Consultant has observed some typical motivations in school board chairs over the past 25 years, and the same pattern of behavior occurs worldwide. Reviewing these motivations is key to identifying, selecting and retaining the kind of board chair that our schools need.

1. My Child or My School

Certainly, the number one motivator for those willing to serve as a board chair of an independent or international school is the passion for their own child or children in the school and a desire to ensure that the school is a strong and safe place to educate them. Others may be graduates who want to relive fond past memories as a former student

Many fewer of them take the longer term view of wanting what is best not only for “my child” but for the children of other families who will follow. A minority of board chairs may not have children in the school but have a desire to “give back” as either a former parent or alumnus. This kind of service of course represents a much higher level of emotional charity and is a far leap from loving the role as a current parent with the narrower interests of his/her children in mind.

2. A Goal in Mind

Certainly, some chairs have a particular agenda, which could be building a new building, enhancing the football program, adding the IB, serving children with special needs or talents, etc. Or these individuals may have a strong sense of loyalty to one or more members of teaching staff, the head of school or to fellow board members.

3. Personal Drive

These are the individuals who worry me most often. They have a strong need either to lead, to be needed, to control, or to be seen as the power base of the board.

I have found these individuals in all types of schools but generally, they seem to be attempting to compensate for some hole in their personal or professional lives. They may be without a job or an interesting profession and thus make the chair role their daily work. They generally desire power no matter what, even if they clash with the Head, or his or her vision or goals. If either the head or the chair is going to leave, in the mind of this type of chair, it will be the head who leaves.

How often do these particular individuals rise to the level of board chair of our schools? In my 25 years of consulting, I would estimate, (thank goodness) that I have come across them only about ten percent of the time. But that ten percent can wreak havoc in their schools and in the lives of the heads who work with them.

I have often stated that it is not wise to select chairs with too much time on their hands or who are overly eager to assume the role. Sometimes, these individuals do a wonderful job with that time or desire, but more likely, although well intentioned, they micro manage the school and wander the halls on almost a daily basis. A few have even arranged to have their own office set up inside the school.

However, there is a more insidious type of board chair, the one whose need for power and influence is highly inappropriate. His or her behavior may range from subtle but almost constant undermining of the head and other board members to the outrageous.

Two cases in point:

One Chair loved the School’s reputation and visibility in the community. To be this School’s Chair was a honor and public accolade that he sought and was reluctant to relinquish once he experienced it. He fired two Heads, picked his friends for the Board, and drove the School’s vision, mission and strategic agenda. He was also politically savvy enough to maintain a cordial connection with a power base within the faculty and with a group of influential parents in order to retain his position. While I always support preserving institutional memory by having trustees serve longer on the board, in this case, this was a mistake as this individual managed to hang on to the chair role for far too long.

The second case is hard to believe, but true. The Head and the Chair agreed to call this Consultant to see if an outsider could mediate their differences. In the dining room of the Head’s home, the Chair actually told me that he was “called” to become the Head himself because one of his twin children, deceased in youth, came to him in a dream and told him that he should become Headmaster of this School.

My incredulous response was met with a hard stare as he told me that he was completely serious and that he believed that he could run the School better than the Head. He did manage to persuade his coterie of friends on the Board to fire the Head and he named himself interim Chair for two years until his Board fired him as Head and dismissed him from the Board.

Periodically, but rarely, a board chair will step into the head’s role for a very short period of time, with board support. Sometimes this is actually helpful and stabilizing. In the majority of cases where this occurs, however, it is a sign of serious governance dysfunction.

These two cases may seem extreme and admittedly the second is. Nevertheless, in about ten percent of our schools, the chair is not the right person for the role and yet he or she is clever, friendly and networked enough to persuade credulous board members to keep him/her in that role, even to the detriment of the staff, students and school.

What To Do?

What does a head or board do when saddled with a chair who ultimately turns out to be excessively interested in the role or overly controlling and thus unable to get along with the head and fellow board members?

Depending on the school’s bylaws and amount of trustee turnover, it may not be easy to have this person step down before substantial damage is done. The same personality traits that allow such an individual to maneuver him or herself into the chair role make it difficult for others to finesse an ouster. And a head of school should never attempt to oust his/her chair. Very seldom, this works but usually, it backfires. There is the one international case where the Head was indeed successful in overturning the Chair, but the very fact that the incident became the basis of a book probably signals how rare an occurrence this is.

So where to turn?

The board should turn to a governance committee or committee on trustees led by a reputable individual or that committee chair should take the initiative. But this assumes such a committee exists; that the person chairing it is a strong and wise personality; and that the person is willing to see the “illness” and take action. There are a lot of assumptions here.

More often than not, a truly inappropriate chair leaves only when he or she decides for personal or professional reasons to leave or often in the case of international schools, the family is transferred.

What do the Principles of Good Practice tell us to do? Here are some options:

  1. Always ensure that the committee on trustees/governance committee chair is strong, a likely potential successor to the board chair and a person of absolute integrity. This is the most important role on the board, other than that of the chair.
  2. Ensure that the COT chair has two or three highly respected committee members; knows that chair evaluation is part of the committee’s role; and performs that task confidentially and diligently every year.
  3. In day schools, encourage a chair term of three years with a maximum of an addition possible two, leading to a total of five years before stepping aside. In boarding school settings, that term may be a little longer.
  4. Have some sort of chair succession plan in place
  5. Try to ensure that the COT can assess confidentially the nature and health of the partnership of the head and chair, without risking the head’s own job security

Some schools have a “super board”, church, corporate owner, or “instituto” or some higher smaller governing structure that oversees or guides a board of an independent or international school. In those cases, and they are few, that structure may be the one empowered to step in and remove an overly powerful or disruptive chair.

In the absence of either a “super board”, a strong committee on trustees or a head willing to risk his or her job to suggest that the overly controlling chair should resign, then the school is simply out of luck until the dysfunctional chair moves on.

It should be said at this juncture that some great chairs should be allowed to serve more than five years simply because they are doing an outstanding job. But in that case, an annual reelection process with a very confidential evaluation of the chair should still occur as a “check” that longevity has not lead to the emasculation of the board and the centering of almost all power in one person.

So, Who Are the “Good “Guys”?

For every one board chair out of ten who has a problem managing the role, there are nine who do it fairly well, to very well. These wise chairs embrace a healthy partnership with the head; they build consensus on their boards; they give passion, time (and often money); and they are steadfastly loyal.

Here are two outstanding examples:

One Chair encouraged his Head after eight very challenging years of leadership to take a sabbatical. The Chair suggested that she propose to the Board a year-long project at half pay according to School policy and then to apply to a local foundation for the other half of his salary. This would allow the Head to enjoy a full year sabbatical with full pay and benefits.

A local foundation came through and paid $100,000 toward the project. The Head returned re-energized and committed to three more years as Head.

The Head learned much later that the grant from the area foundation in fact came from her own Chair who had donated to the foundation in order to underwrite the Head’s research project and related costs. That was a generous and thoughtful partner.

Another example of a stellar Chair was one who led an international school Board for several years. He and the Head had a great run together as the School’s enrollment grew; its programs expanded in number and quality; and in general it rose in stature among international schools worldwide. Due to a serious illness, however, the Head was absent during much of his eighth year as Head. The Chair was clear to the community that the Board would do a search for an interim not a permanent replacement and would support unequivocally the Head’s desire to recover completely and return to his post.

The Head passed away. Many of the administrators whom he mentored are now successfully heading other schools worldwide. His strong legacy continues.

The Board Chair has stepped down now. But his leadership gave that Head courage and hope as well as the assurance that his family would be financially secure as a result of the compensation package that the Board had provided over the years.

These two Chairs are examples of incredible partners to their Heads. There are many more like them worldwide in independent and international schools. We can only celebrate them and be grateful for them and for the example that they set.

John Littleford
Senior Partner