The Private School Board: Competency Squared
Viewing School from the Inside Out–Part I
By Senior Partner Chuck Evans
For twelve years, I have spent the majority of my time on the outside of schools looking in. I typically play the role of the third party, the objective observer who has enough of a combination of distance and experience to give (mostly) good advice. I happen, though, to be writing this in my last week as the interim head of The Covenant School in Dallas, a six hundred student K-12 school celebrating its 25th year.
So this year has been an interesting mix of perspectives. Though still able to work with several other schools on strategic and financial planning initiatives, much of my year has been absorbed with the daily life of a school community. Leading Covenant has provided me with something like a time warp, comparing and contrasting the patterns of activity and relationships in 2018 with my last full-time head of school position in Austin in 2006.
The Board: Competency Squared
“For a board to really do its job, referencing best practice, concentrating on strategy, planning for the future, you have to have competency on both sides of the balance sheet.”
That’s how Covenant’s Board Chair J.J. Barto put it recently. Meaning that, if only the head or only the board are capably working at any given time, good governance becomes all but impossible.
A few years ago, I had an epiphany about independent school boards and the bad rap they often (always) tend to get. (By the way, I wrote about this in another vein here.) The epiphany came in the form of a question: What if the things we complain about regarding our boards are caused not so much by the boards themselves, but by a lack of competent leadership from heads of school and their staffs?
In our Transformative Boards video training series, I spend some confessional time describing how I contributed to the occasional dysfunctional relationships I had with my boards as a head of school. Pushing an agenda ahead of the board’s ability to acclimate to my ideas, insisting on legalistically bright lines between me and my staff and the board or its committees, quietly criticizing the way the board works or how individual board members conduct themselves. It’s relationship 101 stuff, and it matters.
Barto’s point about the competency balance sheet highlights an organizational dynamic that is easily overlooked. That is, despite a board’s proclivity to go off the rails of its own accord, it may be just as common that boards find themselves behaving badly or operating unconstructively in response to deficits in the head of school’s leadership.
An entirely fictitious illustration might help here. A parent complains informally to a friend who happens to be a board member about how his child is being disciplined in school. The board member dutifully directs the parent to the chain of command, but he also can’t help hearing that others have similar complaints. So our concerned board member asks around a little about what’s going on-perhaps even mentioning the concern to the head or the division head responsible for the action.
Now, at this point, you might say that the board member has veered out of his lane. From a legalistic standpoint, that may be true. The board manual advises board members not to invite complaints from fellow parents about problems they can’t solve and insists on a strict grievance protocol. In most independent schools, though, reality is rarely that simple. People care. They care about their friends, they care about their friends’ kids, and they care about the well-being of the school.
So, in this (I repeat) entirely fictitious scenario, the aggrieved parent remains unsatisfied and logically appeals over the head of school for some relief from, who else? The board.
And here’s where the balance sheet analogy kicks in. If the board members have a high degree of confidence in the head’s wisdom and consistency, it is a relatively simple matter to send the complaint back down to the administration and let the supplicating parent know that that’s the end of the road. Competency in governance matched by competent administration.
If, however, the board as a whole doubts the head’s judgment or doubts the adequacy of his supervision of his own staff, a different conversation ensues. And it’s not always a “let’s give parents who are our friends what they want” discussion, which is what is often assumed by the chain of command. It is likely more fundamental than that, and it can legitimately reside at the heart of a board’s responsibility to preserve and protect the mission.
Good boards, I have observed, have a fine instinct to prevent harm to the school, and for many board members that plays out in experience more than rules of engagement.
What could do more harm, a board might ask (if not explicitly then unconsciously): For a student or group of students to be treated capriciously in violation of our values or for a parent to be granted an unorthodox audience so we can get a clearer view of how our head does his job?
For many heads of school, the conundrum, if one is acknowledged, is simply resolved. Boards should always remain in their prefigured disinterested roles and defer to the judgment of the professional staff, regardless of misgivings. That’s how we maintain the balance of power.
From a board member’s perspective though, both as a parent and a governor, solving the riddle can be, and I might say should be, more complicated. If in fact, the head of school has made a significant mistake, should that go un-repaired? And if that mistake is one piece of a larger pattern of similar misjudgments or poor management, wouldn’t the board be derelict in its duty not to intervene?
Again, the formulae we learn in governance workshops (attended mostly by heads of school, absent board members) stand at the ready:
“If you can’t trust your head to make wise decisions you’ve got the wrong head.”
Or, “If a board entertains one complaint about the head’s performance it creates a precedent to adjudicate all future complaints.”
Neither of which are necessarily true in real life.
But when a board finds itself repeatedly placed in preventative mode against harm the professional staff might do, it loses its ability to govern well. And that’s not necessarily the board’s fault.
So, in addition to the need for boards to be developed professionally to balance the competency equation, heads need similar development.
When, though, was the last time you saw a workshop at an independent school conference teaching heads how to hold up their end of the leadership bargain? I envision a title like
“How Not To Do Dumb Stuff and Drive Your Board Off the Rails”.
Or, maybe “Your Board’s A Bad Board, and It’s Probably Your Fault”.
We’ll see who shows up at the next conference.