Around fifteen years ago I was retained to facilitate a half-day work session involving a school board and its superintendent. In our initial call to discuss the work session objectives, the board president and superintendent agreed that there was one preeminent objective: repairing a badly frayed board-superintendent partnership that, in their estimation, was dangerously close to the breaking point. The one-on-one interviews I conducted with all seven board members and the superintendent as part of my preparation for the event indicated a startling and dangerous divergence of opinion. Six of the board members strongly believed that their superintendent’s top leadership priority should be serving as the district’s “Dr. Outside,” paying close attention to community relations generally and more specifically to improving the district’s relationships with such critical stakeholders as the community college, mayor’s office, and board of county commissioners.
I vividly recall the president’s saying that she and her board colleagues had made this very clear to the superintendent, who nonetheless, she testified, continued to reside in his comfort zone as “Dr. Inside,” focusing on internal district management and administration. By contrast, my interview with the superintendent indicated that, in his opinion, in focusing on internal management matters he was doing the board’s bidding. “Are they on the same planet?” I asked myself after talking with the superintendent. I subsequently learned that neither a committee nor the full board had ever engaged in a detailed discussion with the superintendent relative to the appropriate balance of external and internal responsibilities, much less reaching formal agreement on the balance. No wonder the relationship was saddled with conflicting priorities!
This experience was a turning point in my work as governance counsel to school boards and their superintendents. Ever since then, I’ve built into board-superintendent governance retreats, such as the three Zoom sessions I’ve facilitated over the past month, a breakout group in which the superintendent presents proposed “CEO-centric” leadership targets for the coming year to 18 months, and discusses them in-depth with breakout group participants and with the the whole group in the following plenary session.
Of course, as I always remind board and cabinet members participating in a retreat, the superintendent, as the district chief executive officer, is accountable for the achievement of all district targets described in strategic and annual operating plans, but the superintendent’s CEO-centric targets involve a significant, out of the ordinary commitment of individual time and attention to very specific targets in key leadership areas, such as educational innovation, support for the board, external relations, and internal management improvement. For example, the superintendent might commit to full implementation of the new board committee structure by the end of the second quarter of the coming fiscal year, or to cementing a much stronger relationship with the chamber of commerce by the end of the year.
Two assumptions are at the heart of these CEO-centric targets: that all CEOs, including superintendents, have a fair degree of discretion in allotting their leadership time and attention; and that such priority setting is a valid board concern.
A growing number of school districts and other public and nonprofit organizations have added CEO-centric targets to the annual evaluation of superintendent performance, for the simple reason that they can help to avert nuts and bolts priority clashes like the one I opened this post with. They are, therefore, proving to be an important key to building and maintaining a close, productive, and enduring board-superintendent partnership.