Preparing for the “Board-Savvy Superintendent” workshop I’ll be presenting later this month for the Midlands Superintendents’ Academy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I was reminded of a sad true story that isn’t all that uncommon in my experience. An extremely bright and dedicated superintendent was terminated by her school board “without cause,” despite having played a leading role in securing a $100 million foundation grant for her district, cementing a close working relationship with her district’s faculty union, and significantly boosting her district’s educational performance. Ironically, being shown the door by her board coincided with her being named a Superintendent of the Year finalist by AASA. This nationally recognized chief executive officer was guilty of only one serious leadership lapse: failing to pay sufficient attention to keeping the relationship with her school board healthy.
This sad story got me to thinking about the “insidious foes” that I’ve encountered in my work with boards and superintendents over the years. “Insidious foe” is my name for an erroneous assumption about the business of governing that can do serious damage to the board-superintendent working relationship. What makes these assumptions insidious – and hence especially dangerous – is that they appear to make good sense. In fact, you might even hear them proffered by wrong-headed management “gurus” as nuggets of leadership gold.
One of the most common insidious foes I’ve come across – one that really does sound plausible at first blush – relates to the sad story I shared. It’s the assumption that a school district’s performance, in terms not only of student achievement, but also of financial stability and community support, is the preeminent factor determining the health of the board-superintendent partnership. If this were true in practice, of course, no superintendent would have to lose sleep about the partnership with her board if her district was hitting the great majority of its performance targets and experiencing no serious shortfalls. Solid results should – and inevitably would – carry the day.
So much for theory. In practice, for every superintendent I’ve seen get into serious trouble with his board because of significant performance shortfalls in his district, I’ve seen at least five sent packing because of relationship issues even when the district is humming along without serious performance shortfalls. Truly board-savvy superintendents well know that governance is above all else a people business, which is why they always pay meticulous attention to hands-on management of the working relationship with their board, making relationship maintenance a top chief executive priority even in the best of times when everything is going smoothly. They consistently employ relationship building strategies like getting to know every one of their board members in-depth – their leadership strengths and weaknesses, their expectations, their personal goals, etc. – through regular informal interaction, keeping board members in the information loop so that they’re never caught off guard and publically embarrassed, generously sharing credit with the board for notable district accomplishments, and making sure board members find their governing work intensely satisfying. They’re keenly aware that good works alone won’t ensure their board’s support or keep them securely at the helm of their district.