“I’m caught between a rock and a hard spot, and it doesn’t feel good – in fact, kind of dangerous.” This is how the superintendent opened our one-on-one coaching session several months ago. She went on to explain that her new school board president – a highly successful and pretty headstrong businessman – had the day before “directed” her to set up a three-hour roundtable for him at district headquarters, involving herself and her executive team members. He’d explained that he wanted to share his leadership goals with her and her top lieutenants, answer any questions they might have, and also have a frank discussion of educational and administrative issues facing the district. One of this superintendent’s top leadership goals, which we’d discussed in an earlier coaching session, was to build a really solid working relationship with her new president, especially after having gone through an excruciatingly painful year with a board president who was adamant about not being a teammate of hers and who, in fact, had been publicly critical of her performance on several occasions.
Her new president, she explained, had run off to another meeting only minutes after issuing his directive, so they hadn’t had an opportunity to discuss the roundtable, which the superintendent understood was likely to offend most if not all of the other six board members. She also recognized that – ironically – she’d most likely end up taking the heat for a lousy idea, even though it’d come from her new president. She naturally didn’t want to get into a big argument about what the president thought was a great idea so early in his tenure, and getting their relationship off on the wrong foot, but she also couldn’t risk offending the six other board members.
So what solution did we come up with? In the first place, we both agreed that she couldn’t risk just going ahead and scheduling the roundtable with only the board president at the table with her and her team. So we came up with the idea that she should urge her president to invite all board members to attend the roundtable, making the point that he really wouldn’t want to start his term by irritating and offending his board colleagues. By the way, this superintendent – being a strong, very secure and self-confident chief executive – wasn’t at all threatened by the prospect of the roundtable; in fact, she welcomed it.
We also agreed that, to prevent getting caught in similar situations in the future, the superintendent should recommend to her president that he schedule a half-day work session of the board’s governance committee (headed by the president and including the chairs of the board’s two standing committees and the superintendent), for the purpose of mapping out guidelines to govern board members’ – including the president’s – communication and interaction with the superintendent and her senior executives. The plan would be for the full board to adopt the guidelines, for inclusion in the district policy manual.
I’m pleased to report that this true story has a happy ending. The board president bought into the idea of all board members being involved in the roundtable with the superintendent and her top lieutenants, and the session actually went quite well. And the board’s governance committee, led by the board president, not long afterward put together a set of well-thought-out communication/interaction guidelines that have in the months since their adoption prevented similar situations from occurring. The bottom-line lesson? Develop formal policies governing the board-superintendent-executive team working relationship so that you don’t get caught between that rock and the equally unsatisfactory hard place.