The Importance of the Board / Head of School Relationship

NOTE:  SAIS is proud to partner with NAIS to provide a board/head governance learning opportunity at the annual Winter Retreat to be held in Atlanta on January 13-14, 2010.  Find information on this professional development opportunity here.

I often compare my involvement in the board / head relationship to that of marriage therapy.  In a very real sense, this is an accurate comparison.  Much as a family’s contentment and success is contingent upon a harmonious and respectful relationship between the parents, a school community’s success is contingent upon a harmonious relationship between the head of school and the board.

A difference obviously exists in that the board consists of multiple personalities and values.  However, when a board functions appropriately as a single unit, where individual board members have no authority or influence outside of the whole board, the analogy comes back into focus.  Additionally when we consider the relationship between the board chair — who is the board’s point person — and the head, it becomes much clearer why this comparison is appropriate.

Key ingredients for a successful marriage include maintaining a common purpose, excellent communication, and respect.  These are the same key ingredients for a successful board / head relationship.  Ensuring that these remain a focus of the relationship is essential for excellent governance.  It is also important to remember that ultimately it is all about the success of the students in a school and not about the individual interests of board members or the head of school.  Maintaining a service mentality when approaching a role in governing or leading a school is crucial.

When the board and the head completely focus on the school’s mission as the purpose for the school’s existence, then the whole school community benefits. For independent schools, the mission drives all decision making, from both a policy perspective and an operations perspective. If the mission for the school is unclear or disagreed upon, the governance of the school is likely to suffer.  This will lead to a less than optimal experience for the students and the unique value of independent school education will be diminished. It is only when the board and the head are in agreement on the mission and purpose that a chance exists for the maximum fulfillment of the mission.

Likewise, the head and the board must be truly transparent and honest in their communications — even when the communications are not pleasant — to avoid a fracture within the school community. Given that the board is the keeper of the mission and the head is the executer of the mission, it is easy to understand why smooth communication between them is important.

Lastly, the ingredient of respect is an imperative.  Though the board and the head will not see eye-to-eye on every issue, mutual respect between them will ensure a harmonious and successful school community.  Some disagreements will necessarily defer to the board as the final decision maker and some will defer to the head of school, based on whether the issue is a governance or operational issue.  However, when disagreements occur and decisions are made, a position where all are publicly on the same page allow key players to work from a united front.

In sum, it is impossible for excellence to exist in an independent school without excellent governance and leadership.  With this in mind, it is important that both boards and heads of school work hard on their common relationship.  Clearly, the beneficiaries of their efforts are the students, and providing a top quality educational environment for the students is the ultimate goal of independent school education.

NOTE:  SAIS is proud to partner with NAIS to provide a board/head governance learning opportunity at the annual Winter Retreat to be held in Atlanta on January 13-14, 2010.  Find information on this professional development opportunity here.

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