Déjà vu All Over Again
A little over four years ago, listening to my new superintendent coaching client – who had recently taken the helm of a mid-size suburban district in the southwest – in our kick-off coaching session recount his tale of woe, it was Yogi’s “déjà vu all over again” for me. At this point, eight months into his first year on the job, four of my client’s seven board members were up in arms about the perceived absence of any really substantive board input early in the budget preparation process. The chairs of the board’s highly traditional, poorly designed curriculum and instruction and pupil services committees were leading their members into the administrative weeds and, of course, driving my client crazy as he tried to fend off their micro-management. And adding insult to injury, the board president, without consulting my client, had sent his six board colleagues one of those pseudo-scientific, highly subjective superintendent evaluation forms, asking board members to rate my client’s performance in handling a long list of management functions having little to do with chief executive leadership outcomes. For the umpteenth time, I asked myself how such a bright, capable, and dedicated chief executive could have allowed several months to pass without taking the initiative in helping his new board build its governing capacity and consciously developing a solid working relationship with the board.
Three Basic Facts of K-12 Governing Life
This sad scenario was the polar opposite of getting off on the right foot with a new board, the subject of this second part of our series “Reaching the Top Spot and Staying There.” Before describing concrete steps new superintendents can take to cement the partnership with their new board, let me remind you of three basic facts of life in the K-12 governing realm:
- Building and maintaining a really solid relationship with the school board easily tops the list of factors critical to a superintendent’s success and professional longevity. For every superintendent I’ve seen part company with a board because of sub-par chief executive leadership or lagging district educational performance, I’ve encountered ten who fell victim to a dysfunctional working relationship with the board.
- The superintendent’s preeminent tool for building a solid relationship with her new board is to play a leading role in developing the board’s governing capacity, which essentially involves updating the board’s governing role and functions, its structure, and its engagement processes.
- The superintendent must tackle the relationship building challenge as early as possible in his tenure, preferably as soon as the ink on the superintendent’s contract is dry and even before her arriving on the scene to take the helm.
Getting Off on the Right Foot
Long experience has taught me that getting off on the right foot with your new board involves: making sure your head is in the right place; assessing the governance situation in your new district; getting to know the members of your new board really well; and reaching early agreement with your new board on the board capacity building initiatives you will be spearheading as their new chief executive and on other top-priority chief executive leadership targets you will be accountable to the board for achieving.
Making Sure Your Head is in the Right Place
The superintendents who in my experience are most successful at building close, productive, and enduring partnerships with their board see governance as one of their top-tier priorities as the district’s chief executive officer. In their eyes, as CEO the superintendent is accountable for helping their board realize its full governing potential, primarily by playing a leading role- in close partnership with the board president – in developing the board as a governing body. To play the Chief Board Capacity Builder role effectively requires that the superintendent be a world-class expert in the rapidly evolving field of K-12 governance who is familiar with emerging best practices that she can help her board put to work in her district. These “board-savvy” superintendents also see themselves as occupying a hybrid position: part top executive responsible for hands-on direction of all district operations and part active participant in the governing process who is essentially a non-voting board member. This is the polar opposite of the old-time notion of the superintendent as essentially responsible for supporting the board in playing its governing role but uninvolved in the actual business of governing the district.
Assessing the Governance Situation in Your New District
The deeper your understanding of the governance situation in your new district, the more effective you are likely to be in playing the Chief Board Capacity Builder role and cementing your partnership with your new board. You should begin the assessment process as soon as you’ve signed your new contract by reviewing pertinent documentation – both on your new district’s web site and in documents provided by staff in the superintendent’s office – such as your new board’s bylaws and governance policies, functional descriptions of board standing committees, board meeting agendas and minutes, and the like. The point of the assessment is to identify issues that might, if not addressed through some kind of board capacity building process, make it very difficult to build a solid working relationship with your new board. For example, an outdated structure of board “silo” committees that invite board micro-management; board engagement in annual budget preparation only toward the end of the process, forcing board members to thumb through a largely finished budget document; and the like.
Getting Up Close and Personal With Your Board
Experience has taught that the better you know the members of your new board as individuals, the more effective you are likely to be in building a really solid working relationship with your new board. A good starting point is to review the biographies of board members before you arrive on the scene to take the helm, but one-on-one, in-person interviews with each of your new board members is the best way to get to know them. Although you will want these one-on-one meetings to be informal, with ample give and take, you should prepare a number of interview questions in advance to ensure the meetings are fruitful. For example, you’ll want to ask each board member about her professional background; his reasons for seeking a seat on the board; what she aspires to achieve as a board member; the issues he cares most about; her assessment of the board’s strengths and weaknesses as a governing body; what he finds most and least satisfying as a board member; her experience as a standing committee member; and the like.
In my one-on-one coaching work with superintendents and other chief executives over the years, I’ve learned that there’s an understandable tendency to want to introduce yourself to the board members in these interview sessions. I counsel not talking about yourself or your opinions on one issue or another during these meetings. To ensure that you get to know the board members you’ll be working with as well as you can in only an hour or so, simply ask questions and listen. Interviewing board members over the years, I’ve found that they tend to like talking about themselves, and keeping quiet and letting board members talk is an effective bonding strategy.
Reaching Agreement on Chief Executive Leadership Targets
Two half-day work sessions with your new board during your first four to six weeks on the job will be help get you off on the right foot:
- The first session should focus on reaching agreement with your new board on the preeminent district-wide issues – educational, managerial, financial, political, etc. – that both the board and you as their chief executive officer will pay close attention to during the current fiscal year. Beyond identifying the highest-stakes issues, you will want to build in time to brainstorm potential strategies for addressing these issues.
- Drilling down within the broad framework of district-wide issues, the second session will focus on reaching agreement with your new board on very specific “CEO-centric” leadership targets that you will personally devote significant time and hands-on attention to achieving during your first year on the job. The targets might relate to: educational innovation initiatives; external/stakeholder relationships; and internal managerial/administrative improvements.
To ensure that these critical half-day sessions yield a powerful return on the investment of time and money: choose a comfortable location away from the district administrative center; retain a professional facilitator who will in addition to leading deliberations develop the detailed work session agendas and prepare follow-up reports; and include members of the superintendent’s cabinet in both sessions.