A few years ago a really bright and thoughtful superintendent almost 18 months into her first superintendency reached out to me for help. In our first two-hour coaching session, I learned that, in her opinion, she was handling her first stint at the top really well. The new chief financial officer she’d hired had already fixed some serious deficiencies in the financial reporting function, her speaking engagements at the chamber’s annual meeting and other community forums were getting rave reviews, and her intensive hands-on work with principals was bearing fruit in terms of heightened morale in the buildings. But, she reported, in a meeting with her board president the week before last, following up on an executive session of the board, she’d learned that there was unanimous agreement that she’d badly dropped the ball in working with the board, whose members felt taken for granted and disrespected. Among other things, board members had been caught off guard several times over the past year by developments the superintendent hadn’t briefed them on, and the promised quarterly one-on-one meetings with board members hadn’t yet gotten off the ground. Bottom line? To her shock, this newcomer to the C-suite found herself having to repair a badly frayed relationship with the one stakeholder in a position to deal her career a serious blow.
I’ve encountered more than a few very similar situations over the years. When superintendent-aspirants take the helm of a district, among the stiffest challenges they face is building a solid partnership with their new board, and many, sad to say, are not up to the challenge. There is wide agreement in the field of K-12 governance that the single most lethal threat to a newly minted superintendent’s professional success and longevity in the C-suite is a shaky working relationship with the board that can’t withstand the normal stresses and strains at the top. So our readers who are superintendent-aspirants – along with superintendents who are interested in fine-tuning and strengthening the partnership with their board – will want to watch the video interview I recorded recently with four outstanding, really board-savvy superintendents: Dr. Talisa Dixon (Columbus City Schools, Ohio); Dr. Oliver Robinson (Shenendehowa Central School District, New York); Dr. Marc Schaffer (Thompson School District, Colorado); and Dr. Aaron Spence (Virginia Beach City Public Schools, Virginia).
All four of these seasoned K-12 leaders have succeeded in fashioning close, productive, and enduring partnerships with their boards. Drawing on their experience, they turned our interview into a mini graduate course replete with practical, thoroughly tested strategies that senior K-12 administrators who are superintendent-aspirants can employ in building the kind of partnership with their new board they must have to survive and thrive when they take the helm of a district.
Talisa, Oliver, Marc, and Aaron well know, as you’ll learn from our video interview, that one of the most important keys to cementing the partnership with their boards has been getting up close and personal with individual board members. This means spending enough one-on-one time with the individuals making up the board to understand what motivated them to run for the board in the first place, the professional return they hope to realize from their investment of time and energy in governing, the governance issues they’re passionately interested in, the governing work that they find most – and least – satisfying, their communication preferences, etc. Some of our readers might resist this very personal dimension of relationship building, both because it can claim a large dollop of superintendent time and it flies in the face of the traditional notion that the superintendent should avoid close interaction with board members. My counsel? The time commitment will be well worth making, and the traditional notion never made sense.
All four of these board-savvy K-12 leaders have also learned that the superintendent must take the lead in helping her board develop its governing capacity, wearing that I call the “Board Developer-in-Chief” hat. Experience has taught them that boards are not self-developing governing bodies, and they well know that the members of a board whose governing role, structure, and processes are well-developed will have a more productive and satisfying governing experience and, therefore, will make for stronger, more reliable partners.