The Columbus City School District was fortunate to have a dynamic, cohesive leadership team at the helm in the person of Board President Jennifer Adair and retiring Superintendent Talisa Dixon. Among the several reasons why this partnership at the top functioned so well was Talisa’s passionate commitment to creative collaboration with Jennifer, as you’ll learn from the video interview I recorded with them in April 2021.
Alas, not all superintendents are sufficiently board-savvy to make cementing the partnership with their board president a top chief executive priority. In many of my one-on-one superintendent coaching sessions over the years I’ve recounted the true story of a superintendent who paid a pretty steep price for mismanaging the partnership with his school board president. You’d think paying meticulous attention to this high-stakes relationship would be a real no-brainer for any superintendent. As I observe in my book Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership, “one of the preeminent priorities of a truly board-savvy superintendent is to transform her board president/chair into a strong governing partner, a reliable ally, and when needed, an ardent change champion.” The reasons are obvious. Not only does the president wield formal authority as “CEO” of the school board, she is often a prominent figure who wields tremendous influence in the community. In my experience, a really solid board president-superintendent working relationship is critical to the superintendent’s effectiveness as a chief executive officer and ultimately to the district’s educational performance.
The true story I’ve often told features a superintendent who failed to act on the opportunity to provide his board president with what I call “non-monetary compensation,” which is one of the more cost-effective relationship adhesives. In a nutshell, this insufficiently board-savvy superintendent’s board president had played a critical role in helping her superintendent hit one of his top chief executive leadership targets – strengthening district collaboration with the business community. The president dedicated countless hours to convincing several of the community’s most influential business leaders to participate in the newly established District Business Advisory Council. The president frequently addressed this blue ribbon body on educational issues and helped to facilitate robust discussion at the bi-monthly Council meetings.
The Council was such a success that the superintendent was invited to speak at the annual chamber of commerce luncheon on fostering ties between the school district and business community. The centerpiece of his presentation was to be the work of the Business Advisory Council. How simple it would have been for the superintendent to invite his board president to share the podium, and to showcase his president’s pivotal role in creating the Council. Such recognition for the president’s contribution would have been a perfect example of non-monetary compensation. But the superintendent failed to capitalize on the opportunity to “pay” his president this modest amount for her efforts. A small matter, you might say, but you would be wrong. The president wasn’t oblivious to the slight, and it wasn’t forgotten. This precious working relationship was seriously damaged and never fully recovered.
As the video interview I recorded with Talisa and Jennifer makes clear, the then-chief executive of the Columbus City Schools made maintaining a close, positive, and productive partnership with her board president a top-tier priority, and this dynamic duo’s strategic leadership is paid handsome dividends for the district.