SALLY

Board Support of the Head of School

Sally Mixsell | April 28, 2022

What should Board support look like? As a board member what should I be doing if I’m adequately supporting the Head of School? What are some resources I can tap into to help me be a better board member?

BOARD MEETINGS

Attend board meetings well prepared and be ready to give your best thinking to the issues at hand.
Keep in mind that from the Head of School’s perspective, there is a ton of work to be done, in the form of reports, before each Board meeting. The Head will have put many hours into the collection, development, and compilation of relevant information for the Board to consider and will send the information ahead of the meeting. The Head will be ready to present at the meeting on issues related to these reports and will expect the Board to respond with generative questions. There’s nothing more debilitating than getting nothing in response. It suggests that the Board has not read the information sent pre-meeting, is not interested in the topics at hand (and if not, why be on the Board?), is not willing to put in the hard work of deep listening and generative thinking in order to move the school forward, or worst of all, is disinterested in the Head as the leader of the institution.
By extension, actually engaging during board meetings signals to the Head that you care, you are paying attention, and you are invested in helping them be as effective as possible. This does not mean that you are there to provide answers. Your role is to ask questions to help the Head arrive at the answers that make the best sense for the school. The Head, after all, is the only one who has all the information to make the best judgment (and if you don’t believe that to be true, then you have the wrong Head in place).
BOARD GIVING
Be one of the first to either give or pledge your annual gift to the school, and ensure that it’s at a level that makes you care about how it is used and is generous relative to your capacity to give.
All good Boards have developed a culture of philanthropy, acknowledging that they set the example for others to give generously to the School. So give what you can and give early. This gesture says a lot to the Head and their senior administrators. Whether it’s true or not, a lack of giving on your part as a trustee signals a lack of support for the Head and their Administrative Team and can feel like an indictment of the work they are doing. Non-giving sends the message loud and clear that you do not support the work of the Head.
Board giving is spearheaded by the Board Chair or the Development/Advancement Chair of the Board who should make clear the requirements for trusteeship. The Board Committee on Trustees’ Chairs needs to ensure giving expectations are clear to all prospective trustees before, during, and after they are onboarded.

VISIBILITY

Attend school events, even when it’s not about your own child (parents’ nights, annual gala, plays/musical performances, graduation).
Trustee visibility makes a difference to the Head and to other school employees. This doesn’t mean you have to make room in your schedule to attend all events, but the big ones matter. The Board should discuss who will be able to attend which events, with graduation and fundraising events being the most important, in order to signal to the entire community that the Board is interested in the life of the school and involved.

AFFIRMATIONS

Reach out to the Head and offer congratulations when something has gone particularly well and offer support when a situation has gone badly.
Periodically send an unsolicited and unexpected note to say you’ve noticed something that went well or just to note your appreciation for the Head’s work on a particular project. Unless there has been an egregious act, focus on any situation that challenges the Head as an opportunity for growth and learning, rather than blame. If you’re the Board Chair, find unplanned opportunities to tout the Head in public forums. This, in particular, can be an effective signal to the community of a healthy partnership between the Board Chair (and therefore the Board) and the Head as the leaders of the school. Such a visible partnership signals that the school is in good hands.
KEEP CALM AND STAY IN YOUR LANE
Don’t interfere in the operations of the school unless invited by the Head to engage at that level or by the Board Chair because of an untenable crisis that calls for all hands on deck.
It is tempting to get involved in the daily functioning of the school, especially when it comes to the management of the senior administrators. You must remain clear about your role as a member of the Board and especially clear on when you can or cannot be involved. If you have an opinion about a senior administrator, talk to the Head about it. Remember only one person reports directly to the Board, and that is the Head of School.
There may be times when Board Members or Committees will interact with a Senior Administrator in some official capacity. Be very clear about the guidelines for that interaction. For instance, does the Development Director use the Development Committee of the Board as a volunteer group or does this Development Committee direct the work of the Director? The answer is neither. The Development Director and the Development Committee of the Board should work in partnership. The Development Director has to keep in mind that Board Committee Members are volunteers of the school and the boss of the Development Director’s boss. It is incumbent on the administrator, in this case the Development Director, to help the Board Members know how they can help; it’s incumbent on the Board Members to know where the line is between collaborating with the administrator and acting like their “boss.” Again, the Board is the “boss” of only one person – the Head of School.

SPEAK AS ONE VOICE

The Board speaks with one voice. There is no room for your personal opinion outside of the board meeting, only the Board opinion.

Read and heed the “NAIS Best Practices of Trustees” at https://www.nais.org/media/Nais/PGPs/NAIS_PGP_ISTrustees_2017.pdf and pick up a copy of Trustee Handbook: A Guide to Effective Governance for Independent School Boards by Mary Hundley DeKuyper, published by NAIS.

Specifically related to your support of the Head you will learn, among other things, to:
  • Ensure your voice is the voice of the Board regarding any decisions that may be questioned. Don’t share any dissident personal opinion you might hold once a Board decision has been shared publicly.  

  • Direct all complaints that come your way to the Head of School. Don’t engage in “gossipy” conversation with other parents or school employees, nor take on their complaint(s) and offer to do something with it, regardless of your personal relationships. That is not your role as a trustee.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATIONS
As a member school trustee of both a regional independent school organization and NAIS, you have access to all their relevant important resources. Take advantage of them.

There are many resources available on the public websites of these organizations and if that isn’t sufficient you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out and call them when you are dealing with particularly difficult situations. 

You also have access to the data, articles and other pieces of information on the NAIS website that are reserved for member schools. Your name and email just have to have been submitted by someone at the school in order to give you access. The Head’s Assistant can usually be a good resource for this information or the person to submit your contact information.

Attend your regional or national trustee conference annually, ideally with the Head. This act alone can signal to your Head of School and the community that you care enough about your role as a Board Member that you want to grow in it. It is also an opportunity to have an informal day with the Head and other trustees, thus building a stronger group dynamic. 

DON’T OVERCOMMIT

Focus on your board work in a way that doesn’t lead to burn out. Take on only what you can to be able to give your best work to the school and the Head.

There are two things to consider. First, be on few enough committees to be able to fully invest your time and energy in them. In my experience, no one should be on more than two, if that. Everyone has difficulty saying no to responsibility and a tendency to overextend themselves, so clear limits on expectations are universally beneficial. You can help the Head and others place reasonable expectations on Trustee volunteer time by ensuring the roles of each volunteer body of the school are well-defined and in writing.

Keep close tabs on your fiduciary responsibility to view the school at the 30,000 foot level with an eye to the future. Stay current with independent school board work. Take some time to read, think, and listen to those who know and understand independent schools in order to bring relevant ideas to the table. Some places to begin include the NAIS Trendbook (annual), the NAIS magazine Independent School (quarterly by subscription), BoardSource.org,  Governance as Leadership by Chait, Ryan, and Taylor, or the NAIS podcast The Trustee Table.

Interested in learning more about how we can help? 

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