The superintendent was a consummate people-person who had from the get-go paid close attention to the human dimension of her working relationship with the board during her three years at the helm of this Midwestern district. As I learned over the course of our first couple of coaching sessions, she always made a point of getting to know her new board president really well early in his or her tenure, in terms, for example, of communication and decision-making styles, professional growth objectives, special interests and ego needs. She told me about the regular one-on-one meetings she made a point of holding every week with a president who needed personal contact and didn’t really relate to written issue papers, no matter how well crafted, the help she’d given a president whose preeminent professional goal was chairing the board of the state school board association, the steps she took to ensure that her president was always thoroughly briefed on the important issues on the agenda of the upcoming board meeting, and how she always involved her president in meetings with key stakeholders such as the editorial board of the local paper and chair of the county commission. She also without fail got to know the other members of the board soon after their election, employing bi-monthly one-on-one breakfast meetings with every one of her board members as a way of cementing a personal relationship, and she made sure board members were recognized at important occasions such as ribbon cuttings and graduation ceremonies. It didn’t take me long to realize I was coaching a human relations virtuoso.
So why was her working relationship with the board so frayed as she begin her fourth year at the helm? Her district was making steady progress on the educational front, most notably turning around performance at a chronically under-performing building, the real-estate levy renewal had passed handily the year before, construction of the new middle school had come in on time and even under budget. And, as I well knew, she was handling the human relations dimension of her job superbly.
I was thinking about this real-life experience a few weeks ago while preparing for the workshop I’ll be presenting on May 6 at AASA’s Aspiring Superintendents Academy, “Hit the Ground Running With Your New Board.” The lesson this coaching experience taught could easily be factored into my upcoming workshop: Don’t assume that district performance and superb human relations can alone cement your relationship with the board. As this superintendent and I agreed during our third coaching session, she was not paying enough attention to systematically engaging board members in shaping their governing decisions and judgments so that they felt like satisfied owners of their governing work. So she needed to help her board update its committee structure and use well-designed committees to map out engagement processes. She did, and it worked. For example, she worked closely with the newly created planning and development committee of the board to update the design of the next year’s operational planning/budget preparation process – by building in a front-end daylong board-executive team session focusing on the identification and analysis of operational issues that deserved close attention during budget preparation and two subsequent two-hour board work sessions as the budget took shape.
This isn’t to say that district educational performance and human relations aren’t vitally important in building a solid partnership with your board; they definitely are. But you can’t afford to forget that you’ve got to pay really close attention to putting in place the structure and processes for engaging board members in doing meaningful, satisfying governing work if you want the relationship to last.